THE interview was set for 10 a.m. Over the phone, Ignacio Esnola could not have been nicer. As a leader of a Basque nationalist party, he said he would be delighted to explain to an American visitor why there should be an independent Basque nation.
``Come to my apartment,'' he said. ``Here's the address, fifth floor.''
In front of the building, an armored personnel carrier containing a platoon of machine-gun-toting soldiers was parked. Some stood guard at the head of the street. But none stopped visitors from entering the building, and inside, no soldiers were visible.
Three firm knocks. A young woman opened the door just enough to reveal her face. She spoke fluent French.
``No, Mr. Esnola cannot see you,'' she said.
``Is he too busy? Should I come back another time?''
``No,'' she answered. ``He simply cannot see you.''
``What's wrong? We had an appointment.''
She disappeared for a moment, and returned with the explanation.
``Mr. Esnola says you are a CIA agent.''
``Watch out,'' she replied. ``It's a bloody war.''
Welcome to the simmering tension of Spain's Basque country.
Do not confuse it with the boil of Beirut. While the Basque separatist group ETA (Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna or Basque Homeland and Liberty) has a record of violence dating from the mid-1960s, its attacks remain sporadic, and are almost always directed against representatives of the central government in Madrid -- soldiers, policemen, politicians. Surface sense of normality reigns
A surface sense of normality reigns. Since a foreign visitor fears little physical harm, he can spend his time sunbathing on San Sebasti'an's huge, crescent-shaped beach. But as soon as he decides to take a stroll on the boardwalk, he sees signs of the strain. Almost every wall is marked with nationalist graffiti.
Fear seems to be widespread. The ETA has killed about 25 people this year in Spain. Officials of the ruling Socialist Party say they fear for their lives. Nationalist leaders such as Esnola are not the only ones to shut the door on interviews. Many municipal and tourist officials refuse to be quoted on even innocuous questions about San Sebasti'an's history.
``It's asking for trouble,'' one explains.
In light of Basque history, the reaction is understandable. Though speculation holds that they are the last remnant of the Iberians, no one knows their origin for sure. Surviving successive waves of conquerers, the Basques remained different from their Spanish and French neighbors. For example, their complex language bears no relation to any Romance language, or in fact, any other European tongue. The population of the entire Basque region is about 2.5 million.
Guarding such a distinct identity takes toughness, and the Basques are a tough people. Their architecture is black and white with none of the romantic flashes of the Spanish. Their Roman Catholicism is so stolid as to resemble Calvinism. Their favorite sport is pelota, jai alai, the fastest of all ball games.
Ever since Philip II made Madrid the capital in the 16th century, Basques have felt stifled and exploited by the central Castile region. Conversation after conversation reveals that the Basques feel they provide an unfair proportion of Spain's brawn and brainpower.
During the 19th century, the Basques developed much of the country's industry, and the region remains more industrialized than the rest of Spain. Drive down the coast from the French border and smoky plants overwhelm once quaint villages.
As the economy boomed, modern Basque nationalism exploded. In 1876, the Basques lost all of their remaining autonomy. Dissatisfaction with the corrupt, autocratic governments in Madrid increased, and calls for an independent Basque nation were heard.
Interestingly, nationalism did not develop among French Basques. Madrid and Paris agreed to cut the Basque country in two in 1660, and to this day, the 200,000 Basques north of the border remain primarily rural and poor. No industry mars their picturesque farms and ports. The French Basques also never have felt exploited by an autocratic government. Indeed, they are proud that their distinctive beret has become a symbol of Frenchness.
``The two Basque countries have developed completely differently, politically as well as economically,'' explains Augustin Arcandeguy, president of a tourist association in St. Jean-de-Luz, France. ``We received a respect for democracy. The other side never did.''
Spanish Basques have had little chance to respect democracy. In 1931, the republic granted them an autonomous government, but it was destroyed during the civil war. Gen. Francisco Franco turned the brunt of his military might on the pro-republican Basques. Thousands of Basques fled abroad. A Basque government-in-exile was established in Paris.
Franco's facism tried to destroy the Basque identity. He outlawed the Basque language and banned public meetings. The police brutally enforced the rules, making it no wonder that San Sebasti'an's mayor Ramon Labayan says, ``to us, Franco's police were the Gestapo.''
Amid this repressive atmosphere in 1959, ETA was formed. To this day, Basque nationalists such as Ignacio Esnola still find it hard to trust outsiders.
But such mistrust is also dangerous. Spain now boasts a full-fledged democracy, and her new democratic rulers have moved to satisfy Basque aspirations. In 1978, the Basques were granted a large degree of autonomy, including powers over taxation, television, education, and police. The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), a moderate party which disavows violence, was elected in 1980 to run the autonomous region.
Of course, no amount of autonomy will satisfy the ETA hardliners -- or the legally represented political party that supports them, the Herri Batasuna. The party says it wants an independent state and polls about 150,000 votes every election.
A majority of Basques, though, realize that an independent Basque state would not be workable. They vote for the PNV or nonnationalist parties. A recent opinion poll showed that more than 75 percent of the Basques oppose ETA's violent campaign to gain independence.
While the Basques have retained a distinctive character, the majority seem to feel that this character has become inseparably interwined with the Spanish. `I'm Basque before Spanish'
Albert Arostegui, for instance, is a lawyer who was educated at a Spanish university. He practices Spanish law. And like most of his friends, he admits he cannot speak Basque. (On San Sebasti'an's streets only Spanish is heard. Basque is heard in small villages.)
``It's such a hard language,'' he says. ``My father spoke it, but under Franco we couldn't speak it outside the home.''
Despite this inability -- or perhaps because of it -- Mr. Arostegui says he is a fervent Basque nationalist. Echoing many others, he says he wants to guard his heritage.
``I'm Basque before Spanish,'' he asserts, ``and the Basque region needs to be treated specially.''
Finding the balance between those two identities is hard for the individual, as well as for autonomous Basque authorites and the central government. A gulf of suspicion continues to separate them. Moderate PNV leaders say they need more autonomy to silence ETA's guns.
``Give us a Basque university,'' says Mayor Labayan. ``Give us our own social security system. Stop holding up the formation of our own police force.''
Spanish officials respond that they are willing to negotiate, but complain that Labayan and other PNV leaders are blackmailing them.
``Everytime ETA strikes, the PNV comes running to us and says, `give us this power and that power and the terrorism will disappear,' '' says San Sebasti'an's civil governer, Jos'e Julian Elgorriaga.
A vicious circle results. Everytime ETA strikes, Madrid feels obligated to crack down. Governor Elgorriaga says the government must protect its own officials. It must also protect Spain's young democracy from right-wing extremists in the Army who point to ETA's violence as a reason for restoring totalitarian order.
At the same time, though, the local population resents the troops deployed in the street. Many become more alienated from Madrid. The most alienated turn to ETA.
Not all is hopeless. Optimists say autonomy has eased the problem. They say the number of terrorist attacks has been decreasing, suggesting that ETA is having more trouble finding recruits. It may take a long time for radicals such as Esnola to meet with American journalists, but moderate nationalists such as lawyer Arostegui are confident that the correct path is being taken to solve the problem.
``We just need more time with democracy,'' he says. ``When a generation grows up, free and independent, living in a healthy democracy, there will be no more terrorism.''