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ETA: A SUICIDAL OFFENSIVE

27 September 2000                                                                

 

In November 1999 ETA announced it was ending a truce which had been in operation since September 1988, citing the government’s unwillingness to negotiate seriously. The move surprised many observers who believed that the group was following the IRA’s route to a negotiated settlement. Instead, it has launched a disastrous offensive, which leaves it more isolated than ever before.

 

The truce had greatly improved ETA’s troubled relationship with the moderate Basque Nationalist Party [PNV], which would like ETA to abandon armed struggle and encourage its supporters to join a nationalist alliance. The PNV accepted ETA’s co thinkers in Euskal Herritarrok as partners in municipal and regional administration, an achievement comparable to Sinn Fein’s  alliance with the SDLP. After the elections to the Basque autonomous parliament in October 1999, Euskal Herritarrok, agreed to support a government formed by the PNV and EA, another moderate nationalist party. However, the outlook for radical nationalism is bleak as the Basque and Irish situations differ more than ETA recognises. The United States government has no reason to ask the Spanish government to make concessions, and there is no equivalent to the Republic of Ireland’s pressure for a negotiated settlement. The conservative Partido Popular [PP] government does not welcome the PNV’s involvement in a peace process as both parties compete for conservative voters. A peace deal brokered by its rival is not in the PP’s interest.

 

ETA could not abandon its demand for a fully independent Euskadi, but it began to emphasise partial demands such as the release of  prisoners, or their transfer nearer home. However, the Spanish government saw no need to make major concessions. Sympathy for Basque nationalism elsewhere in Spain has declined as ETA’s actions became more brutal and it targets more widespread.

 

A year after the declaration of the truce 105 ETA prisoners were moved to jails nearer the Basque country. That seemed a very limited measure to both moderate and radical nationalists. In May 1999 government representatives met with ETA leaders Belén González and Mikel Albisu in Zurich, but González was later arrested by the French police  as were other ETA members, although the truce was still in operation. In July the members of  the national committee of Herri Batasuna, the predecessor of Euskal Herritarrok, were released from prison, where they had been held since 1997 on charge of having broadcast a video produced bt ETA..

 

The first victim of the renewed offensive was an army colonel kiled by a car bomb in Madrid, in January of this year. In February a similar device killed Fernando Buesa, a Socialist Party [PSOE] politician, and his bodyguard in Vitoria, the Basque capital, thus widening the category of permissible targets and causing the PNV to end its alliance with Euskal Herritarrok

 

ETA is once again caught in the infernal logic of  armed struggle. Each killing drives away potential sympathisers, yet the organisation sees no other way of pressing its demands. Car bombs, its preferred weapon against military or civilian elites, also kill escorts, drivers and sometimes bystanders.  As elite figures are now well guarded, it has been forced to look for softer targets, especially municipal councillors belonging to the government party. Although revulsion at that strategy was a major reason for the cease fire, it was once again resumed. Many such people have been shot. The PP offered police escorts to its councillors and party activists as well as to other people who had been threatened, but many refused, believing they were safe in their own localities. For example, in May a journalist, Lopez de la Calle, was killed in Andoin as he was collecting his Sunday papers. In July a former civil governor of Guipuzcoa, JM Jáuregui was shot dead while on holiday in his native province. Jáuregui had served only two years as civil governor under the last Socialist government. His predecessor is in prison for complicity in the murder of ETA sympathisers by GAL, that governments’ dirty tricks’ deartment, but Jáuregui played an honourable role in, helping to bring those killers to book.

 

On 14 September an ETA gunman severely wounded José Ramón Recalde, a lawyer with a long record of opposition to Francoism. Recalde was a truly bizarre choice of victim. He had been a member of the Frente de Liberación Nacional [FLP], an organisation composed mainly of intellectuals, formed in 1959, and was first arrested in 1962 for his support of striking Asturian miners. He likes to describe the advice  FLP members were given in the event of arrest. They were to be aware of the advantages conferred by their social and educational status and should adopt a civil but distant demeanour towards the police, who ought to be deferential to their social superiors, and would hesitate to treat them as they would workers. Recalde followed the advice, but arrived in prison badly bruised.

 

Recalde is a prolific writer whose books, Integración y lucha de clases en el neo-capitalismo, and in particular La consrtucción de las naciones, attempt to combine left nationalism and socialism. He argued that the Basque nation had to be built from the existing population which includes both those who are ethnically Basque and those who are not. The education system should encourage the Basque language, Euskara, for all Basques whatever their origin and should discourage the creation of two distinct communities. Curiously, that position is shared by ETA, some of whose members were influenced by him in the 1960’s. Recalde’s brother in law, Miguel Castells, is also a lawyer and one of the few intellectuals in the radical nationalist milieu. Recalde entered mainstream politics in 1987 as an independent councillor for education, who was acceptable to both the PSOE and to left nationalists, and joined the PSOE when the left nationalist tendency, which had origins in ETA, collapsed. The attempt to kill such a popular, moderate and conciliatory figure provoked horror among many who might have mixed feelings on some of ETA’s actions. Although Recalde would not accept that some victims are different from others, he is neither an inflammatory journalist nor a centralist career politician. If he is a suitable target who is safe?

 

It is claimed that  a hundred thousand people marched on a peace demonstration in San Sebastian on 24 September. While the government manipulates the peace movement it has not created it, as such demonstrations express a deep seated alarm. Radical nationalists have always taken a sectarian, even slanderous, attitude to the peace movement accusing it of being indifferent to State repression. A continuation of ETA’s present strategy could persuade many pacifists that Franco’s heirs in the PP  are on the same side as themselves. It is probable that the spate of killings will produce dissension, not in ETA itself, but among elements in Euskal Herritarrok, such as Zutik! an organisation sympathetic the Fourth International.  Zutik!, like the PNV, believes that until fairly recently ETA’s leaders who had some political understanding have now been replaced by a  homicidal group indifferent to whom they kill, but there is little evidence for that theory.

 

The Spanish government’s Thatcherite, rather than Majorite strategy, has worked for it so far, and contributed to its election victory in March. If ETA is offered no concessions, and is not encouraged to negotiate it will see no alternative but to keep up the armed struggle. As its base in France is weakened and police action becomes more effective it will seek easier targets, which in turn will make it more unpopular. Aznar, the Prime Minister, has claimed that his government is the first to fight against terrorism from ‘within the law’, a veiled reference to the previous PSOE government’s use of mercenary killers. So far his claim seems justified. However, the PP is steadily extending its definition of terrorism, jailing the HB national Committee, closing the newspaper Egin, and arresting many people who support radical nationalism, but have not been involved in violence.

 

In September 20 members of a nationalist coordinating committee, Ekin, were arrested, and charged with being the political directors of ETA. The idea that such a body issues orders to ETA’s commandos is laughable. Anyone familiar with ETA’s history knows that power always lies with those bearing arms who regard anyone  who attempts to impose a political strategy on them as ‘scribblers’ to be kept in a subordinate place.

 

A law is now being prepared which will further extend the definition of terrorism, and proposes to jail demonstrators as young as fourteen for up to ten years and to try them in Madrid rather than their home area. Some judges oppose those measures on the grounds that they  violate the 1978 Constitution. Spanish liberals worship the Constitution, partly the work of  the once powerful Communist Party, and would be terribly upset if it was ignored. However, like all objects of universal adoration it is necessarily ambiguous. It enshrines both the right to regional autonomy and the army’s duty to preserve Spain’s territorial integrity.

 

Given the opposition to Basque nationalist aspirations elsewhere in Spain, a hard line against the nationalists will be popular. As the population of the Basque country is only about 7% of  the Spanish total, there are few votes to be lost there. Given the PSOE’s inability to differentiate itself from the Right, and the disarray of the Left, the PP’s future seems bright. Its claim that ETA is a problem for the police, not for political action is absurd, but demonising Basque nationalism will continue to be advantageous.  Spain is suffering a delayed effect of the failure to carry out the radical reforms which were implemented by Greece and Portugal during their otherwise similar transition from military dictatorships.