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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 / January 13, 2012

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.

Andrés Cala

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Lesaka, Spain

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.

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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. 

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.

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