Bilbao, Spain — The undulating land of Spain's Basque country is dotted with vineyards, olive groves, and fruit orchards. Brightly painted fishing villages give a Mediterranean atmosphere to the coast.
Even Bilbao, a sprawling industrial city, is sleepy at siesta time. Basques snooze under black berets on benches in the park. Washing lines cast long shadows on the cobbled streets in the old part of town.
There are few outward signs here of an antiterrorist fight.
In the north, however, several thousand Spanish soldiers, guns at the ready, patrol Spain's border with France. Their job is to stop Basque terrorists from crossing the mountainous passes that separate the three northern Basque provinces and Navarra from southern France.
At the same time special antiterrorist Army units now are standing guard at strategic installations such as the Lemoniz nuclear power plant 10 miles south of Bilbao. The Navy and Air Force are patrolling the Bay of Biscay.
The government, backed by all the Madrid-based parties, took the decision to involve the Army in the antiterrorist fight as more and more evidence came out of the abortive Feb. 23 military coup. It had become clear that concern over the terrorism of the Basque separatist organization ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom) was decisive in the Army's wanting to seize power.
In these circumstances, the Basque problem turns on one single issue: Will the latest government measures push Basque nationalists into the arms of the ETA terrorists? This would convert the problem into a Basque vs. Madrid one, just as it was during the Franco regime.
Alternatively, is there still a chance, by strengthening the autonomy institutions, of driving a wedge between moderates and extremists? In this case , the Basque problem would be localized. Basques would be pitched against Basques.
"We realize it is a tense situation," says Inaki Anasgasti, a member of the governing conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), who sits in the fledgling Basque parliament. "But we think the government has overreacted. Involving the Army in the Basque country could be counterproductive. We feel the decision was not taken in the context of Basque problems. It represents a concession to the Army," he says.
According to Mr. Anasgasti the way to solve Basque terrorism lies not so much in security measures as political ones. There is a need to draw a line between those Basques who support democracy, he says, and those who support violence. "But to do this we need powers. The government must accelerate the autonomy process, not make our task harder."
Stopping ETA by strengthening the powers of the new autonomous institutions is also the view of the smallest Basque nationalist party, Euzkadiko Ezkerra, (Basque Left), which has been linked to the more moderate of the terrorist groups.
But Ion Idigoras goes much further. He represents the Herri Batasuna Party (United People Party), the second largest nationalist group in the region which has been linked to the most violent of the ETA wings. Unlike the PNV and the Basque Left, Herri Batasuma never supported the autonomy statute (called the "Guernica statute" after the Basque town strafed by German planes in the Spanish Civil War). The statute was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum in 1979. "The shooting will only end when self-determination comes to the Basque country, " Mr. Idigoras claims.
Not surprisingly, the Henri Batasuna Party is now a target in the antiterrorist campaign. Since March 23, over 100 party members have been arrested, including 20 municipal councillors. This has raised speculation that Henri Batasuna members will soon go underground -- especially since the Ministry of the Interior is now considering declaring the party illegal and introducing a state of emergency in the region.
"It makes no difference," Mr. Idigoras scoffs. "The government may imprison all the 250,000 Basques who voted for us in the Basque parliamentary elections last year. But for each one of us in jail, two more will join."
The dilemma of whether Basques are going to side with or against the ETA has particular relevance now because of two other events.
First, Basque bishops from Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Vitoria recently issued a statement that has polarized the situation between nationalists and Madrid. In this statement the bishops denounced ETA's terrorism and the armed forces' recent involvement in the region. Because the bishops were seen to be interfering in political affairs, they were criticized by all the political parties in Madrid. But their statement had the support of Basque nationalists, who consider it a moderate statement and a courageous one in the circumstances.
Second, talks have begun between the Madrid parties on a new law to "rationalize" Spain's regional autonomy program. This has prompted fears among Basque nationalists that the regional devolution process is going to be slowed down.
Basques are particularly concerned lest the new law affect two questions that they view as "vital" for the consolidation of their positions.
The first is related to the region's chaotic economy. The three Basque provinces of Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya, and Alava, with a combined population of 2.7 million, have an unemployment rate approaching 20 percent, compared with 12 percent for the rest of Spain. The provincial industries -- steel and shipbuilding -- are in serious trouble.
Mounting terrorism has exacerbated this crisis. New foreign investment has been frightened away. Tourism has slumped. Small businessmen have fled in droves to escape terrorist extortion, euphemistically called a "revolutionary tax."
The results can be clearly seen in Bilbao. It is a city of grimy, graffiti-covered buildings. The river Nervion that runs through it is polluted, the streets are strewn with litter, and street corners are populated with beggars -- some women with babies, some unemployed youths.
The Madrid government has just granted Basques the right to raise their own taxes to finance the autonomous institutions and to aid their depressed industries. But these changes are not scheduled to take effect until next year. In the meantime, Basques say, it is essential that the new prime minister, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, remembers his promise of new investment in the Basque economy.
The Madrid government has also agreed to the formation of an all-Basque police force to replace the 20,000 or so Civil Guards and national police now stationed there who are regarded as an extension of the repressive franco dictatorship. But again this will take time. The first 700 Basque recruits won't graduate from the police academy until the end of this year, and a complete changeover may take up to five years.
During the interim the Basques must find a way to keep their terrorism under control. One hopeful sign came in the aftermath of the attempted military coup; the more moderate of the two terrorist groups announced a cease-fire and called on the most violent wing to lay down its arms.
But Ion Idigoras dismisses this call for peace as "absurd." Despite Madrid's pledges, he maintains, the police will always remain under the control of the Spanish government. "So long as the police and the Civil Guards say the same as during Franco's time, all Basques will go on hating the police," he says.
"Spain has got to get the Army to back off from pressurizing the government and the Basque government has got to get directly involved in sorting out the terrorist problem," a diplomat in Bilbao explains. "Otherwise there could be some very nasty encounters. It would be ETA against the Army. Spain would be a very different country from that anticipated when Franco died."
The ruling PNV's main job is to try and woo the Basque population away from its tacit support of the terrorists. The task is not easy. Cultural differences between the Basque country and the rest of Spain were accentuated by Franco's policies. "For at least 30 of the 40 years under Franco life was intolerably hard for anyone who wanted to assert a Basque identity, even in innocuous ways," the diplomat says.
During this time, the distinctive Basque language -- the oldest in Europe -- was banned. People were forced to change their Basque names to Spanish names. The Ikurrina, Euzkadi's red, white, and green flag was not allowed to be flown. More important, the local administrative machinery was entirely run by non-Basques, with the police, the judiciary, and a wide range of local official matters dealt with by people who had no knowledge of the language and almost certainly did not sympathize with Basque cultural aspirations.
These measures brought the formation of the Basque separatist organization, ETA, in 1952. It was not until 1968 that its members, originally priests and left-wing students, resorted to terrorism, using guns against the Franco police, instead of resisting passively. Almost immediately the ETA split. Marxists formed a more moderate group, while the most violent members are committed to Basque nationalism first.
After General Franco's death in 1975, the new democratically elected government tried to bring peace to the region with promises to restore a Basque government. But mistrust and suspicion hampered negotiations, and the terrorists began to step up their campaign of violence against the Civil Guard and national police, both of which are staffed by Army officers.
Last year there were 110 deaths in the Basque country, most of them by ETA. So far this year 17 people have been killed in the region and in Navarre -- 11 of them by ETA. This is a sharp reduction, reflecting greater success in the antiterrorist fight by security forces.
But the ETA says hundreds of Basques suspected of belonging to their group have been tortured, and that extreme right-wing terrorists -- armed Castilian-speaking commandos, and some Civil Guard units -- which have been operating in the region for over 10 years, have been allowed to continue to act with impunity.
For their part, militants in ETA, who probably number only 300, can also act with impunity because they are sheltered by the Basque people. The ETA militants are primarily young, well educated, and from middle- and working-class backgrounds.
"Why does ETA survive?" Anasgasti asks. "Because people see the same police action in the streets. The same abuses. And because of the delays in granting real autonomy," he answers.