On 14 January 78,000 people took to the streets of Bilbao in the Basque Country to demand “human rights, peace, and a solution to the conflict”. The Basque Country stretches from the north of the Spanish state to the south of France and has a population of barely 3 million. Previous similar demonstrations peaked in 2014 with 130,000 people.
Demonstrators were demanding the end of the exceptional penal policies that are applied to Basque political prisoners. These were introduced in the mid-1980s by the Socialist Party (PSOE) government as part of a new strategy against ETA — an IRA-like armed group pursuing the creation of a socialist independent Basque state.
The new set of measures was aimed at the weakest cog of the organisation’s machine: its hundreds of members in jails. The measures include abnormally long sentences, prisoners with severe or terminal illnesses being kept in jail, and the dispersal of prisoners — ETA prisoners are not incarcerated near their homes, but hundreds of miles away throughout the Spanish and French territories.
Relatives and friends travel these long distances for a 40-minute visit. Over the years 16 people have died in car accidents while doing this. Others might be stopped by the police and harassed, or be told after a 20-hour journey that they won’t be let inside the prison.
Arnaldo Otegi, leader of the pro-independence radical left in the Basque Country and key person involved in ending the armed struggle, has said that more than 10,000 people have been members of the ETA. That means most Basque families will know someone who has been affected by these policies.
In October 2011 ETA announced an unconditional ceasefire and vowed to dissolve itself and its arsenals. Five years later these inhuman penal measures remain in place. At the time of writing there are still 349 prisoners spread across French and Spanish jails.
In 1982 a senior army officer complained that for the last 150 years there had not been a single generation of Basques that hadn’t watched fellow Spaniards through the sight of a rifle. ETA was the latest manifestation of that trend. Created in the late 1950s under Francisco Franco’s fascist regime, for the next five decades its militants would fight for Basque independence from Spain and France and leave a record of over 800 deaths.
ETA enjoyed support during the last years of the dictatorship, not only within the Basque working class but also in the broader anti-Franco movement, thanks to executions of high-rank army officers or kidnappings of businessmen whose workers were on strike. Especially celebrated was the 1973 assassination of Admiral Carrero Blanco, who had been appointed by Franco to succeed him.
Nowadays the dominant opinion within left wing circles is that ETA’s actions could be justified under the dictatorship, but became indefensible once the democratic period began. However, these accounts miss three fundamental points. Firstly, the 1978 constitution of the new democratic state was imposed on the Basque Country, even though only 30 percent of those eligible to vote approved it in a referendum.
Secondly, ETA fiercely fought the old regime, but the goals behind its creation were to bring about independence for the Basque Country and the establishment of a socialist state. The new constitution had been carefully designed to prevent either, trusting the army with the defence of national unity.
Thirdly, both the Communist and the Socialist parties based in Madrid eventually turned their backs on the right to self-determination, even while state repression increased in the first decades of the democratic period.
While these facts don’t lead to the conclusion that violence was the only way, they do illustrate why there were few reasons for those who endorsed ETA’s actions under Franco to withdraw their support in the new times.
As the years went on and Spain became a full member of the EU, and after France stopped giving political refugee status to the Basque militants on its territory and joined the persecution, so it became harder for the armed group to carry out its operations. The group progressively gave up selectiveness of targets. The greater the repression was, the more violent ETA’s acts became.
As a result, its support plummeted. From the 1990s onwards successive socialist and conservative governments skilfully seized that mood. The line, which became commonplace in the mainstream media, was that the real problem was not terrorism, but the yearning for independence behind it. Democrats had to put their differences aside and join forces to eradicate the secessionist threat.
There was a tendency to equate the armed struggle with the broader nationalist movement and to denounce any deviation from this approach as treason and an insult to the victims of ETA’s bombs. An atmosphere was created in which banning political parties, shutting down newspapers in Basque language or arresting journalists and trade unionists became acceptable. Having the slightest relation to the Basque universe could make you subject to smears or police torture.
Such a mood is still palpable today: several Basque youngsters involved in a bar fight with two police agents last December are soon to be tried for terrorism.
Many of these injustices could have been stopped had the Spanish left been prepared to act in solidarity. In most cases, unfortunately, the silence was deafening. The mixture of a disastrous analysis and fear of electoral costs led the leaders of the United Left to march alongside some of the most reactionary figures of Spanish nationalism in anti-ETA demonstrations fostered by the Conservative PP.
However, the cowardly behaviour of the Spanish left or the brutal repression of successive governments is not enough to explain why the Basque National Liberation Movement failed to win. Instead we must look at the limits of the strategy that was embraced by most of the movement.
Workplace organisation produces the potential of collective action and an awakening of class consciousness. A revolutionary project built upon an armed group, which by its nature must be clandestine and small, leads to the passive support of the masses for the heroic acts carried out by a few.
Furthermore, the subordination of the political sectors of the movement to the military did not allow for much of an internal democracy; those risking the most too often have the final say on important matters. Meanwhile, the existence of the armed struggle gave the state the excuse it needed to neutralise the left.
Following the 2007 financial crisis and austerity, a massive pro-independence civil movement erupted in Catalonia, where millions have taken part in demonstrations and a pro-independence parliamentary majority was formed in 2015. Unlike the Catalan bourgeoisie, the right wing National Basque Party (PNV) hasn’t felt under enough pressure to make moves towards independence.
After negotiations in 2006 between the armed group and the Spanish government led nowhere and a truce was broken, Otegi and others began a debate to persuade the Basque National Liberation Movement into abandoning the armed struggle. They did so not only on moral grounds, but in terms of it being inefficient. They won the debate.
ETA lost its leading role within the movement and was forced to announce an unconditional and definitive ceasefire. Just before the announcement Otegi and those who helped him bring about the new situation were arrested by the Spanish police and sent to prison for six years.
The Spanish ruling class was simply not willing to give up its most effective bogeyman, especially at a time when the economic crisis was beginning to make itself felt painfully and thousands were occupying the squares of Spain. The Conservative government in office since 2011 continued business as usual, arresting militants and worsening the prisoners’ conditions, which in the past had been enough for ETA to end a truce.
International mediators and experienced peacekeepers were made to testify in 2014 after helping ETA destroy one set of arms and video record it. More recently, a group of human rights campaigners, trade unionists and journalists was also arrested while carrying out the destruction of another arsenal. Astonished experts have said that there isn’t a precedent in history for an armed group trying to disarm itself and not being allowed to do it.
After five years without explosions and shots the Basque Country remains a highly militarised place, with one of the highest ratios of police agents to citizens in Europe.
This sabotage campaign fulfils three purposes. It imposes the narrative that the end of ETA was not the result of the group’s decision or a demand of Basque society, but a military victory of the Spanish ruling class. Secondly, it puts off a scenario in which the independence project can be defended at the minimum of freedom that can be presumed under bourgeois democracy. Thirdly, the political prisoners can be used as a way to blackmail Basque society into abandoning its aspirations for self-determination.
While in the past a Spanish government might have been interested in entering negotiations, from its current position of superiority, the PP doesn’t see what benefits might come from it.
A broad coalition of the pro-independence left (EH Bildu) was launched after ETA’s ceasefire, binding together Social Democrats and the remnants of the far-left. The coalition managed to evade constitutional banning and got the biggest vote-share the pro-independence left had obtained in decades, becoming the second force behind the PNV in the Basque parliament in 2012. It retained that position in 2016 despite Podemos’s emergence.
Unfortunately, the nature of this coalition has translated into a movement of the whole Basque left towards a reformist position. The armed struggle might have disappeared, but its political culture remains: again, it is just a few who take the leading role and make decisions, while the role of ordinary people is still to be passive observers who from time to time show their support at the ballot box.
As a result of that lack of confidence in ordinary people, the new Basque left has pinned many hopes on its parliamentary activity and the engagement of international agents (such as Gerry Adams or Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff Johnathan Powell) as the way to lift the blockade of the Conservative government.
Only mass action like that seen in Bilbao, which can make the government’s position become more costly than beneficial, will bring a change in the prisoners’ situation and move the pro-independence movement forward. A new revolutionary left is urgently needed to steer these mobilisations and to argue for independence from a socialist standpoint.
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