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Jesús Eguiguren: the last negotiator

The president of the Basque Socialist Party has been a provocative figure in Spanish politics in recent years. But a year after ETA declared the end of its campaign of violence, it’s time to acknowledge his efforts to bring about peace in the Basque Country.


Jesús Eguiguren.

Eguiguren has been one of the Basque parliament's most interesting – and complex – personalities. Photo: El Mundo.

One film conspicuous by its absence at this year’s San Sebastián festival was Ángel Amigo’s 80-minute documentary, Memorias de un conspirador (or ‘Memoirs of a Conspirator’), about incumbent Basque Socialist Party President Jesús Eguiguren.

In the film, due for release this autumn, the leader of the Basque Socialist Party (PSE) offers a personal perspective on his more than 30-year career in politics, in particular his dealings with ETA. It was talks instigated “off the record” by Eguiguren and former Batasuna spokesman, Arnaldo Otegi in 2002 that eventually paved the way for the 2006 negotiations between ETA and Zapatero’s government.

Memorias director Amigo was nonchalant about the Festival’s rejection of his entry. “I’ve made a film that is absolutely political,” he admitted, respectful of the event’s wish to steer clear of controversy. And Jesús Eguiguren is nothing if not controversial.

It is no accident that the film’s release coincides with Eguiguren’s resignation as PSE president, following this Sunday’s regional election. Love him or loathe him, Eguiguren’s retirement from frontline politics will mark the withdrawal of one of the Basque parliament’s most interesting – and complex – personalities.

Often taciturn, Eguiguren is notoriously outspoken on a series of controversial issues, most notably those of ETA and Basque nationalism. Unlike many of his Socialist peers, Eguiguren is frank about his belief in a more plural Spanish state. His first act as PSE delegate 35 years ago was to lobby for a Basque Constitution, something he continues to support: “The (1978 Spanish) Constitution was created so that three nationalities could feel free,” he argues, “But it has never been applied in that way. Madrid has imposed its obsession” with a unified Spain.

It is arguably this candour, coupled with his reputation as a friend of the pro-independence abertzale left – “the right need something to criticise me for” – that has made Eguiguren a necessary thorn in the side of Basque premier Patxi López’s legislature.

Significantly, it was his candidly titled 2003 publication Los ultimos españoles sin patria (y sin libertad)  – or ‘The last Spaniards without homeland or freedom’ – that helped bring about a rapprochement between the Spanish Socialist Party and erstwhile ETA leader José Antonio Urrutikoetxea in 2005.

A Basque – and a Spaniard

It may be because of the cloak-and-dagger nature of his initial meetings with the nationalist left (firstly in a farmhouse with Otegi and later with Urrutikoetxea in a hotel in Geneva) that Eguiguren has described himself, not entirely ironically, as a “conspirator” (an irony lost, incidentally, on those who believe he suffered Stockholm syndrome during the negotiations). That and the fact that it was precisely Eguiguren’s keys for a solution to terrorism, laid out in his 2003 book, that led ETA’s original negotiator Urrutikoetxea (commonly known as Josu Ternera) to believe he had found an ally in the PSE President.

Born in the quintessentially Basque town of Aizarna, Gipuzkoa, in 1954, Eguiguren describes himself as “a nationalist of Euskal Herria” who loves Spain and rejects total independence for the Basque Country: “I don’t want to stop being a Spanish citizen,” he has said, “but only if they recognise my Basque nationality.”

With statements like these, it is perhaps unsurprising that he has been accused of political incoherency. His matter-of-fact approach to the highly emotive questions of ETA and peace are, similarly, cannon fodder to those for whom dialogue with terrorists is tantamount to a betrayal of their victims.

For Eguiguren, the idea he is a traitor is incongruous. Forced, since the 1970s until last year’s ceasefire, to use a bodyguard, he has, on occasion, had to identify the bodies of friends murdered by ETA and claims to have entered “every church in Euskal Herria” over the past three decades. In 2008, in the presence of Eguiguren’s wife, ETA shot dead their close friend and PSE colleague, Isaías Carrasco.

Dignity and memory

While many claim that he has put peace at whatever cost before the memory and dignity of ETA victims, for his own part Eguiguren has maintained a dignified silence when it comes to his own grief. While some may interpret this as a lack of compassion, it is more likely to be because (true to his Basque character) he prefers to deal with it privately. He is also clearly uncomfortable with the idea of gaining political mileage from it.

In keeping with his frankness, he has also expressed scepticism about the concept of memory: “History is formed by remembering and forgetting,” he once told Jordi Evolé in El Follonero, “there is more than one version of what has happened in Euskadi… any single version would be false.”

While he believes ETA should apologise to its victims, he does not dogmatically pursue redemption as a foundation for peace, believing instead that “regret is something you carry on the inside.”

The PSE president seems resigned to being misinterpreted: “The fate of a conspirator is not to be understood by anyone,” he says. Memorias director Amigo, meanwhile, believes Eguiguren has too frequently been silenced “on the grounds of inopportuneness.” If his insistence on saying the unsayable has made him a loose cannon within the PSE, however, in an age where image and spin are the stuff of modern politics, it is also refreshing.

Eguiguren, meanwhile, claims he is a “great pragmatist”, one who seeks “specific and partial repairs” to the Basque problem while avoiding “grand solutions” of which he believes there are none. It was almost certainly his insistence that politics and peace be kept separate in the previous negotiations with ETA that helped them to advance as far as they did.

Ultimately, however, it was his breed of pragmatic sangfroid that enabled Eguiguren to do the undoable: “If you want peace, speak with your enemies,” he tells Ángel Amigo in Memorias de un conspirador. A risky business but one that helped create what had been, until then, Spain’s best chance of lasting peace. It’s an achievement for which he has received scant recognition.

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Published: Oct 19 2012
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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