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.

Alvaro Barrientos/AP
A woman lights a candle during the tribute to more than 800 people killed by Basque separatist group ETA, in Vitoria, northern Spain on Friday, the day after ETA announced the end of its armed struggle.

For the first time in decades, Spaniards are savoring, some incredulously, the prospect of a country without Basque separatist terrorism, perhaps the only remnant of more than a century of political violence that has included civil wars, brutal repression, and a fascist dictatorship.

Spirits are cheerful, victorious even, but the realization of a long road ahead is settling in. Spaniards know that while a return to violence is unlikely, it’s not impossible.

ETA, which has fought for an independent Basque territory, has been politically undermined and become broadly unpopular in the past few years. The group might be defeated, but Basque support for pro-independence parties and demands for self-determination have not subsided.

On Thursday, three hooded militants announced a “definite cessation of its armed activity.” But the group, which has killed 829 people in the 51 years since it was founded and the 43 years since killing became part of its strategy, has not renounced its goal of creating an independent country out of two Spanish regions and a sliver of southern France that it considers the Basque fatherland.

The announcement came exactly one month before general elections, and included a call for France and Spain to open direct negotiations “with the aim of addressing the resolution of the consequences of the conflict and, thus, to overcome the armed confrontation.” That will inevitably involve resolving the issue of hundreds of jailed ETA militants and expanding on an already ample autonomy for the Basque region that includes separate taxes, police, healthcare, and education systems.

ETA's 'fatal flaw'

ETA’s dissolution and disarming are pending issues for the next government, which will take over before year's end.

Basque pro-independence parties have consolidated political gains in 2011, weakening ETA but strengthening popular support for their cause, a factor sure to complicate any future talks. The national and regional governments have already said any resolution will have to involve all the political factions representing the Basque movement.

“A return to violence is possible, but improbable,” says Ignacio Sánchez Cuenca, a sociology professor and terrorism expert at Madrid’s Complutense University who has written extensively about ETA.

“The group could splinter, but one of the most irreversible aspects of their decision is to renounce extortion, and without money, they can’t survive very long. It wouldn’t have operational capabilities,” Mr. Sánchez Cuenca says. “In effect, the military wing handed power over to the political wing, and that makes a return to violence improbable.”

However, ETA has a history of going back on its word, most notably when it broke off peace negotiations with the government unannounced – by bombing the parking lot of Madrid’s new airport terminal in December 2006, killing two.

The move proved fatal. The country’s leadership, and more importantly Basque nationalists, blamed ETA and turned their backs on the group. Four years of unprecedented police pressure ensued, with the help of France, and again and again the group’s leadership was jailed.

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.

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.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.