Spain's Basques enter unfamiliar territory of peacetime politics

The Basque terrorist group ETA, Europe's last violent separatist movement, agreed to a cease-fire last year, paving the way for Basques to engage in the political process.

By , Correspondent

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    Like all Basques, Pedro Lanz has endured a low-intensity state of war for most of his life. But now that the terrorist group ETA has given up its armed struggle in favor of a democratic route to independence, he looks forward to democracy and mended community ties.
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Like most Basques in northern Spain, octogenarian Pedro Lanz has lived in a state of low-intensity war for as long as he can remember.

As a former mayor in the town of Lesaka, he faced the brutality of the Basque separatist movement, ETA. In 1975, after nine months on the job, Mr. Lanz resigned when ETA threatened to have his only daughter raped if he remained in office. Like many other Basques, he did not support the group's goal of independence or its violent methods, although he does want greater autonomy.

His was not an isolated incident of intimidation; Lesaka is also the hometown of two militants convicted in the bombing of Madrid's new airport terminal in December 2006, which killed two and ended peace negotiations with the government. But since Spain's Basque separatists abandoned their armed struggle this fall to pursue independence at the ballot box, Lanz and his fellow Basques are enjoying the absence of fear – and beginning to rebuild communities destroyed by decades of mistrust and engage in open political discourse more successfully than ever before. 

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The Basque foray into democracy, however fledgling, marks the end of Europe's violent separatist movements – many of which endured two world wars, a cold war, and beyond.

While Basques are not united on independence, they now have an opportunity to debate that important question without the distraction of violence.

"It's completely a new phase," says Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, a sociology professor in Madrid Complutense University who has written extensively about ETA. "Independence aspirations have been shattered by the armed struggle, but without violence and [with] the pro-independence party's popularity, it's impossible for the state to continue ignoring this issue."

Three eras of violence

"Basques need more time to be able to have full freedom of speech, but without ETA violence, things can only get better for them," Professor Sánchez-Cuenca says.

Spain's Basques have been through three eras of violence: a civil war, a fascist dictatorship under Gen. Francisco Franco, and decades of Basque separatist terrorism that reached deeply into Spanish society.

For 51 years, ETA fought for a country about the size of New Jersey, consisting of the Spanish regions of Basque Country and Navarre and a slice of southern France where ethnic Basques live. In its fight, ETA killed 829 people, mostly civilians. Hundreds of its militants are jailed and more are exiled, many to Latin America.

The separatist struggle has fractured Basque communities, including Lesaka, an iron ore smelting town of centuries-old stone homes and fewer than 3,000 people, located in the lush mountains of northern Navarre.

Like Lanz, many Basques have fraught pasts. Little changed when democracy replaced the Franco regime in 1975. ETA continued to intimidate people into either silence or support. 

The Spanish state also waged its own dirty war, financing a paramilitary group that kidnapped and killed ETA militants, supporters, and family members, further eroding Basque trust in democratic institutions and each other. 

The repercussions linger. When a police car drives by a bar in the Basque town of Vera de Bidasoa one night, the officer and the men there stare each other down. The bar is one of hundreds across northern Spain, known as Herriko Tabernas, where pro-independence Basques gather. A troubadour sings Basque ballads, and pro-ETA insignia are on display.

Most in the bar say they oppose vio-lence, but say ETA isn't the only one to blame. One man says he was tortured by police. Another predicts that the government will reject an ETA peace proposal and war will return.

Renounced violence in October

Both the Basque community and ETA's political wing, known as Batasuna, pressured ETA militants to declare a definitive cease-fire in October. The political wing, having renounced violence months before, was already permitted to participate in national elections.

In November's national vote, the political wing led a coalition of pro-independence Basque parties known as Amaiur. The coalition won seven seats in the 350-seat lower house of parliament, including one in northern Navarre. 

In Basque Country, Amaiur garnered 24 percent of the vote, slightly trailing another Basque party that stands for more autonomy but not independence. Twenty-seven percent of residents voted for the latter, while 22 percent voted for the pro-Spain Socialist party, and 18 percent voted for the Popular Party, which now governs the country. Results hint at a desire for more rights and greater autonomy for the Basques – but not total independence.

Even if pro-independence Basques became a majority in the region, few believe Spain would allow full-fledged independence – especially now that the parliament is controlled by the center-right Popular Party, traditionally opposed to talking to ETA.

Some sort of agreement is likely before regional elections, two years away. In exchange for agreeing to peace talks, ETA wants its imprisoned members transferred to Basque jails. Most Spaniards demand ETA's total disarming and an apology first. Without a government agreement, pro-independence Basques could pursue a referendum on independence if they make a strong showing in regional elections.

But it's still unclear what most Basques want to happen. For most, the focus now is on rebuilding their shattered society and enjoying their long-awaited freedom.

"I haven't really talked about any of this with my daughter and granddaughter," says Lanz. "But I never thought that day would come when I would be able to."

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