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Spain’s Basque Country glimpses peace despite political barriers

On the anniversary of ETA’s bloodiest attack, there is hope that a definitive end to the violence is now looming.



Pro-independence party Sortu has been deemed legal by Spain's Constitutional Court.

As citizens of Barcelona recently commemorated 25 years since ETA’s bombing of Hipercor supermarket, which killed 21 and injured 45, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon that the Basque Country is entering a new, if somewhat arduous, era of peace.

Following ETA’s announcement of a permanent end to armed activity in October last year, earlier this month the group considered to be its youth wing, SEGI, also disbanded. The arrests of 90 of its members in the space of three years, as well as the increased difficulty of entering the ranks of ETA, undoubtedly contributed to SEGI’s decision to fold.

Tuesday June 19, 1987 is a day that would go down as the bloodiest in ETA’s history. The attack on Hipercor was more devastating than any of the group’s previous bombings, and any they have carried out since. Due to its timing (and an apparent failure to communicate a warning) shoppers were caught completely unaware. Most of them were women, one of them pregnant, and small children, some so badly burned they were unidentifiable.

Four men were arrested and sentenced to almost 800 years each in prison for their role in the attack. Among them Rafael Caride Simón who, as part of a series of meetings between ETA prisoners and their victims, on June 15 met with Roberto Manrique, a survivor of the bombing.

Meetings such as these initially formed an obligatory part of a reinsertion plan for ETA prisoners, originally devised under Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and later revised by the current regime. The ‘vía Nanclares’ offers terrorists the opportunity to be moved to prisons nearer their families, something Basque nationalists have long campaigned for, and hopefully a step in the right direction.

Under the revised plan it is no longer a condition that prisoners meet face-to-face with their victims to ask for forgiveness, much to the chagrin of victims’ groups. This was perhaps an unexpected decision from Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy but probably the right one. In the words of Basque Socialist Party President Jesús Eguiguren, “regret is something you carry on the inside”. As a case in point, following his recent meeting, Manrique told the Diario Vasco that, though the word perdón was never uttered, due to his attitude and “body language”, Caride was perceivably sorry for his actions.


One possible obstacle to the creation of a viable peace process in the Basque Country, however, is the persistent refusal among members of either the national or regional governments to enter negotiations with members of the Basque nationalist left (or izquierda abertzale), as well as their refusal to accept any outside mediation. This is in spite of the interest shown by Brian Currin’s International Contact Group and its attempts to aid the formation of a peace process from an objective standpoint.

Members of the izquierda abertzale have reportedly sought talks with the Basque government. In November last year, Basque Partido Popular (PP) leader Antonio Basagoiti is said to have rejected an invitation sent by nationalist Rufi Etxeberria that acknowledged his side’s commitment to peace and the essential need for ‘bilateral talks’ between the nationalist left and the PP “with a view to advancing that commitment.”

This inflexibility on the part of the Basque and Spanish governments is not without some justification. During the last peace talks, in 2006, it was representatives of the izquierda abertzale, no doubt bending to pressure from ETA, who persistently moved the goal posts – before the group’s bombing of Madrid airport effectively ended the peace process. The unwillingness of both governments to be made fools of again is natural. However, a complete refusal to open talks until ETA announce total disbandment is potentially ill-considered given the delicate nature of the ceasefire. However strongly the law comes down on terrorist behaviour, a more radical solution is needed if a resumption of violence is to be avoided.

In March this year, British diplomat Jonathan Powell (who was Tony Blair’s chief of staff during the Northern Ireland peace talks) acknowledged the Spanish government’s reticence, but added that groups like ETA “cannot disband just like that.” It is, sadly, realistic to expect the group (now much debilitated compared to six years ago) to maintain some bargaining position. Furthermore, as Powell later warned, during the International Conference held in San Sebastian on October 17 last year, just three days prior to ETA’s announcement of the end of its campaign of violence, any void created by a stalemate in negotiations could all too easily be filled by violence from ETA dissidents.

To whatever extent such implacability on the part of government representatives as regards peace talks is the result of varying degrees of pride, scepticism and even cynicism, added to this already heady mix is the undeniable emotional toll that so many years of pain have taken on all members of the Spanish state.

A new dawn for Sortu

Last year’s declaration of a permanent ceasefire led to a palpable sigh of relief within the Basque community and doubtless across much of Spain. Since then, however, any opportunity for all sections of the regional and national communities to get on board and become involved in a common purpose so far remains largely untapped.

A shift in Spain’s judiciary away from the intransigence of the past was apparently confirmed last week, when the Constitutional Court announced its decision to grant legal status to the previously outlawed Basque pro-independence party Sortu.

But the country continues to teeter on a precipice between lasting peace and the ever-present threat of an eventual return to violence. The vital question now is whether, without the input of outside mediation, current domestic legislation can lead to true change.

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Published: Jun 25 2012
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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