The Basque Separatist Movement:
An Ongoing Conflict
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.
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
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
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.
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
transition to democracy. During this time, the Spanish government
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.
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”. 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.
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, 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. 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
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.
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. 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
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”. 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. 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.
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”
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”. 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.
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”.
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.