Indepedenzia Day

Every year, in the Basque city of San Sebastian, demonstrators seeking independence gather hours before the commencement of "Semana Grande," a week-long festival of bull fights, outdoor concerts, and fireworks. In years past, it wasn't uncommon for Molotov cocktails to be lobbed from the crowd towards the police, who responded in kind. Last summer 20 protestors were injured -- hit by rubber bullets fired by the police when the crowd grew violent. The day before this year's protest, a Basque woman in her late twenties told me that, throughout her teens, violent clashes with the police took place frequently. She would be minding her own business in Parte Vieje, the old city, and suddenly a Pamplona-like stampede would come rushing down the street and sweep her up. She would then dive into the nearest bar, whereupon the barkeep would quickly rattle down the metal "We're closed" cage until the violence ceased.

This year was the first Semana Grande protest since the violent Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Freedom) announced its ceasefire back in March. Hours before the demonstration, many in town weren't sure it would take place -- Madrid's famous Judge Baltazar Garzon initially banned the protest, accusing ETA's political arm, Batasuna, of organizing the event. In the end, ETA's signature snake and axe were nowhere to be found. Only the flag of Euskal Herria, the Basque region, remained.

ETA may not have been there (though members were spotted in the crowd by the local media), but the Basque quest for independence appears undimmed. Thousands turned out to march. Young and old, protestors called out “Independenzia! Independenzia! Independenzia!” The chant echoed down the narrow streets of Parte Vieje. At the front of the march, girls dressed in traditional Basque garbs carried three flags: the Euskal Herria flag -- a red, white, and green Union Jack -- as well as the flags of Lebanon and Palestine. All week I had been struck by posters plastered to the ancient walls of San Sebastian. "Tourist," read one, in English, "remember you are not in Spain. You are in the Basque country." Xabi, a 29-year-old screen-writer based part-time in Madrid, told me repeatedly over coffee, "I don't feel Spanish. I feel Basque." Five giggling 15-year-old girls, each wearing a Basque symbol on a black cord around their necks, corrected me when I asked them if they are all from "San Sebastian." "This is Donostia," said one, using the Euskara name for the city.

A generation ago you would not have heard or seen these expressions of Basque identity. Franco cracked down on Basque language and culture, making the expression of both a crime. But in 1979, five years after Franco's death, the Basques became semi-autonomous, gaining control over education and taxation in the region. The quest for independence, though, was far from over, and ETA violence would dominate the headlines for a generation to come. The two became entwined in the public consciousness, symbols of each other.

And yet support for ETA -- which took 800 lives over the course of 38 years -- has dwindled greatly in recent years. "Two things happened," Mariano Ferrer, a San Sebastian-based journalist told The Chicago Tribune this month. "The first is that society as a whole got fed up with ETA. The second is that after 9/11 and 3/11, the whole perspective on terrorism changed. It became completely unacceptable."

In the late nineties and early part of this century, ETA's tactics shifted. Assassinations were no longer limited to the police or military. Instead they focused on politicians, journalists, judges. When I first visited Spain in the winter of 2000-2001, a moderate politician named Ernest Lluch, a former health minister, was shot twice in the head as he stepped from his car. Thousands filled the streets of Spain, a common occurrence at the height of ETA violence, to protest. Lluch was representative of a new era of victims: those who were visible symbols of dialogue and democracy and voices of moderation on the Basque question. In his hometown of Barcelona, close to a million marched behind prominent politicians like Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Socialist Party leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Catalan President Jordi Pujol, and Basque President Juan Jose Ibarretxe. Signs held aloft proclaimed "ETA No!" and "Catalonia for Peace." Lluch's daughters raised a banner pleading "Dialogue Now." Smaller demonstrations were held across Spain, including one in San Sebastian, where 5,000 turned out to mourn. Jose Marie Aznar's government was tireless in pursing Basque terrorists, which was one reason why he and Bush became so close. Bush even declared his support for the cause.

It makes sense, then, why protests accompanied Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's decision to pursue ceasefire negotiations with ETA. In June, thousands marched after the declaration of ceasefire was announed. The conservative Popular Party -- former Prime Minister José María Aznar's party -- has repeatedly and publicly accused Zapatero of propping up a dying organization by bringing them to the table for talks. Plus, they say, ETA has yet to surrender its arms caches, despite the ceasefire. And many conservative Madrilenos oppose good-faith prisoner releases or prisoner relocations, both of which Batasuna has said it will request.

On the other hand, San Sebastian residents have embraced the ETA ceasefire: Visitors are coming back in droves. Tourism is an important source of revenue here, and it's easy to see why, what with three gorgeous beaches boasting clear Mediterranean-like water, some of the most delicious gourmet food in the world (Michelin throws stars at the Basques like nowhere else in the world), 19th-century buildings lining boulevards with sea views, and pintxos – those big tapas the region is known for. Bike paths are carved out of the sidewalks and streets, and bicycles practically outnumber pedestrians. A ceasefire can only help the region, though many back in Madrid still believe the Basque region is, at best, dangerous.

But separate the terror from the quest for independence and you have the many thousands who took to the streets this week. They want a referendum -- like the one Montenegro had, many pointed out -- to decide if the Basque region should secede from Spain. Madrid is not interested. If the Basques were to pull out, would Catalonia be next?

Over the weekend, ETA began to rumble again, setting fire to a minibus and announcing that the peace process was “in crisis.” The organization is apparently upset that the Spanish government hasn't moved more quick, making ETA to appear to be a low priority.

Zapatero has a political problem on his hands, but he still has the chance to prevent ETA from becoming a terror threat again. The Spanish government can still take the initiative, appeal to the public's low tolerance for terrorism, especially following 3-11, and not allow ETA, cornered, to resort to violence as a means of saving face.

But the question of Basque independence is separate from the one that has roiled Spain all summer. Should the Zapatero government sit down with what is, for all intents and purposes, the last indigenous European terrorist group? The answer is an undeniable yes. The Popular Party's cynical efforts to stall such talks are based not on genuine fear of ETA but out of the anxiety that if Zapatero finally brings peace to this region, the Socialists may permanently keep the prime minister's office.

Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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