The Basque Separatist Movement:

An Ongoing Conflict


Throughout history, empires have risen and fallen, cultures have come and thrived and eventually died away, and other people have taken their places.  Though everything in history will eventually change as time goes on, the types of conflicts that arise have remained surprisingly constant.  One such example is the desire of a certain culture or group of people for their own independence and autonomy.  In medieval times, empires conquered other people and imposed their own rule over the people, and in most cases the empire was constantly dealing with war and rebellion from the conquered peoples.  Recent history has certainly been no exception.  One prime example is in Spain, where in the north alone at least four different languages are spoken and different groups of people represented.  These groups have long desired independence, or at the least increased autonomy, though their approaches to achieve this goal are varying.  Perhaps the most interesting region is the Basque region on the French border.  Though the official political party uses peaceful methods to achieve their aims, they are overshadowed in the media by the ETA, which uses widespread violence to gain attention.  The conflict between the Spanish government and the Basque people, particularly the ETA, has existed for a very long time, but recently has been very eventful due in part to the Franco regime and more drastic measures from the opposing sides.

 

What is the Basque Separatist Movement?

Basque Country in a region on the border between France and Spain, the majority of which is located in northern Spain.  This is the central region of Basque conflicts, but it has united with Navarra, in northern Spain to the east of Basque Country to form what is considered the Basque Separatist Movement.  The Basques are a very old culture, often thought to be one of the original European cultures.  Their land is very hilly, which allows them to remain relatively isolated from the rest of Europe, though in the Middle Ages they did embrace Roman Catholicism.  They are such a diverse and complex people, that entire museums have been devoted to defining their particular identify[1].

The Basque separatist movement can be simply summarized as the desire of the Basque people to achieve greater independence.  There are varying degrees of separatist supports, ranging from those who simply want increased autonomy, to those that demand total independence from Spain.  They believe that because the Basque region and culture is much older and so drastically different from Spain’s, they should be allowed to form their own country.  As one Spanish reporter puts it,  

[The ETA and Basque Separatist Movement] wants to establish an independent socialist Basque state straddling northern Spain and the southern end of France's Atlantic coast. The Basques consider their culture distinct from those of their neighbours and speak a language unlike any other in Europe. The Basque language (called Euskara) is believed to predate the arrival of the Indo-European languages to the continent, of which French, Spanish, German, Icelandic, Welsh, Serbo-Croat and almost all others are the modern descendants. The Basque region, home to large fishing ports, heavy industry and wealthy banks, has historically been one of the richest in Spain.

The Basque Separatist movement began as an idea, and eventually evolved into a movement and the foundation of a political party.  However, in the past half-century it has evolved into a powerful sentiment among many people, and continues to cause hostile sentiments between the Spanish government and Basque citizens. 

 

History of the Basque Separatist Movement

The movement first arose at the end of the nineteenth century under the leadership of Sabina de Arana y Goiri.  After his death, the group was granted autonomy by the Republican government, which lasted through the Spanish civil war (1936-39).  When the Franco regime eventually won the war and took power, he made sure that the Basque people suffered for having supported the Republicans.  In April 1937, Franco had German aircraft bomb Guernica, a thriving Basque town, killing 1,000 people.  The tragedy has been forever immortalized in a painting by Pablo Picasso, called “Guernica”, that depicts the pain, horror, and anguish felt by those that experienced the bombing and others around the world.  This was the first tangible sign of the hatred Franco felt toward the Basque people, but it was certainly not the last.

Shortly after the war ended, Franco further repressed the Basque people.  Not only did he take away every sign of autonomy that they had so painstakingly worked to gain, but he strictly prohibited the Basque language and culture.  The people were no longer allowed to speak their native language, which until then had been very widespread and inescapable in daily life.  Also, they were not allowed to practice any customs or traditions that had been celebrated for generations before them.  Furthermore, the majority of Basque intellectuals were imprisoned and tortured for their political and cultural ideas[2].

These unjust and blatant discriminations against the Basque people infuriated them, making them even more desperate to achieve some degree of autonomy.  Throughout the 40s and 50s, Basque political parties tried negotiation, protests, and many other non-violent methods to achieve limited autonomy.  It was not until the late 1950s that any group had any success.

In 1959 the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) was formed.  The name means “Basque for Basque Homeland and Liberty” in the native tongue.  The ETA originated as a faction of the Basque National Party (BNP) and split over non-violence policies.  The BNP had always been rigidly opposed to any form of violence, no matter what the justification.  However, the ETA strongly disagreed with that and that thought violence was necessary to achieve their goals.  In 1966 the ETA further divided into two significant groups based primarily on their goals and methods.  The first group had very Marxist-Leninist ideals, and favored sabotage and assassinations to gain complete independence.  The other group considered themselves to have more national ideas and, though they approved of violence, they did not support it as much as the other group.  In addition, they merely favored autonomy, rather than total independence[3]. 

Tensions between the Spanish government and the ETA reached their height during the 1970s.  In 1973, the ETA used a car bomb to assassinate Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco, who Franco had just appointed as his successor.  When Franco died in November of 1975, he had still not chosen another successor.  This left the country in the hands of King Juan Carlos I, who began to work with politicians and labor groups to bring about Spain’s transition to democracy[4].  During this time, the Spanish government divided Spain into seventeen distinct regions all with varying autonomy, one of which was the Basque region, in the 1978 constitution.  The Basque region was granted many liberties, most notably the permission to elect its own parliament and form its own police force, both of which were completely independent of the Spanish government, and was granted more control over education and tax raising powers[5]. 

At the end of the 1970s the ETA had gained some sympathy and even popular support due to its struggles and repression under the Franco government.  However, in the 1980s, they convinced anyone who was sympathetic toward them that it was undeserved.  1980 is considered to be the ETA’s bloodiest year yet, when one hundred and eighteen people were killed.  In 1987 the ETA detonated a bomb in a Barcelona supermarket, killing twenty one shoppers.  It was the single bloodiest act of violence from the ETA even to this day.  All they did was to apologize for the “mistake”[6].  However, during that time, the ETA regained some popular support when former Interior Minister Jose Barrionuevo and former Secretary of State Rafael Vera were found guilty of masterminding actions in the so-called “dirty war” that the Spanish government was waging against the ETA.  Upon their conviction, killing of ETA members became unjust in the eyes of the public, transforming their victims into martyrs for the cause of Basque liberation[7]. 

 

Recent Developments in the Quest for Independence

The last decade has seen a great deal of action from the ETA, as well all increasingly dramatic response from the Spanish government.  A poll conducted in September of 1991 showed that thirty three percent of Basques favored separatism[8], yet it still was not achieved.  In 1992, the ETA created a worldwide panic when they threatened that the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona would be a chief site for violent attacks.  However, these threats never materialized[9].  Later in 1992, the ETA, desiring independence above all else, requested a conditional truce so that they could gain increased autonomy.  However, the Spanish government refused to negotiate with them, adding to further heightened tensions. 

In 1995 the ETA attempted to assassinate Popular Party opposition leader Jose Maria Aznar using a car bomb.  Luckily, Aznar’s car was protected by armor plating, which ultimately saved his life.  Later that year, Spanish police foiled an ETA plot to kill King Juan Carlos while he was visiting Majorca.  In 1996 Aznar won the elections, making him prime minister.   Because he failed to secure an absolute majority, he was forced to negotiate a weak minority government in the Basque and Catalonian regions, as well as the Canary Islands.  He granted them further increased regional autonomy and doubled the amount of national income tax given to regional governments from fifteen percent to thirty percent[10]. 

In 1997 the ETA further shocked the world when it was blamed for the murder of a police officer using a car bomb in Bilbao.  The assassination took place just fifteen feet from a high school with over 2,000 students, which shocked and appalled the world.  The risk of this act in its proximity to so many children, secured the image of the ETA as barbaric and stopping at nothing in the minds of many people.  Whereas previously, Spanish citizens could empathize for the Basque country because they had been severely repressed, the ETA’s violent and increasingly risky actions erased any hope of sympathy from all directions.  Previously, the only people at real risk were political officials and leaders.  Though there had been threats that would affect the public, this was the first time that they actually materialized. 

In July of that same year Basque town councilman Miguel Angel Blanco Garrido, a minor official in the local popular party, was kidnapped.  The kidnappers, presumed to be members of the ETA, demanded the transfer of ETA prisoners being held in Spanish prisons.  Two days after the government refused the request, Garrido was killed by his abductors[11].  This prompted over six million Spaniards to flood the streets in a spontaneous protest against the ETA and their widespread use of violence.  From 1968 until that point, ETA violence had claimed over eight hundred lives and had wounded thousands more[12]. 

To contrast this period of extreme anti-ETA sentiments, later in July 20,000 people marched through the streets of San Sebastian in support of Basque independence.  In October, the Guggenheim museum opened in Bilbao, and was described as “a new branch of the New York-based Guggenheim Museum, a critically acclaimed architectural masterpiece”[13].  Its opening served as a stark contrast to the ETA hatred that was so predominant throughout Spain and the world.

 

Achieving the Goal of Peace

The first serious aims at peace began in 1998.  On September 19, 1998, the ETA declared an unconditional cease-fire.  They set no specific conditions or criteria to be met, except that if they were attacked the hostilities would resume.  This was the first time that the group has suspended all attacks for an indefinite period of time.  In 1996 there had been a brief cease-fire for a predetermined length of time and with specific conditions, but nothing like the current cease-fire.  Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja noted that the truce would be welcomed with “happiness and relief,” but also pointed out that past ETA cease-fires had always ended in renewed violence[14].  One possible reason for the cease-fire was to open negotiations addressing an independent state with Northern Spain and Southern France.  It is also believed  to be due in part to the Lizarra Declaration, which was a statement signed by over two dozen political groups including the Basque Nationalist Party and the Herri Batasuna (a branch of the ETA), and called for formal peace talks and an end to expressions of violence.  The four-page cease-fire announcement also referred to the Northern Ireland peace accord forged in April 1998, which may have raised ETA expectations for a political solution to the ongoing conflict.  However, all attempts at a peace talk were rejected by Aznar until the ETA formally renounces all forms of violence.  Only then will they negotiate, Aznar has said[15].

In December of 1999, the cease-fire was called off.  Many believe that both sides grew increasingly suspicious and believed that the other side was not playing fair.  The ETA said that they called off the cease-fire because they were frustrated by the lack of political movement toward greater autonomy.  It was called off in a “belligerently worded communiqué which accused Madrid of intransigence in its refusal to consider self determination for the Basques”[16]

Most recently, in August 2002, the Spanish parliament voted two hundred ninety five to ten in favor of seeking a total ban of the Basque political party known as the Batasuna, which is not historically affiliated with the ETA.   The Batasuna has been targeted for refusing to condemn an ETA attack that killed a six year old girl on August 4, 2002.  The Batasuna has not been implicated in the death itself, but because of its lack of condemnation is considered to have links with the ETA that justify its abolishment.  According to Luis de Granded, a member of the ruling Popular Party, "Batasuna is a mask of ETA ... that justifies ETA's crimes".  Judge Baltasar Garzon, the presiding judge in the Supreme Court aspect of the conflict, said that the Batasuna are “part of [the] ETA and that as a result it was associated with ‘crimes against humanity’ ”.  However, not all parties agree with this opinion. Basque Nationalist Party speaker Inaki Anasagasti said that “our party will vote unanimously ‘No’ because we disagree on the method and we don’t think it’s the solution”[17].  As for the Batasuna party itself, it denies it is the political wing of ETA but pointedly refuses to condemn attacks claimed by or blamed on ETA

 

The ETA and Basque Separatist Movement Today

Through all its acts of violence, desires for freedom, attempts at peace talks, and many other feats, the ETA remains an active political organization.  About half of the Basque population is thought to be in support of independence and half against it, fueling continuing disagreements.  In Basque country, many people are still afraid of the ETA because they fear what will happen to them if they speak freely about politics.  The Spanish people are becoming very tired of living in fear not only for their own lives, but for the lives of their leaders as well.  For this reason, there is a great deal of pressure on the Spanish government to end the violence and impose peace that the ETA can agree on[18]. 

Though the movement is still very active, its supporters have changed and its foundations have been changed slightly.  The movement is primarily supported by young people who were raised in a democracy where Spain is a member of the European Union, allowing them to enjoy the advantages of any other industrial European country.  They want to separate because they cannot find a way to express their nationalism without confrontation, and the confrontation inevitably includes Spain.  In the opinion of Xavier Mas De Maxas, “there's a cultural war going on. I mean, the young Basque street agitators… are against Spain because they've been taught that everything coming from Spain is bad, (that) Spain is an oppressive force and (that) it's occupying this land without any legitimacy”[19]. 

 

A culture’s desire for independence is certainly not something new to the world.  Nearly every culture has been a part of some group or nation that was ruled by another political party, and more often than not those cultures desire autonomy and independence.  However, the thing that makes the Basque’s case so exceptional is many of the circumstances surrounding it.  First of all, they are considered the oldest group in Europe, and it is ironic that they should be governed by a younger culture.  Furthermore, the Basque Separatist Movement gave rise to the ETA, which has proved to be exceptional in various ways.  Not only do they utilize and even recommend violence to achieve their means, but they do so in a way that is nearly savage.  In general, they restrict their terror to military and political officials.  However, on the occasions that is has expanded to include the general public and even children, the ETA never seems to show any real remorse.  This makes it very hard for anyone to sympathize for them, much less support them. 

If Basque Country does end up gaining independence it will have widespread repercussions throughout Europe.  Every culture who desires autonomy will seize the opportunity to follow in Basque Country’s footsteps.  Unfortunately, this will probably lead to many groups that feel that the Basques gained independence through violence, and that violence is the best method.  Whatever the ultimate fate of the Basque separatist movement is, only time will tell.  However, for the time being, the ETA will continue their frequent and often ruthless killings, until either the Spanish government gives up or they put a firm foot down to keep the ETA in its place. 


Other Works Referenced

McAdams, Lisa. “Europe: Separatism on the Rise in Spain’s Basque Region”. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty Inc.  27 July 1998.  Accessed 8 November 2002 via the World Wide Web http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/1998/07/F.RU.980727114409.html.

Encarta Reference Library 2002. “Basque Country”. Microsoft Corporation, 2002.

Encarta Reference Library 2002. “Basques”. Microsoft Corporation, 2002.

 



[1] Goodman, Chief Al. “Basque Question: Spain’s Pressing Problem”.  CNN Madrid Bureau. May 21, 2002.  Accessed November 8 2002, via the world wide web; http://europe.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/europe/05/21/basque.overview/ 

[2] Jeffery, Simon. Batasuna and Basque Separatism in Spain. From Guardian Newspapers Unlimited. August 28, 2002. Accessed November 8, 2002 via the World Wide Web http://www.guardian.co.uk/theissues/article/0,6512,780872,00.html.

[3] Borop, Michael. “Focus: Basque Separatism”.  May 15, 1999. Reproduced from siteatlas.com.  Accessed November 8, 2002 via the World Wide Wed http://www.sitesatlas.com/Europe/Spain/BasqueConflict.htm.

[4] CNN.com In-Depth Special: “Timeline of the ETA Campaign” (Timeline: A History of Violence). 2002.  Accessed November 8 2002, via the World Wide Web at http://europe.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2002/basque/.

[5] Jeffery, Simon. Batasuna and Basque Separatism in Spain. From Guardian Newspapers Unlimited. August 28, 2002. Accessed November 8, 2002 via the World Wide Web http://www.guardian.co.uk/theissues/article/0,6512,780872,00.html.

[6] CNN.com In-Depth Special: “Timeline of the ETA Campaign” (Timeline: A History of Violence). 2002.  Accessed November 8 2002, via the World Wide Web at http://europe.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2002/basque/.

[7] Borop, Michael. “Focus: Basque Separatism”.  May 15, 1999. Reproduced from siteatlas.com.  Accessed November 8, 2002 via the World Wide Wed http://www.sitesatlas.com/Europe/Spain/BasqueConflict.htm.

[8] Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2002. “Spain 1991” (Archive Article). Microsoft Corporation, 2002.

[9] Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2002. “Spain 1992” (Archive Article). Microsoft Corporation, 2002.

 

[10] Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2002. “Spain 1996” (Archive Article). Microsoft Corporation, 2002.

 

[11] CNN.com In-Depth Special: “Timeline of the ETA Campaign” (Timeline: A History of Violence). 2002.  Accessed November 8 2002, via the World Wide Web at http://europe.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2002/basque/.

[12] Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2002. “Spain 1996” (Archive Article). Microsoft Corporation, 2002.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Microsoft Encarta Reference Library. “Basque Separatist Group Announces Cease-Fire” [Article}.  Article copyright 1998.  Microsoft Corporation, 2002

[15] Ibid.

[16] Brown, Derek. “Basque Separatism”. Guardian Unlimited Newspapers.  21 January 2000.  Accessed 8 November 2002 via the World Wide Web at http://www.guardian.co.uk/Print/0,3858,3953320,00.html.

[17] All Quotes Referenced from “Spain Moves to Outlaw Basque Party” from CNN.com.  26 August 2002.  Accessed 8 November 2002 via the World Wide Web http://europe.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/europe/08/26/basque.ban/index.html

[18] Mann, Jonathon and Xavier Mas De Xaxas.  “Q&A on the Basque Conflict”. 21 May 2002.  Accessed 8 November 2002 via the World Wide Web http://i.cnn.net/cnn/2001/WORLD/europe/01/24/basque.insight/story.speaker.jpg.

[19] Ibid.