Chaos Reigns

In the two months since Basque separatist movement ETA (Euskadi Ta Asktasuna, or "Basque Homeland and Freedom") ended the "permanent" ceasefire agreement with the government in Madrid by blowing up the Madrid Barajas Airport parking garage at terminal 4, one story has dominated the headlines here in Spain: the tale of a hunger striking ETA terrorist, incarcerated a quarter century ago for murder and then again, almost twenty years later, for terror incitement. On February 5, the Times of London slipped a camera into his hospital room and captured a disturbing photo of the emaciated, wasted man. In Spain the reaction was explosive -- a public relations disaster for the Spanish government, a rallying cry for young Basque nationalists (within hours the image was a poster plastered across San Sebastian), and a full-fledged media scandal.

From the signs, you would think the saga of Iñaki de Juana Chaos had all the makings of a Basque Bobby Sands story -- indeed, the political establishment feared his martyrdom. (British prisoner and IRA member Bobby Sands, convincted of arms possession, died after a 66-day hunger strike in 1981 and became an enduring symbol for the IRA.) In reality, de Juana Chaos is no Bobby Sands, and his narrative, like all facets of the tangled, tragic history of Basque nationalist agitation, will not play like a Hollywood movie. But the government, responding to news that the man was near death, did release de Juana Chaos to a Basque hospital and subsequent home incarceration last Thursday evening, after 24 years in prison and 114 days on hunger strike. Far from marking a capitulation, the government's move was a necessary choice that adhered to the rule of law.

When Iñaki De Juana Chaos was convicted in 1987, linked to some 25 murders, he was sentenced to 3,000 years in jail. But Spanish law at the time only allowed twenty years of incarceration. After eighteen years, due for release, the government pointed to unrepentant articles that de Juana Chaos had penned behind bars and used his words to sentence him, on dubious legal grounds, for a further twelve years. In response, Chaos launched hunger strikes to protest his continued incarceration; the latest nearly brought him to death. (That 12 year sentence was recently reduced to three years, but de Juana Chaos continued his hunger strike.) On Thursday evening he was deemed dangerously ill, despite force feedings.

"I have pondered this decision a lot," Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told reporters, explaining the government's painful decision to release de Juana Chaos to home imprisonment after a spell in a San Sebastian hospital. "I have thought through the consequences of my decision, and perhaps more, of what would have happened if I had not taken it." For his part, the prisoner ended his hunger strike as soon as he arrived in the Basque region.

Protests erupted from Cordoba to Madrid following last week's decision. Waving the crimson and yellow Spanish flag, brandishing posters calling the Socialist president Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero an "assassin," the conservative Popular Party (PP) flushed its supporters into the streets of Spain. The politically powerful Association of Victims of Terrorism declared that the government had "surrendered to ETA."

No one had been pleased in the first place when de Juana Chaos was incarcerated for only 20 years for 25 deaths -- the popular, romanticized version of his story, one prominent Basque cultural figure mourned to me around the release of the Times of London photo, was a gross distortion of his violent, militant life. But the fact remains that, for there to be any hope of the government successfully navigating through the morass that is negotiation with the Basque separatists, the supralegal re-sentencing of de Juana Chaos had to be repealed. (The Spanish political right is fighting that decision bitterly: All morning yesterday, Zapatero stood before the Senate defending the legality of de Juana Chaos's release.)

Indeed, on a number of levels de Juana Chaos's saga can be seen as an instructive (if bleak) symbol of what the future holds for Spanish-Basque negotiations, as well as for mainstream Spanish politics. Like many Basque prisoners, he was kept far from the Basque country. One of the rallying cries at Basque nationalist demonstrations in the region is a call to bring the prisoners closer to home. ETA prisoners have long been kept many thousands of kilometers from the Basque region. The official reason is to prevent collusion with other ETA prisoners; the secondary function is to serve as a means of doubly punishing the families.

While the key to diminishing ETA's power may be isolating the group within Basque -- and greater Spanish -- society, the current prisoner isolation policy has largely backfired.. The government needs to find different means of sucking the energy out of Basque distrust of the government. As Harkaitz Cano, a young Basque writer, told me in late January, everyone knows someone who travels on a weekly basis thousands of kilometers -- for years, even as far away as the Canary Islands -- to see an incarcerated father, uncle or brother. At the same time, everyone knows someone who was killed or targeted by ETA. The effect is to deepen fissures both within Basque society and between Basque society and the rest of Spain.

Yet even if Zapatero wanted to really change the prisoner policy -- or even return to his earlier position on the importance of dialogue in finding a solution, he would have to face the political reality that any conversation that appears to be nodding toward "negotiation" (read as capitulation) is dangerous for both his party and his presidency.

Since the December 30 bombing, Zapatero has been slammed in the press and on the floor of the Senate for weakness and leftist naiveté . Critics harp on a speech he delivered 24 hours before Barajas airport was a smoking wreck, when the president promised advances in the peace process. Using the bombing as the tinder, and the de Juana Chaos dust-up as a flare, the Popular Party is running an aggressive anti-Zapatero campaign. Yesterday in the Senate, as Zapatero spoke, the opposition called out "resign!" again and again, disrupting his speech. They have planned anti-ETA rallies for Friday and Saturday that are just as anti-government as they are anti-terror.

The irony is that Zapatero's position on ETA has actually closely mirrored that of his predecessors in the Popular Party. (De Juana Chaos himself was moved from Melilla, on the African coast, back to a Spanish mainland prison under Aznar's conservative government). His bold, optimistic statements about peace were countered by the inability of his government (looking over its shoulder all the time at the PP) to make any incremental steps that would sap the energy from the more radical elements within the Basque separatist movement and weaken the support among those who only tenuously endorse terror. The prisoner issue could have been the key to that effort. Perhaps, had Zapatero allowed the issue to become a focus of negotiation, he could have garnered some support and trust and diminished ETA's power.

In the end, what makes Iñaki de Juana Chaos a symbol is not simply his status as a a prisoner. His story illustrates the perennial inability of successive Spanish governments to make bold strides towards marginalizing support for ETA, terror, and radical nationalism. Today Zapatero is reduced to a defensive crouch. Unable to take pragmatic movements and hamstrung by a political right wing that, hoping to bring down the government, portrays any change to the status quo as a reward to terror, Zapatero and the Socialists are forced to react to events rather than lead.

Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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