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ETA: A Suicidal Offensive

John Sullivan

IN NOVEMBER 1999 ETA, the Basque independentist organisation, announced it was ending the truce which it had observed since September 1998, citing the government’s unwillingness to negotiate seriously. The move surprised many observers who believed that the group was following the IRA’s route to a negotiated settlement. Instead, it has launched a disastrous offensive, which leaves it more isolated than ever before.

The truce had greatly improved ETA’s troubled relationship with the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which would like ETA to abandon armed struggle and encourage its supporters to join a nationalist alliance. The PNV accepted ETA’s co-thinkers in Euskal Herritarrok as partners in municipal and regional administration, an achievement comparable to Sinn Féin’s in obtaining an alliance with the SDLP. After the elections to the Basque autonomous parliament in October 1999, Euskal Herritarrok agreed to support a government formed by the PNV and EA, another moderate nationalist party.

ETA could not abandon its demand for a fully independent Euskadi, but it began to emphasise partial demands such as the release of ETA prisoners, or their transfer nearer home. However, the Spanish government saw no need to make major concessions. Sympathy for Basque nationalism elsewhere in Spain has declined as ETA’s actions become more brutal and it targets more widespread.

ETA obtained very little from the truce, apart from getting some prisoners moved to jails nearer the Basque country. That seemed a very limited measure to both moderate and radical nationalists. In May 1999 government representatives met with ETA leaders Belén González and Mikel Albisu in Zurich, but González was later arrested by the French police as were other ETA members, although the truce was still in operation. In July the members of the national committee of Herri Batasuna (HB), the predecessor of Euskal Herritarrok, were released from prison, where they had been held since 1997 on charges of having broadcast a video produced by ETA.

The first victim of the renewed offensive was an army colonel killed by a car bomb in Madrid, in January of this year. In February a similar device killed Fernando Buesa, a Socialist Party (PSOE) politician, and his bodyguard in the Basque capital Vitoria, thus widening the category of permissible targets and causing the PNV to end its alliance with Euskal Herritarrok. By early November there had been 33 attacks causing 19 deaths, including a supreme court judge – a higher total than for many years. Many ETA members have been killed or captured, allowing the government to claim that the organisation’s leadership had been decapitated, but its activity continues unchecked.

ETA is once again caught in the infernal logic of armed struggle. Each killing drives away potential sympathisers, yet the organisation sees no other way of pressing its demands. Car bombs, its preferred weapon against military or civilian elites, also kill escorts, drivers and sometimes bystanders. Its recent victims include army officers and judges, but it has also attacked softer targets, especially municipal councillors belonging to the government party, the conservative Partido Popular (PP). The PP offered police escorts to its councillors and activists and to others who had been threatened, but many refused, believing they were safe in their own localities.

For example, in May a journalist, Lopez de la Calle, was killed in Andoain as he was collecting his Sunday papers. In July a former civil governor of Guipuzcoa, J.M. Jáuregui, was shot dead while on holiday in his native province. Jáuregui had served only two years as civil governor under the former PSOE government. His predecessor is in prison for complicity in the murder of ETA sympathisers by GAL, that government’s "dirty tricks" department, but Jáuregui played an honourable role in this, helping to bring those killers to book. ETA now appears to regard all PSOE activists as traitors. Labour clubs have been fire bombed and activists threatened.

On 14 September José Ramón Recalde, a lawyer with a long record of opposition to Francoism, was shot and severely wounded. Recalde was a truly bizarre choice of victim. He had been a member of the Frente de Liberación Nacional (FLP), an organisation composed mainly of intellectuals, formed in 1959, and was first arrested in 1962 for his support of striking Asturian miners. He likes to describe the advice FLP members were given in the event of arrest. They were to be aware of the advantages conferred by their social and educational status and were to adopt a civil but distant demeanour towards the police, who ought to be deferential to their social superiors, and would hesitate to treat them as they would workers. Recalde followed that advice, but arrived in prison badly bruised.

Recalde is a prolific writer whose books, Integración y lucha de clases en el neo-capitalismo, and in particular La construcción de las naciones, attempt to combine left nationalism and socialism. He argued that the Basque nation had to be built from the existing population which includes both those who are ethnically Basque and those who are not. The education system should encourage the Basque language, Euskara, for all Basques whatever their origin and should discourage the creation of two distinct communities. Curiously, that position is shared by ETA, some of whose members were influenced by him in the 1960s. Recalde’s brother in law, Miguel Castells, is also a lawyer and one of the few intellectuals in the radical nationalist camp. Recalde entered mainstream politics in 1987 as an independent councillor for education, acceptable both to the PSOE and to left nationalists, and joined the PSOE when the left nationalist tendency, which had originated in ETA, collapsed. The attempt to kill such a popular, moderate and conciliatory figure provoked horror among many who might have mixed feelings about some of ETA’s actions. Although Recalde would not accept that some victims are better than others, he is neither an inflammatory journalist nor a centralist career politician. If he is a suitable target, who is safe?

It is claimed that a hundred thousand people marched on a peace demonstration in San Sebastian on 24 September. While the government manipulates the peace movement it has not created it, as such demonstrations express a deep seated alarm. Radical nationalists have always taken a sectarian, even slanderous, attitude to the peace movement, accusing it of being indifferent to state repression. A continuation of ETA’s present strategy has convinced many pacifists that they and Franco’s heirs in the PP are on the same side.

It is probable that the spate of killings will produce dissension, not in ETA itself, but among elements in Euskal Herritarrok, such as Zutik!, an organisation sympathetic to the Fourth International. Zutik!, like the PNV, believes that ETA’s leaders who until fairly recently had some political understanding have now been replaced by a homicidal group indifferent to whom they kill, but a sober examination of ETA’s history during the past twenty years shows more continuity than change.

The Spanish government’s Thatcherite strategy has worked for it so far, and contributed to its election victory in March. If ETA is offered no concessions, and is not encouraged to negotiate, it will see no alternative but to keep up the armed struggle. As its base in France is weakened and police action becomes more effective it will seek easier targets, which in turn will make it more unpopular. Aznar, the Prime Minister, has claimed that his government is the first to fight against terrorism from "within the law", a veiled reference to the previous PSOE government’s use of mercenary killers. So far his claim seems justified. However, the PP is steadily extending its definition of terrorism, jailing the HB national committee, closing the newspaper Egin and arresting many radical nationalists who have not been involved in violence.

In September, twenty members of a nationalist coordinating committee, Ekin, were arrested, and charged with being the political leadership of ETA. The idea that such a body issues orders to ETA’s commandos is laughable. Anyone familiar with ETA’s history knows that power always lies with those bearing arms, who regard anyone attempting to impose a political strategy on them as "scribblers" to be kept in a subordinate place.

A law is now being prepared which will further extend the definition of terrorism, and proposes to jail demonstrators as young as fourteen for up to ten years and to try them in Madrid rather than their home area. Some judges oppose those measures on the grounds that they violate the 1978 Constitution. Spanish liberals worship the Constitution, partly the work of the once powerful Communist Party, and would be terribly upset if it was ignored. However, like all objects of universal adoration it is necessarily ambiguous. It enshrines both the right to regional autonomy and the army’s duty to preserve Spain’s territorial integrity.

Given the opposition to Basque nationalist aspirations elsewhere in Spain, a hard line against the nationalists will be popular. As the population of the Basque country is only about 7% of the Spanish total, there are few votes to be lost there. Given the PSOE’s inability to differentiate itself from the Right, and the disarray of the Left, the PP’s future seems bright. Its claim that ETA is a problem for the police, not for political action, is absurd, but demonising Basque nationalism will continue to be electorally advantageous.

The outlook for radical nationalism is bleak, as the Basque and Irish situations differ more than ETA recognises. The United States government has no reason to ask the Spanish government to make concessions, and there is no equivalent to the Republic of Ireland’s pressure for a negotiated settlement. The PP government does not welcome the PNV’s involvement in a peace process, as both parties compete for conservative voters. A peace deal brokered by its rival is not in the PP’s interest.