Basque Abertzale Left: Towards peace in the Basque Country

On November 14, 2012, reports the weekly news bulletin of the Abertzale Left nº101,15,000 people demonstrated in Bayonne under the slogan of “Hurbildu bakera, Giza eskubide guztiak, euskal preso eta iheslariak Euskal Herrira” (On the path to peace, all human rights, Basque prisoners and refugees to the Basque Country). The biggest demonstration in demand respect for the rights of prisoners and refugees to ever occur on the streets of Bayonne. The demonstration was led by the families of prisoners who carried photos of their loved ones.

By Gorka Elejabarrieta, head of the International Relations Department of the Basque Abertzale (Patriotic) Left

November 21, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- We are a national liberation movement that fights for an independent and socialist Basque Country (Euskadi). We are an internationalist movement that strongly believes in solidarity between peoples and struggles and that is the reason why we consider that both national and social struggles go together. From the Basque Country to the world, or as some say: think global and act local.

It is said that a good peace process is that one that has no winners and losers, or in different words, that in which everybody wins. That is one of the main difficulties of peace talks, finding compromises among rivals and enemies. Creating a win-win scenario is not easy but there is no other way than dialogue and negotiation between enemies on the path to the resolution of the conflict, in the Basque Country and elsewhere.

That is the reason that makes us believe that our political goals and our peace agenda should not be the same and in fact are not. There is no need to reach an independent and socialist Basque Country in order to solve the ongoing conflict. Nationalists and non-nationalists (though most of the time I believe that those defined as non-nationalist are the strongest nationalists, Spanish and French nationalists, of course) should agree on a new scenario for the Basque Country in which the right to self-determination is acknowledged. This is a win-win scenario for everybody, nationalist and non-nationalist. We should move from a non- democratic scenario into a democratic one, in which all political projects can be defended and are possible. Basque people should have the right to decide upon the Basque Country’s future, something that today it is not only not possible but illegal as well. How can it be illegal to exercise a democratic right?

A year has passed since the international conference to promote the resolution of the conflict in the Basque Country, most widely known as the Donostia–San Sebastian Peace Conference. In that conference Kofi Annan, Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams, Jonathan Powell, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Pierre Joxe presented a road-map declaration for the resolution of the conflict that included a demand to Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA, Basque Homeland and Freedom) to end its armed campaign, a plea to Spanish and French governments to acknowledge this and to engage in a dialogue process with ETA to agree on all issues regarding consequences of the conflict (release of prisoners, decommissioning, justice for victims etc.) and a recommendation to political actors in the Basque Country to “meet and discuss political and other related issues”.

ETA announced the end of their armed campaign on October 20, 2011, three days after the international conference. A year later we can affirm with no doubt that October 2011 was an historic month for the Basque Country. The ground for the resolution of the conflict was created and agreed but don’t makea mistake when reading this article: the conflict remains unsolved to this day.

The disappearance of ETA's violence does not mean that violence is off the map and most importantly, the roots of the conflict have yet not been addressed. While the Spanish and French states continue with their everyday violence against our people and our activists, the Basque Country has not reached a democratic scenario. There are still more than 600 political prisoners, among them Arnaldo Otegi, leader of the Basque Abertzale Left, who is serving his sentence accused of promoting the peace process we are dealing with today. Thirteen of these prisoners are seriously ill, more than 60 have already served their sentence but continue to be held in prison (something which the European Court of Human Rights has recently condemned Spain for), almost every one of the 600 are dispersed to prisons hundreds of kilometres away from the Basque Country. Political activities in the Basque Country, demonstrations and marches are continuously banned, activists are kept constantly under surveillance etc.

There is a need to leave behind security policies and approaches behind and to respect human rights and move the process towards an inclusive political dialogue among the parties. In the last Basque Autonomous Community's elections, held on October 21, 2012, Euskal Herria Bildu (EH Bildu, Basque Country Assembly) a party coalition including us and other smaller left and nationalist parties, scored outstanding results, becoming the second-largest party, behind the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). This has also contributed enormously to the resolution process, as we should not forget that the existing parliament was not the outcome of the will of the Basque people because we were not allowed to participate in the previous election and therefore our constituency was not represented in these institutions.

Scotland is going to have a referendum on independence and we see with envy that all parties in Scotland and in England, no matter their political agenda, no matter if they are pro-independence or pro-union, defend the fact that Scotland should have the right to decide upon its future. We need to build a similar democratic scenario in the Basque Country.

We are facing an opportunity like never before to overcome the conflict in the Basque Country, we should not miss it.

Pernando Barrena: 'Independence must be the result of a democratic exercise'

Original full November 2, 2012, interview with Basque Abertzale Left spokesperson Pernando Barrena in El Diario imparcial newspaper. Excerpts published in the December 4, 2012, Basque Peace Process newsletter.

What evaluation has the Abertzale Left made of the elections in Euskadi?

The result came about with what was expected with 21 parliamentarians, which is the best result ever obtained by the Abertzale Left in their history. We have improved positions in Araba and Bizkaia and in general the parliament in Vitoria-Gasteiz is going to have an ample majority for self-determination, 48 of 75, which means solid ground to be able to advance towards the right to decide.

With these results (not becoming the majority force) is the objective of the possible independence of the Basque Country stalled?

Independence must be the result of a democratic exercise and for that it is necessary that the Basque citizenry decides in the majority for this project. For that it will be necessary to conquer the respect for the right to decide freely for the Basque citizenry, it’s about something pre-political, the democratic right to decide. The Abertzale Left is committed to respect the result of a free election of our fellow citizens and we would like it if Madrid and the rest of the Spanish parties did the same.

One part of society asks that how can EH Bildu present themselves in the elections (and be the second political force) without even having asked for forgiveness and condemning the violence of ETA. When are they going to condemn the armed activity of the ETA organisation?

We understand that a collective self-criticism is necessary in reference to the suffering of everyone that from political action we may have generated. The Abertzale Left has done so and will continue advancing on this path because we understand that the reconciliation among Basques is fundamental for building a normalised society and therefore we hope that the rest of the parties also undertake this path.

As regarding ETA, a year ago now and paying attention to a requirement of the Conference of Aiete they decreed the definitive end of their armed activity so there isn’t any armed activity at all to evaluate and/or condemn, on the contrary, we evaluate very positively the decision adopted by ETA. By the way, it would be very interesting if the Spanish government would also decree the end of the policies of exception, the anti-terrorist legislations or the exceptional interpretation of the penitentiary legislation that allows the dispersion of Basque political prisoners or other punitive discriminatory treatments and of a repressive style.

For the people who aren’t from Euskadi (and don’t understand very well the politics of this place) what relation does the Abertzale Left have (and has had) with ETA?

The Abertzale Left and ETA don’t have any organic connection and they only have similar strategic objectives in common, which are basically the independence of the Basque state and the socialist political model. The Abertzale Left has never been nor is it part of an armed dynamic and it defends the use of only and exclusively peaceful, political and democratic methods.

ETA is currently in an internal debate in which it has decided to continue as a clandestine organisation. What has to happen for it to dissolve itself, or at least hand over their weapons?

Since their decision to end their armed activity, the future of ETA is headed to only one possible end. This isn’t an obstacle to understand that an organisation with more than 50 years of history and whose existence directly concerns thousands of people has to have an orderly end as international experience has advised in this respect. ETA has shown their disposition to begin contact with the Spanish government to agree on the way that this end is brought about and therefore it is recommendable that this dialogue take place as soon as possible to cover an agenda that only has an exclusively technical agenda (disarmament, prisoners, victims) just as it is covered in the document from the International Peace Conference of Aiete.

Are there differences among the members of ETA regarding the definitive cessation of armed activity? And in the Abertzale Left?

I am not aware of any differences in ETA regarding that, in fact the decisions have been taken, and they are public and definitive just as they have been made known.

In the Abertzale Left the answer is, radically no. We are before an irreversible situation, the fruit of a conscious and premeditated decision and therefore this is the best guarantee of the irreversibility of the new strategy by the Abertzale Left.

How would you explain to the relatives of victims of ETA if an amnesty was made for ETA prisoners?

I think that I would tell them that the best homage that can be done for the victims is to set the bases so that nobody else ever becomes a victim of any kind of political violence. On the other hand, and if the final objective is political normalisation, I don’t believe it is sustainable the idea of a normalised Basque Country while there are prisoners of a political motivation. The closing of this cycle of violent confrontation needs measures of transitional justice that allows the turning of the page, without ever forgetting the victims of any type and neither the practice of justice.

What formulas does the Abertzale Left contemplate to achieve the release of ETA prisoners?

The release of Basque political prisoners must occur in the context of an advance in the peace process and normalisation, in an orderly and step by step manner, and there are ways to do so without modifying the current legislation, at least until this process becomes very advanced. Measures can be taken now, such as the release of seriously ill prisoners (currently there are 13 people in this situation), the release of those who have completed ¾ parts of their sentence and prisoners held in preventive custody, as well as the application of the sentence from the European Court of Human Rights which annulled the so-called Parot Doctrine. All of that without forgetting the right of the prisoners to complete their sentences in the prison closest to their place of residence, which would imply their repatriation to Basque prisons.

Besides releasing those who are already in prison, it is important that no more people are imprisoned for their political militancy: at this time there are close to 200 people charged in indictments of a political character that have petitions from the prosecutors for up to 10 years in prison for being accused of having belonged to Batasuna or other political organisations. It is necessary to dismantle the structure of exception of the past to advance towards the consolidation of peace and political normalization.

Has the Abertzale Left shown insensitivity to the pain caused by ETA?

On occasions we have been adverted that in the context of violent confrontation of times now past, that the victims of ETA have been able to perceive our political position or part of our discourse as offensive or maybe that it has meant additional suffering. We express our sorrow if this has been so, and we add that this was never our intention, never, to add one more bit of pain to those who were already suffering a horrible situation.

Otegi in The Time of Lights says that one can speak of torture used against the prisoners, you were in prison; have you felt any trace of torture or mistreatment?

The practice of torture and mistreatment against political detainees has been amply documented and has been denounced on thousands of occasions. Amnesty International as well as the Special Rapporteur of the UN on Torture Theo Van Boven have pointed it out on different occasions, and our perception is that it has been used systematically to obtain information and to do a job of terrorising and generalised coercion as a way of warning others. The investigation of those reports has always been blocked just as the European Court on Human Rights recently said in a condemnatory sentence against the Kingdom of Spain in the case of Martxelo Otamendi.

Regarding the Spanish penitentiary system, it must be said that it is designed around the idea of punishment and revenge against the prisoner, and those of us who have been in prison know that the supposed objectives of social reinsertion and rehabilitation is nothing more than a joke in bad taste, you can ask anyone who has been in prison. This whole situation is extremely worse in the case of political prisoners who have limited intervened communications compared to the rest of the prisoners, they suffer an arbitrary regime of isolation, deficient medical attention and poor nutrition, they are impeded from access to any penitentiary benefits or they simply block to the maximum their right to study.

If you ask me about any physical aggressions against prisoners I have to tell you that I have seen aggressions against social prisoners on the part of the guards but not political prisoners, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen because they are reported, but I have to be sincere about my own personal experience.

What importance does Otegi have in this new “time of peace” in Euskadi?

You can say that Arnaldo Otegi, together with others such as Rafa Diez who is also in prison, and other people from the Abertzale Left have been fundamental for this new political time in the Basque Country. They were imprisoned to try to stop the strategic reflection of the Abertzale Left by order from the government and the home secretary of the PSOE (Spansih Socialist Party) who had as an obsession that the Abertzale Left wouldn’t recover the centrality in Basque politics and, evidently, after seeing the results they were completely wrong.

Going back to the subject of independence, does the Basque Country have the necessary conditions to be a new state in Europe?

Yes, without a doubt. We Basques were an independent state under the flag of the Kingdom of Navarre and we have maintained our national identity throughout the centuries, a culture and a language. Economically we have one of the highest incomes per capita in the EU, a productive local fabric of great relevance with strong investments in research and development and a rather significant balance among the productive sectors and even a good commercial and export balance. Economically speaking the Basque state is more than viable and it only needs the democratic viability that must be awarded to the Basque citizenry, that is, that a qualified majority of the Basque people commit themselves to an independent Basque state as a political and economic model for the future. This is our objective, with the security that when this happens the Basque state will be an unstoppable reality.

Do you think that the majority of the Basque people are in favour of independence?

The pro-independence feeling grows in our country, and a proof of that are the electoral results from October 21, 2012. There has always been a strong pro-independence feeling in the Basque Country, but the situation of the economic crisis is serving to put in evidence that Spain is a burden for the national future of the Basques, that it is the working class and the neediest who have more of an objective interest in an independent Basque state with a strong social and welfare state. I think that we are rapidly closing in on the consolidation of the necessary social and political majorities for the pro-independence project, but previously it will be necessary for us Basques to have the right to freely decide our future recognised. If Spain thinks that the pro-independence feeling is in the minority there should be no problem for the Basques to decide for ourselves; let the citizens speak and that all of us respect the result of this election is fundamental to consolidate the political normalisation of Basque society.

What do you think of the pro-independence wave that is happening in these moments in Catalonia?

From the Basque Country we are watching it with a lot of hope; because the Catalans are at the gates of freedom and also because we don’t have any doubt that what happens in Catalonia will have a positive influence here. It is Madrid that we have in front of us and who denies our national and social freedoms to the Basques and Catalans and therefore any advance in our respective processes of national and social liberation will feed each other’s position positively.

And finally, ETA will kill again even if they don’t fulfil their objectives?

ETA decided unilaterally the end of their armed activity so there is no room to expect any armed action on their part. It would be appreciated if those who are still committed to the policies, legislation and courts of exception would assume that the political and social reality of the Basque Country has changed in a radical way in the past year and therefore in keeping with this new time did the same.