How the militant ETA lost support among Basques
Spaniards are savoring the prospect of an end to ETA's Basque separatist terrorism. Basques have increasingly rejected the armed struggle of ETA, while still supporting other pro-independence groups.
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In September 2010, ETA’s military wing called a unilateral ceasefire, but the government rejected it as insufficient. In January 2011, after intense pressure from ETA's political wing – increasingly at odds with the militants – ETA went further and declared a “permanent and general ceasefire,” again rejected by the government.Skip to next paragraph
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By that time, the group’s leadership had fallen to inexperienced, hardcore militants, and it counted only 50 active members, police say.
The beginning of the end
ETA’s demise, analysts agree, came when its political wing began distancing itself from its military wing in 2010, publicly calling for it to renounce violence.
Basques agreed it was time for a change. Support had dropped from 12 percent in 1981 to 3 percent in 2010, according to polls, while outright rejection of ETA had soared from 23 percent to 62 percent in the same period. In May 2011, Spain’s Constitutional Court allowed Bildu, a party formed out of ETA’s disenchanted political activists, to field candidates in municipal elections that month, provided they renounced and condemned violence. The anti-ETA formation made a good showing, capturing the vote of one of Spain’s best known cities, San Sebastian.
ETA's capitulation was a question of time after that, most analysts and Spaniards said at the time.
“The more nationalist sectors were conscious that armed struggle had yielded nothing, that it had discredited the political objectives, that it wasn’t a question of surrendering, but of recognizing new circumstances,” says Ramon Zallo, a former ETA militant from the 1960s, now a communication professor at Basque Country University.
But it is unlikely that ETA will disarm or dissolve any time soon, Mr. Zallo argues.
“They have more than 700 jailed militants and hundreds of refugees. It’s going to be a long process and the next government is not exactly the best placed to handle it,” he said referring to the landslide victory expected from the center-right Popular Party. The prisoner issue is one of the most contentious and the incoming party has historically been more adamantly opposed to negotiations with the terrorist group. Even so, it is is likely to agree to talks in the end.
If those negotiations don't happen, ETA may feel that returning to violence is its best option.
“This process could be reversed,” says Mikel Buesa, an economist at Complutense University and an expert in terrorism finances whose brother was killed by ETA in 2000. “If ETA doesn’t achieve its objectives of negotiating an amnesty for its militants, it could be tempted to return to violence.”
“Until we see concrete steps toward disarming and penal responsibility, we are not at the end of terrorism,” he says.
But for now, for the first time that many can recall, Spain is optimistic about the potential for violence to end, a message summed up by outgoing Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
“With the caution that history forces upon us, let us live, today, the legitimate satisfaction for the victory of democracy, of rule of law, of reason. It’s a satisfaction tainted by the unforgettable memory of the pain caused by violence that should have never existed and which will never come back," he said Thursday.