Basque Country: Movement for sovereignty and socialism on the rise

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For more coverage of the Basque struggle, click HERE. For more on Spain, click HERE.

February 18, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Oskar Matute (pictured above) was elected to the Basque parliament in the election of October 21, 2012, as a candidate for Euskal Herria Bildu (EH Bildu, Basque Country Reunification). He was previously a member of parliament from 2002-2009 with Ezker Batua-Berdeak, a united-left grouping. His is spokesperson for Alternativa, one of the founding members of the EH Bildu coalition, which has achieved spectacular electoral results since its legalisation in May 2011. EH Bildu won 25% of the popular vote in the October 2012 Basque election -- capturing 21 out of 75 seats.

Tristan Parish and Rachel Evans spoke to Oskar Matute about EH Bildu and the Basque battle for independence, dignity and socialism.

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How did EH Bildu form and why did it achieve such good results?

Bildu was an accumulation of forces of the left. Some of us, such as myself, came from the United Left [Izquierda Unida (IU) a left political party of various left groups], while others were movement activists; a third grouping included the older radical left, including, for example, the Revolutionary Communists. We were interested in multidimensional socialism, more internationalist, feminist and ecologist.

EH Bildu formed through many meetings of the Basque nationalist left from early 2011, where we carried out a collective diagnosis of the crisis of the Basque left, of the harassment of the left by the government and of the necessity of combining forces to break the cycle of illegalisation and violence.

This wasn't just in relation to the violence of the ETA [Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, Basque Homeland and Freedom] but of the state. [ETA waged an armed struggle in Basque Country for sovereignty until it declared a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire in October 2011.]

The only way to overcome the crisis of the left, which we were also living through in Basque Country, was to create a unity capable of being a tool at the service of the masses, in a direct relationship with their struggles.

At municipal elections in May 2011 we had spectacular results. Bildu became the first political force in Gibuzkoa and took the San Sebastian council. It became the second force in all of the Basque Country and Navarre with 100 local councils. In November 2011 at the general election, Bildu won a majority of the region’s federal deputies, six from Basque Country and one from Navarra. In this region we received a larger portion on the vote than any other party, including the ruling right-wing Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP), which won an absolute majority at a federal level.

The fruit of these results is the larger alliance, EH Bildu.

In the regional elections in October 2012, EH Bildu won 21 seats, becoming the second political force in Basque Country [the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) won 27] and a space of power for the left. EH Bildu is the only representative of the left in the current Basque parliament.

There are two documents which explain the unifying principles of EH Bildu. One comes from January 2011 and the Bildu alliance and one from September 2012 and EH Bildu coalition. They can be found on the Alternativa web page [].

In Alternativa, there is great decisiveness and a certainty that we are not looking to reform capitalism, not looking to improve capitalism, we are looking to develop a social and economic alternative to capitalism.

Tell us more about the fight for independence in Basque Country and ETA?

The existence of the armed activity of ETA was compatible with their political strategy. Talking about other experiences, the armed strategy of the ETA has been, for a long time, an obstacle to develop the relations between different forces of the left in the Basque Country because of the degree of rejection, or uneasiness, with violence. Once we had a better political tool for achieving independence and socialism ETA decided to leave armed activity absolutely and permanently. This, we think, is a source of strength for EH Bildu because it has taken us out of the political context where the left has been divided.

On the other hand the Basque people understand that Bildu has been fundamental in advancing the disappearance of violence. EH Bildu has a lot of support because -- though it might be exaggerated to say it -- EH Bildu has been instrumental in doing away with violence. It’s true that institutional violence still exists by the state. The Spanish state considers us, if not enemies in a military sense, at least a serious political threat.

Did the armed strategy help or hinder the Basque struggle?

It’s a controversial analysis but I come from antiimilitarist experiences and so, a long time ago, I decided that armed struggle was not the most effective strategy against a state, because of the inequality of military capacity. There are those who think that ETA kept alive the combativity of the resistance.

I believe a lot more in the possibilities of the current moment. An ongoing part of our work is the de-legitimisation of the Spanish state for its undemocratic relationship with Basque Country. Working from a non-violent stance permits us to join with ever more people and groups. This is a perspective of my own and that of Alternativa, but not necessarily of all EH Bildu. I think that non-violence is a better tool for delegitimising the state, whereas while violence existed, thanks to the mass media, this message was much harder to get across to the Basque population.

Why does the Basque Country only have its current level of autonomy, where you have a Basque parliament, but tied to the central Spanish government?

The Spanish state made a transition to democracy in the form of a pact with the military. After dictator Franco died [in November 1975] the democratic transition, so acclaimed in other places, was not so democratic for the Basque people. The transition was carried out in a way that would not make the military officers who had run the dictatorship uncomfortable. Other political parties, including some of the United Left, have changed their position and accept the partition of the Basque County into different territories and with the limited autonomy that has been imposed on us. We maintain the position of the real, revolutionary left, which it that the seven territories that make up the Basque Country, four in the Spanish state and two in France, constitute one independent nation.

The Basque Country is rich and the south of Spain is very poor. If Basque wins independence, will it provide support to poorer parts of Spain?

We’ve never thought about Basque sovereignty in terms of economic strength or weakness. I don’t have the data to talk about other regions, to know if they are poor or if their resources are being misused. EH Bildu has a very clear internationalist position. We want sovereignty for the Basque Country because all people and nations have the right to decide how to relate to other people of the world. We have the will to be a nation. Our citizens believe in a sovereign Basque Country. We’re not stuck in history or romantic or racial determinations. We insist on being able to decide what happens to us in our own lands. From this we develop internationalism.

Compared with the rest of Europe, internationalism in Basque Country is not weak. In terms of solidarity with the Zapatistas in Mexico, and the peoples of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador – wherever there is an emancipatory project -- we have been present. We never talk about our national project as a way of separating us from those who are poorer. We do want the right to decide with whom to be in solidarity with, and how..

Workers’ cooperatives in the Basque Country are very strong, particularly the Mondragon cooperative. How are they related to the left?

The cooperative has a lot of strength because it began in a difficult context, that of the Franco dictatorship. If we are thinking of a perfect model, a socialist model of production “to each according to their needs, from each according to their abilities”, as the phrase goes, the cooperative model has produced higher levels of social cohesion than capitalism has managed. Workers are involved in planning. Unemployment in Basque Country is half that compared to the rest of the Spanish state, due to the cooperative model. There is a very direct relationship -- where cooperatives are strong what you will find a majority of Bildu-controlled councils.

Do the cooperatives have representatives in parliament?

Many political militants of the left, including representatives of Bildu, are workers from the cooperatives, but there is not a formal representation of the cooperatives. There are lot of workers and unemployed supporting our party, but very few businesspeople.

I don’t think that the cooperative is a perfect model. It is better in terms of labour relations than capitalism. But I think we need to go far beyond it in socialism. It does establish mechanisms for the participation of workers in production. In the crisis the cooperatives have lowered dividends, so they haven’t had to fire anybody.

Why is more repression in Basque Country than Catalonia, the other major autonomous region that is calling for independence?

From the outside I think that it might be the that the Spanish state all looks the same: sun, tourism and Latin people disposed to partying and ill-disposed to work. But the reality is Spain contains different nations.

We Basque are obstinate in our determination in rejecting the attempted incorporation by Spain. This probably makes us more dangerous than other peoples and justifies higher levels of repression. We tend to say that in the Basque Country it’s not just the problem of sovereignty, but a component is the construction of sovereignty of the left, a socialist sovereignty. This is what really marks a break and represents a model antagonistic to theirs. Against a unified Spain we want a different Basque Country. This probably draws more repression down on us.

The struggles in Catalonia and País Vasco have both been maintained for a long time. Here we talk about the King of Navararre as the administrative figure closest to being the head of a Basque state. The Kingdom of Navararre, which may have been the first European democracy, was occupied by force by the Kingdom of Castille in 1512.

What is the extent of the economic crisis in the Basque Country? How is the trade union movement responding to it?

The crisis in Basque Country isn’t of our making. We’re being hit by a crisis of the system, of capitalism, a crisis of civilisation that is also ecological. It has a local expression in the Basque Country but as with everywhere else it is related to the taking of power by markets from governments. Apart from the crises, we have always said that we want a different social and economic model, not to hide ourselves from what happens under capitalism but to establish a model that might serve other people as an example for building resistance.

In terms of the trade unions the first thing I’d like to emphasis is that the rate of unionisation is more than twice that which exists in the rest of the Spanish state. It is true that the movement is divided between those who defend sovereignty and those who think Basques must remain within the Spanish state. This means that there is disunity, but not that there is no strength. Three or four decades ago the movement was much stronger, but it still has influence today.

How strong are the social movements?

The social movements in the Basque Country have always been important. As with elsewhere, perhaps they aren’t as strong as they were in late 1970s and early 1980s but we are still able to mobilise people.

EH Bildu’s relationship with them is one of respect and collaboration. We don’t want them to be our agents, as happened with Communist Party of Spain. We don’t want to be the voice or representatives of the movements inside the institutions, to replace them, but to be part of the movements.

The movement for sovereignty and socialism has many expressions. There is what is done by the social movements, what’s done by the trade unions and what needs to be done in the institutions. We are part of, not the voice of, the social movements. This is very important in our understanding of the politics of the left in Bildu and Alternativa. We have to develop a collaboration that will permit the realisation of, as Antonio Gramsci said, social hegemony. This comes from collaboration, from the union of wills in a common struggle, not the imposition of a hierarchy of some instruments over others.

What about the 15th of May (15M) movement that rose across Spain and other autonomous regions in 2011?

It didn’t have the same intensity here as it did within the Spanish state. There could be many factors. One thing is evident. The explosion of 15M in Madrid coincided with the battle for the legalisation of Bildu, for us to be able to run in elections. We were considered [by the Spanish state] to be linked with ETA, and so illegal. In this moment a lot of people were more in immersed in this struggle than in something that came from Madrid.

The feeling of living in false democracy, one that does not permit you to construct a just society, is a feeling that has been here in the Basque Country for a long time. Here we have suffered illegalisation, prison and repression for a long time. A section of organised Basque youth are still in jail for belonging to banned organisations. So this feeling in 15M that there needs to be more real or democracy in the Spanish State has, due to the repression, been felt here for a long time.

How does EH Bildu ensure its MPs remain distinct to the corrupt political class?

We don’t believe in the “political class”. It’s an expression invented by those wanting to delegitimise political action and back a technocratic government. The first step for those in power is to disparage political participation. It’s true their rhetoric goes over well with those who feel abandoned in coping with their everyday problems.

We are those who believe in always engaging in politics, whether it’s in the institutions and outside of the institutions, in the streets and in the social movements, in the trade unionsand the community assemblies or in the schools, we also engage in politics. We believe that politics accompanies everything and that the personal is also political.

How are we going to save ourselves from corruption? With very clear ethical codes that have been presented with to the public. And with things that are very evident. The salaries of the Bildu MPs don’t go to their own bank accounts, but to the party which then decides on a salary for its representatives. Speaking about Alternativa, which I know best, the two parliamentarians elected through EH Bildu give all their salaries to Alternativa. Alternativa then pays them a salary that is worth 35% of the official salary. A MP’s salary in the Basque parliament is 3590 euros a month plus 800 euros in expenses. But Alternativa MPs get paid 1800 euros.

We contribute to the social movements as much as we can and as much as the law allows. The law of the Spanish state which, unfortunately, we are subject to does not permit all types of economic connections and movement of money between political parties and social movements. But Alternativa does dedicate part of its budget to internationalist projects, and other Bildu members do the same.

Do mayors get a big salary too?

It depends of the municipality. In the Spanish state, during the years of the economic boom there were mayors of councils with 4000 inhabitants whot gave themselves salaries of 60,000 euros, for example. This doesn’t happen in Bildu-run municipalities. All the salaries of all the public officials go into a common fund.

There is a referendum planned in Scotland in 2014 on independence. Will the Basque Country follow suit with a referendum?

I don’t think it’s a question of when we want to do it, but when we will be able to. Our determination is that the Basque Country will be a free and sovereign nation. This has existed for a long time, and if it was up to us the referendum would be tomorrow! What we are doing is working in the meantime until that’s possible. Until we are able to convoke a referendum our aim is to include more people in the defence of national sovereignty. Then, whenever this referendum might happen, we’ll be the majority and we’ll win it.

What percentage of the population would vote for independence in a referendum?

Well I think every single person who voted for Bildu backs the right of self-determination. Since the October 2012 Basque election there are 21 MPs from Bildu and 27 from the Basque Nationalist Party, which says that it is in favour of independence. That means 48 out of 75 MPs are pro-independence, an overwhelming majority, but we doubt the will of the Basque nationalist right to construct a sovereign Basque Country.

There are many Basque political prisoners. Arnaldo Otegi and Rafael Diaz are two of the most famous. What is the importance of international solidarity with them?

International solidarity is very important to pressure the Spanish state, which has locked up so many people, including Rafa Diez, Amaia Esnal, Txelui Moreno and José Manuel Serra. The Spanish state is attempting to silence dissent and hide its lack of democracy. In Spain there are political prisoners and politicians who are also imprisoned.

Political prisoners come from the armed activity of ETA and many other groups as well. There are political prisoners of the GRAPO (Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre, 1st October Antifascist Resistance Group) and political prisoners from anarchist other tendencies. There are also politicians imprisoned, including Arnaldo Otegi, Sonia Jacinto, Arkaitz Rodriguez and Miren Zabaleta, people who were constructing a political alternative and who were imprisoned for this without any connection with ETA or any form of political violence.

Is there a difference between political prisoners and politicians who are imprisoned?

There are people in prison because they were ETA militants and carried our armed activity and there are people in prison because the Spanish state decided that everybody that supported an objective of ETA -- socialism, independence -- was part of ETA. But many of the people in prison were never members of ETA or had anything to do with any armed group.

Is there a difference in the political campaigns for their freedom?

No, because what we want is for the Spanish state to comply with its own law. Basque prisoners should be in the Basque Country and they should serve only the sentences given to them (though we would support the release of all prisoners), and the terminally ill should be released as within Spanish law. At the moment the Spanish state is carrying out a punitive policy against Basque prisoners. There is a strong link with many people throughout the world supporting this campaign, but we haven’t managed to bend the rigidity of the Spanish state. Whatever assistance, however small, we receive to win the release of all Basque prisoners is appreciated.

Has there been any change in the Spanish state’s attitude since the rise of Bildu and the ETA ceasefire?

No. The Spanish state maintains the same politics as when ETA existed. It justifies its harshness and punitive policy on the cruelty and danger of ETA actions. Since the ceasefire, it has maintained the same punitive policy.

Are there campaigns to promote support for an independent Basque Country in the rest of the Spanish state?

Yes, but it’s difficult. You have to understand that any collective in the Spanish state that puts itself alongside EH Bildu is subject to the state’s campaign of criminalisation because they are considered “friends of the terrorists” and “un-Spanish”. For example, the United Left, although we agree with them on many social and economic issues, look the other way because they understand that if they were to stand by us they would suffer a political and media campaign against them that would weaken them.

How might a sovereign, socialist Basque state come into being?

By taking power, as Lenin said. We have always said that we are in enemy territory, as it’s the enemy who has written the rules of bourgeoisie democracy and who has written the laws we work under. We know that we can’t achieve national sovereignty and socialism without the active majority support of our people, and our work is to generate an ever greater majority and to rescue spaces, including in government, for different practices, to achieve this.

We don’t think that the Spanish government can maintain its posture indefinitely if it is faced with a Basque people demanding its liberty. Our objective is for the people to stands up and demands its freedom.