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Optimism at ETA truce is tempered by bitter experience

The Basque group’s much-anticipated announcement of a truce is welcome but does not go nearly far enough to convince the government -or Spanish public opinion- that it is yet committed to peace.


ETA’s announcement that it has “stopped carrying out offensive armed attacks” is, on the face of it, heartening news; and yet the overall mood following the ceasefire declaration was one of caution, scepticism and even suspicion.

It was widely anticipated that a truce announcement was imminent, due to the well-documented efforts of the izquierda abertzale, the political radicals closely associated with ETA, to pressure the organization into giving up its violent campaign.

The declaration, the recording of which was given to the BBC, was classic ETA public relations: a masked woman, flanked by two masked colleagues, read it out in Euskera against the backdrop of the group’s emblem, the snake and axe. However, it did contain some encouraging turns of phrase. For instance: “If the Spanish government is willing, ETA is prepared, today as it was yesterday, to agree on the minimum democratic principles needed to embark on the democratic process.” The announcement also appeals to the international community to “respond with historic responsibility to the willingness and commitment of ETA, in order to take part in the drawing up of a lasting, just and democratic solution to this secular, political conflict.”

So why the muted reception to this development across the political spectrum, with words such as “insufficient”, “ambiguous” and even “trap” being used by politicians to describe the announcement and Basque interior minister Rodolfo Ares saying “the time for truces has ended”?

Part of the answer lies not so much in the content of the statement as what was left out of it.

“This is a calculatedly spare declaration,” according to Kepa Aulestia, an ETA expert who writes about Basque political issues in the Spanish media, and who was, as a very young man, once a member of the organization. “I’m not saying it’s bad news…but it doesn’t give detail such as when, how, what intentions they have, or what conditions (the ceasefire is subject to),” he told Iberosphere.

The lack of any timeframe, or the vague but encouraging word “definitive” (as was used when declaring the 2006 truce) is troubling. Perhaps more worrying is the lack of reference to the handing over of weapons, seen as a key requirement if the political mainstream is to take an ETA ceasefire seriously. The izquierda abertzale, which seems to have worked so hard to convince the group to lay down its arms, reportedly sees the Northern Ireland peace process as a blueprint to follow, with the Mitchell Principles marking the way. However, those six principles include the commitment to verifiable total disarmament.

For Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who was so closely involved in the Irish peace process, ETA’s latest move is a major development “and has the potential to bring about a permanent end to the long-running conflict in the Basque Country.” He urged the Spanish government to “quickly establish inclusive political negotiations”.

A problematic precedent

But contrary to what Adams says, as things stand, ETA’s willingness to end a violent campaign that has claimed about 850 lives and pursue purely peaceful methods is still not clear. As Aulestia points out, the latest declaration reads like a lukewarm attempt to please all the group’s factions, from hardliners to those who can see no way of gaining independence for the Basque region through further terror. It is not a unanimous, unambiguous call for peace.

Aside from the difficulties of the announcement itself, ETA makes this move with some cripplingly heavy baggage. In 2006, it ended a nine-month ceasefire by detonating a massive bomb in Madrid airport car park, killing two people. As arrests of its members and leaders have continued, the organisation is as weak and desperate as ever. But for many, that failed attempt to pursue a political path four years ago proved it is incapable of either being trusted to sit down and negotiate or of shunning violence.

After being politically burned by that episode, the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero will not dare return to the negotiating table unless something more substantial than ETA’s latest offering is put before it.

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Published: Sep 5 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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