Basque independentist left: pain caused by ETA ‘should never have happened’

By Dick Nichols

November 15, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The casual observer of the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi) might have thought that the October 18 declaration of left-independentist alliance EH Bildu and its largest affiliate Sortu would have been welcomed by all sides of politics (see English version here).

The statement, which was read in Spanish by EH Bildu coordinator general Arnaldo Otegi and in Basque (euskara) by Sortu general secretary Arkaitz Rodríguez, delivered what many have long sought from the abertzale (patriotic) left: acknowledgment of the suffering caused by the 43-year-long military-terrorist actions of its armed wing, Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA). 

The declaration said:

Today we want to make a specific mention of the victims caused by ETA’s violence. We want to convey our sorrow and pain for the suffering they endured. We feel their pain, and that sincere feeling leads us to affirm that it should never have happened, as nobody could be satisfied with all that occurred, nor with it going on for so long.

The declaration went beyond the abertzale left’s previous position, which was to regret the losses on both sides but stay silent on the responsibility of ETA’s choice of “armed struggle”. ETA itself, in its 2018 declaration of dissolution, asked for forgiveness only for victims who had no responsibility in the conflict.

The October 18 statement came on the tenth anniversary of the International Peace Conference in the Aiete Palace in Donostia (San Sebastian). The conference’s final declaration called on ETA to disarm and ask the French and Spanish governments for negotiations, and on these governments to respond positively. Three days later, ETA announced the end of its armed actions. In April 2017, it began to decommission its arms caches, and in May 2018 it announced its complete dissolution as an organisation.

The incumbent Spanish government of Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) prime minister José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, which went on to lose the November 10, 2011 Spanish general election to the conservative People’s Party (PP) government of Mariano Rajoy, did not feel committed to any of the recommendations of the conference, but passed on to Rajoy the details of how to contact the ETA political leadership in Norway. But the Rajoy government refused any negotiations with ETA, even to organise the handover of its arms caches.

The French government of former president Nicolas Sarkozy followed in the Spanish government’s footsteps, continuing its policy of arresting ETA members sought by Spain and refusing any contact with the Collective of Basque Political Exiles, which had developed a road map for ending exile that it wanted to negotiate with French authorities.

Ten years on, any thought that the latest declaration would show that the defunct ETA has by now no role in Spanish and Basque politics has once again been proved completely mistaken. ETA’s choice of maintaining a military-terrorist orientation after the end of the Franco dictatorship produced an unmitigated strategic and human disaster: 854 deaths, over 6000 wounded and 74 kidnappings for zero political gain. It tensioned the divisions in Basque society to breaking point, fragmented its pro-sovereignty forces, suffocated democratic political struggle for self-determination, and made collaboration with other sovereigntist forces in the Spanish state practically impossible.

Over 40 years, ETA’s military-terrorist tactics transformed it from being perceived — in Euskadi, Spain and internationally — as a resistance movement conducting a popular anti-dictatorship struggle into an armed extortionist gang with a shrinking social base, even while it maintained its self-description as “Basque revolutionary socialist organisation of national liberation”.

ETA’s blind persistence in armed actions set off successive waves of dissidence within its own ranks and the broader abertzale left community, culminating in the split with the abertzale left’s political wing after ETA’s 2006 bombing of Madrid’s Barajas airport, which killed two Ecuadorian migrant workers. 

Most of all, it handed enemies of the rights of the Spanish state’s component nations a huge prize: Spanish unionists left and right, fighting among themselves to be seen as the best champion of the growing movement of victims of terrorism, could parade as peaceful democrats even as they denied that the democratic principle of self-determination applied to the Basques, Catalans and Galicians.

Popular revulsion from ETA has created a rich political deposit from which Spanish unionism still seeks to mine advantage, notwithstanding a decade of relief from violence in Euskadi and successive acknowledgments by the abertzale left of ETA’s negative impact. Indeed, it is now undeniable that after 50 years, the main strategic impact of ETA’s “armed struggle” was to set back the real political fight for Basque sovereignty and independence, and for the very principle of self-determination — for the bulk of popular opinion in the Spanish State the words “Basque self-determination” still evoke ETA’s bombings, assassinations, street violence, and extortions.

Even though the principle is enshrined in Spanish law by virtue of Spain’s status as signatory to the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Spanish-patriotic negationists can pretend that it does not exist or that it does not apply to the Kingdom of Spain and do so without apparently paying any political price. For example, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez showed no concern about telling the Sexta TV channel on July 1 that an independence referendum for Catalonia was “an absurdity” because the right to self-determination “does not exist” and would never be recognised by the two-third Congress majority necessary for a regional referendum to be allowed in the Spanish state. 

Across Spain, majority hostility or indifference towards the principle of self-determination remains the rule, despite polls showing gradually rising acceptance of a referendum as a solution in the Catalan case (up to 36% in favour and 51% against according to a November 2019 survey by the Catalan Opinion Studies Centre on attitudes to the “territorial debate” in the rest of Spain).

Reactions of ETA victims

Reactions to the October 18 statement reconfirmed this state of affairs, but now with dwindling gain for Spanish unionism’s exploitation of the abertzale left’s armed past. Indeed, after October 18 one important question now looms larger: when are the PP and PSOE, whose governments conducted state terrorism against ETA, going to follow suit? 

Nonetheless, despite this potentially damaging unfinished business, deniers of Basque rights still possess a usable set of demands with which to stigmatise the fight for self-determination. 

The complications of the situation became clear in the varied reactions to the October 18 declaration, both from the families of ETA victims, the various victims’ associations, and political and social organisations. For example, Maixabel Lasa’s husband Juan María Jáuregui, former civil governor of Gipuzkoa for the Socialist Party of Euskadi (PSE, the PSOE’s Basque affiliate), was murdered by ETA in 2000. Lasa welcomed the abertzale left statement, adding:

What is the PSOE going to do to fix up things in its own house? I believe they have to say something about the GAL [the government-run terrorist units, the Armed Liberation Groups] and other issues.

Rosa Lluch, daughter of former PSOE health minister Ernest Lluch, gunned down in 2000, tweeted: 

“It should never have happened”: these words mean a lot. A big step forward by the abertzale left in recognising that ETA’s violence caused pain and suffering. The pain and suffering of all victims—all—must be recognised.

Consuelo Ordoñez, sister of a PP councillor killed by ETA and spokesperson for the Terrorism Victims’ Collective (COVITE), stated that “the abertzale left has recognised that ETA caused suffering to its victims, something that it has not done up until now.” However, COVITE’s response to the October 18 statement added that Otegi had made “no correction to the fanaticism and the political project that sustained and legitimised ETA for decades, and which is precisely the origin of the damage and suffering done to the victims”:

You cannot recognise the suffering caused without recognising and condemning its rationale and what caused it. Otegi and his people still do not reject the exclusionary nationalist identity for which ETA and its political and social accomplices persecuted, wounded, and killed. Otegi's declarations do not remedy the substance of the matter. 

COVITE, for whom Basque nationalism and terrorism are thus synonymous, concluded that “it is useless for the nationalist left to express feelings of regret regarding the victims of ETA without a repudiation and a categorical challenging of ETA, since the identity of ETA is the history of its criminal legacy.”

Maixabel Lasa, who after her husband’s murder became head of the Basque government’s Office of Assistance for Terrorism Victims (from 2002 and 2012), had a more personal message for Otegi in an interview in the November 6 edition of the Catalan daily Ara:

I remember what he said when they killed Juan Mari. He said that stuff about Juan Mari having chosen what side he was on. While ETA was killing, Otegi was applauding. I believe he had a lot of responsibility for everything that has happened. It would not be bad if he made a self-criticism. For five years now, people from the abertzale left have started to come to the homage that we dedicate to Juan Mari every year, and I think that is terrific, they are welcome.

Two days after the declaration, the Basque-language web-based daily Berria published an article by seven former ETA prisoners who had previously broken with the organisation, taking advantage of the so-called Nanclares Path (Via Nanclares), named after the Nanclares de Oca jail in Euskadi’s Araba province. This was a program of social reinsertion based in the prison and offered to ETA prisoners prepared to renounce the use of violence and break with the discipline of the Collective of Basque Political Prisoners (EPPK), ETA’s organisation within Spanish and French jails. The seven had all been expelled from the EPPK, and in their eyes the October statement was proof that their only mistake had been to come to terms with ETA’s violence too soon. They wrote:

We believed that ETA couldn’t carry on blindly, and this conviction became more obvious after the failure of Loyola. However, with great light-mindedness the decision was taken to carry on with arms. [Loyola refers to the site of negotiations in 2005 to end ETA operations, held between the abertzale left party Batasuna, the PSE and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV, ruling in Euskadi)].

In this context, the seven decided to act on their convictions:

We took the armed struggle as finished, admitted the damage done and began to request prison benefits (transfer to jails in Euskadi, leave permission, changes to status, etc). We began to access rights that we had denied ourselves up until then or which they made us deny ourselves…

We knew more than one prisoner who did not take the steps we dared to take for fear that they and their families would experience persecution in their home town, and now the prisoners are being asked to take those same steps, and no-one will denigrate them in their home town.

As for the October 18 declaration, it had been too long in coming, and still avoided the responsibility of ETA’s political leaders.

Too much time has been lost, time spent in theatre about the disarming and disappearance of ETA, even though it was known that what was urgently needed was reflection on the pain caused.…

According to the seven, the abertzale leadership should also apply to itself the criterion it demands be applied in relation to the GAL and police and Civil Guard torturers of ETA suspects — revelation and acceptance of ultimate responsibility:

It is inadmissible that, in terms of political responsibility, no responsibility for what has happened is assumed.… It is not fair to hide under ground like moles and let all the burden fall on the immediate authors of the attacks [translated from Spanish translation from euskara in the October 20 eldiario].

Reactions of political forces

Pro-independence and sovereigntist forces across the Spanish state were very positive about the abertzale left statement.

Exiled Catalan ex-president Carles Puigdemont said that its most “powerful” part was “when they say, without any sort of ambiguity, that all the grief created by ETA should never have happened. Here, finally, is the crystallisation of slow, silent, and hard work,” he added, referring to the resistance within the abertzale universe to making the statement, reluctance acknowledged by Otegi in interviews afterwards. Catalan premier Pere Aragonès, of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), stressed its “enormous significance” and committed to “accompany the peace process in the steps that are to come”.

The reaction from Unidas Podemos (UP), junior partner in the Spanish government, was similar. Pablo Iglesias, former Spanish deputy prime minister, said that recognition of the declaration’s importance “is a matter of justice”.

Within the PSOE universe, the most appreciative responses came from former Basque premier Patxi López (PSE) and former Spanish prime minister José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, whose government oversaw the end of ETA violence in 2011. Zapatero told the October 19 el diario the declaration contained “two important things”:

The first, a phrase that I believe is the headline of the decade: “It should never have happened.” Whoever reads that, does not need to read anything else. And the second, he [Otegi] talks about ethics for the first time.… I am not going to be a commentator on the declaration he read. I only ask people to read it, calmly, serenely, remembering what ETA meant for this country for 50 years.

Zapatero also acknowledged that the end of ETA’s violence was due to several years of secret meetings between Otegi and Jesús Eguiguren, former PSE president, that began in 2002:

As a result of that dialogue the situation was produced — with the support of the action of the government — that in the end, after an assembly of 3000 ETA members or sympathisers, they decided by overwhelming majority to abandon violence. And for sure without Jesús Eguiguren and Arnaldo Otegi, whose role we have to recognise — and if I did not say this, I would feel very bad with myself and with regard to the truth that this country deserves to hear — we would not have heard what we have heard ten years later.

Patxi López commented:

When you know how much it costs to take a step forward in this [abertzale] world, you value it. We have spent years asking for it. We know what it costs to advance; it is a complicated, slow, world. Only three years ago there was an ETA communiqué talking about the victims as collateral, that is, spurning the victims. How we have a kind of amendment of its [the abertzale left’s] role in the past as supporter [of ETA].

The opposite extreme of PSOE reaction came from Castilla-La Mancha premier Emiliano García-Page, after Otegi had told an internal EH Bildu meeting that, if the price of freedom for ETA’s 200 prisoners remaining in Spanish jails was support for the 2022 Spanish budget, it should be paid. This comment was wilfully misinterpreted by Spanish unionism as an offer to the government of prime minister Pedro Sánchez of a prisoners-for-vote swap (an interpretation both parties vigorously denied). García-Page ranted to Madrid public meeting:

For me it is an insult to the dignity of the victims and the morality of a country that the heirs of the terrorist gang are proposing an exchange of prisoners for money. It is so immoral that this revelation in itself shows how they could cohabit with violence.

Effectively, García-Page was channelling the Spanish right’s reaction into the PSOE.

Rabid PP and Vox

There was nothing new about that, with PP leader Pablo Casado declaring that “Otegi is not a man of peace but a terrorist” while PP MP Teresa Jiménez-Becerril, sister of an ETA victim, raised three demands: “Start confessing who were the culprits of ETA’s 379 unsolved crimes, stop doing homecoming homages [for released ETA prisoners], and condemn ETA’s terrorism once and for all.”

The difference between the PP and PSOE in the face of ETA widened in the 1990s, when the PP discovered that ETA’s terrorist tactics — especially when they increasingly took the form of indiscriminate bombing of “non-combatants” and murders of  PP and PSOE politicians — gave it a weapon against the PSOE government of Felipe González as “soft on terrorism”. The new PP leader, José María Aznar, later to win the 1996 general election, made refusal to negotiate with ETA and insistence on ETA prisoners completing their full sentences key planks in his party’s platform.

With this stance, the PP broke from the anti-ETA consensus of the 1988 Covenant of Ajuria Enea, which brought together all Basque parliamentary parties except the abertzale left Herri Batasuna, but which envisaged conditions for negotiations with ETA and the reinsertion of ETA prisoners into normal life. The fact that Aznar jumped at the chance to negotiate with ETA in 1998 when there seemed a possibility of achieving its dissolution, did not change the PP’s basic stance, which hardened afterwards into one of trying to sabotage any negotiations it was not running.

As Jonathan Powell, the UK Blair Labour government’s chief negotiator of the Irish Good Friday peace agreement and participant in the Aiete conference, observed in an October 18 interview in el diario:

The PP government [of prime minister Mariano Rajoy] really managed the situation very badly. ETA was offering to hand over arms and the PP government would not accept them, it was madness. It was very dangerous because the arms could have ended up in the hands of criminal gangs or Islamists. I had a hard time understanding such an illogical position, which only occurs when you approach a peace process as a political struggle.…

We were lucky in Northern Ireland because the peace process was not the subject of party-political struggle, it was not part of the political game. Here in Spain the opposite occurred, the PP pushed a policy of irresponsible intensification of tension throughout the process [retranslated from the Spanish].

Today, with the PP in a make-or-break contest with the racist Vox contest to destroy the PSOE-UP government (which depends on EH Bildu supporting its budgets) and the neoliberal Citizens fighting to avoid extinction, abertzale left-bashing is more indispensable than ever for all three components of Spain’s trifachito (the triple-headed right). The October 18 declaration generated the following rabid nonsense:

Vox leader Santiago Abascal: “ETA is in the leadership of the state, and we are going to have to vote in Congress for ETA’s budget.”

Former PP attorney-general and PP Euskadi leader Jaime Mayor Oreja: “ETA has not been defeated: it is more present than ever.”

Citizens’ leader Inés Arrimadas: “This declaration not only aims to whitewash ETA, it aims to whitewash Bildu’s deal with Sánchez.” 

A PP resolution to the Spanish senate after October 18  demanded that the PSOE exclude from any of its agreements parties that do not “explicitly condemn the crimes of ETA”; proposed the creation of a “democratic  memorial built on recognition of the absolute guilt of ETA and of the social movements that supported or justified its crimes which must be considered crimes against humanity”; and demanded prohibition of “symbols in memory of ETA” and “and homages to ETA members”.

In Navarra, where the PP and Citizens operates in alliance with the right regionalist Union of the People of Navarra under the umbrella Navarra Adds Up (Navarra Suma), the right’s obsession with “exposing” the dependence of the ruling Socialist Party of Navarra (PSN) on EH Bildu’s external support took farce to a new level after October 18. 

UPN leader Javier Esparza, who had previously staged a walk-out from budget negotiations with PSN premier María Chivite when she rejected some of Navarra Suma’s 13 “non-renounceable” budget demands, now offered to negotiate the budget … provided the PSN renounced all support from EH Bildu. When Chivite declined this offer, Esparza again ruled out any possibility of negotiation, and Navarra Suma’s 13 demands resumed being “non-renounceable”.

In the Basque parliament, the coalition of PP and Citizens (PP+Cs) criticised the “song and dance” of the PSE, which is the PNV’s junior partner in the government of Euskadi (Basque Autonomous Community in the Spanish State’s administrative terminology). For Vox’s sole MP, gun-shop owner Amaia Martinez, “PSE talk of a ‘turning point’ was a facelift to help advance the whitewashing of a potential ally”. PP+Cs drafted a proposal for a parliamentary declaration that would have proclaimed the “superiority of the Rule of Law over barbarism”.

A threatening thaw for the PNV?

Yet there is a sense in which Major Oreja was right when he said “ETA is more present than ever”: for Spanish unionism “ETA” increasingly evokes not so much the extinct armed band as the ever-present demand and movements — Basque, Catalan and Galician — for self-determination.

ETA’s 40 years of violence helped to congeal politics across Spain, normalising the PP-PSOE revolving door as hegemonic at the state level and the conservative PNV and Convergence and Union (CiU) as born-to-rule administrators of Euskadi and Catalonia. The thaw initiated by ETA’s 2011 farewell to arms and advanced by the recent declaration has further melted that status quo, already substantially dissolved by the indignado movement, the rise of Podemos and the undefeated Catalan independence movement. This showed in PNV Euskadi premier Iñigo Urkullu’s irritated reaction to the statement (“it is nothing extraordinary”). On October 20, he told a gathering of 21 European Union member state ambassadors:

Ten years after Aiete, which was a “landing strip” [for ETA disarmament] that had its bright and dark sides, just as happened then we again have a new “landing strip” that is not necessary. It is not necessary and, even less necessary to make a five-point declaration that ends as it does, saying that we continue to have unfinished business regarding the resolution of the “causes of the conflict”. That was not necessary.

The PNV stated:

We trust that another ten years will not have to pass before the abertzale left makes the critical reading of its own existence as an armed organisation that the overwhelming majority of Basque society has been demanding of it.

The PNV then initiated, along with the PSE, a resolution on ETA violence in the Parliament of Euskadi to replace that proposed by PP+Cs. All parties supported it except EH Bildu, which abstained and thus prevented its adoption as an official statement (which requires unanimity). Yet the statement was written to preclude abertzale left support, allowing the PNV to get out a media release headed “All Groups in the Basque Parliament Except EH Bildu Agree on a Declaration of ‘Firm Condemnation’ of ETA”.  Its key paragraph read:

This new period requires the assumption of responsibilities and recognition of the damage caused. We must build our future by making a true reading of all pages of our past. We remain committed to building social harmony on a foundation of truth, historical memory, and justice. We shall work to develop a plural process of reflection that expresses with absolute clarity that no argument — neither about political context nor theory of conflict, nor theses about counterposed blocs, nor denunciations of the violations committed by the other side, nor reasons of state, nor the importance of future goals — can be invoked to minimise, justify, or legitimise ETA’s violence, nor any other violation of human rights.

By this criterion, ETA’s struggle was always illegitimate, even when it began life as a youth split from the PNV and its violence was targeted against the institutionalised violence of the Franco dictatorship. Its 1973 blowing up of the car carrying dictator Franco’s anointed successor Carrero Blanco — cheered by all democratic Spain — would have to be condemned, as would its first planned killing, that in 1968 of Gipuzkoa police boss Melitón Manzanas, a notorious torturer and Nazi collaborator.

However, the resolution was not about what it pretended to be about — developing an objective account of Euskadi’s and ETA’s past in an all-party truth and reconciliation process — but exploiting the abertzale left’s connection with ETA to permanently prejudice it as a player in Basque and all-Spanish politics, most importantly to counter it as a threat to the PNV’s role as natural rulers of Euskadi and preferred Basque nationalist partner of the PSOE (and the PP) in Madrid.

PNV nervousness about the positive reaction of Zapatero and López to the October 18 declaration, accompanied by suspicion that there might have been some backroom coordination involved, led PNV president Antoni Ortuzar, in an October 24 interview in El Correo, to warn the PSE that it could be “comfortable” with the PNV or “risk adventures” with EH Bildu. Orduzar, observing that the PSOE had been naïve in its dealing with the left independentists, explained: “The abertzale left is a kind of praying mantis, that embraces you, sweet-talks you and … well, let the PSOE know what it’s dealing with.” Hardening the tone, he added:

That declaration marked a step forward, but a step more in décor, in political marketing than in anything done sincerely, done from the minimum of ethical principle required in a democracy.… We will believe them when they acknowledge the unjust damage done and say that ETA should never have existed. Saying that the pain should never have happened makes it sound like a phenomenon of nature, as if it were a pandemic or the volcano on La Palma. Yet the pain existed because someone inflicted it. And they must admit that it was ETA.

PNV nervousness about being dumped as the PSOE’s preferred Basque partner was calmed by prime minister Sánchez, who confirmed its line as his own — the October 18 declaration was welcome, but still inadequate.

Arnaldo Otegi commented on the PNV’s frigid reception of the statement in an October 20 interview with Pablo Iglesias in the web-based journal Context:

We are really disappointed with an attitude that no-one in our country understands. I truly believe that the abertzale rank-and-file of the party [PNV] do not understand this irresponsible, ill-tempered position of the lehendakari (Basque premier) and the party. Besides showing a lack of respect, questioning our sincerity is to put oneself in the same trench as the Spanish far right, to whom they have given political arguments and a line of reasoning with which to harass the [Spanish] Government.

In an earlier (October 17) interview with the left-independentist daily Naiz, Otegi gave his view of the roots of the PNV’s attitude:

I think that there are people [i.e, the PNV] with a certain interest in making the political debate as mediocre as possible and in keeping the country in a very low-grade discussion. Why? To make everyone believe that things haven’t changed, that nothing has happened, and that the pro-independence left is stuck in the same settings as ten years ago. Because they need to stop it from growing. And because there’s another thing they need: everyone is aware that there are political sectors that depend on the lesser evil vote. They strive to hold onto the law-and-order and reactionary vote — which is not abertzale — and they need it to continue as lead force in the three territories [i.e, the three Euskadi provinces of Bilbo (Bilbao), Araba (Álava) and Gipuskoa (Guipúskoa)].

Otegi’s reference was to those sectors of Basque society who are anti-independentist yet see a vote for the nationalist PNV as a more useful way of holding out the abertzale left than a vote for the parties they would support in any part of Spain where there is no independence “threat”— the PP, Citizens or Vox, all marginal in Euskadi. A similar dynamic operates in Catalonia, with many conservatives supporting the PSE as their most useful defence against independentism.

ETA prisoners gain… 

For all the media furore generated by the October 18 declaration, there were two parts of the statement that stirred practically no comment: its fourth point calling for normalising the treatment of ETA’s prisoners and recognising that without their contribution ETA’s armed actions would not have ended, and its last point asserting that “we are a nation, a people” and that “respect for our national identity is the first and necessary step towards building a different future in which decisions are made by our people as citizens.”

In 1988, the PSOE government of prime minister Felipe González introduced a policy of “dispersion” of convicted members of ETA and other abertzale organisations in jails across the Spanish state. The goal was to undermine the influence of the prisoners’ collective (the EPPK) and suspend the operation of normal prison regulations (such as leave and time off for good behaviour) in their case. As a result, some ETA prisoners have until recently been subject to a regime of de facto solitary confinement for 20, 25 or even 30 years.

In a November 5 media appearance announcing a January 8 demonstration in Bilbao to demand the return of all Basque prisoners to Basque prisons, Joseba Azkarraga, former Euskadi attorney-general and today spokesperson for the human rights’ network Sare, described “dispersion” as a special prison regime allowing “disguised lifetime sentences”, one that has “already lasted for decades and caused so much suffering to so many people”.

Since it came into office in mid-2018, the PSOE-led Spanish government has taken steps towards ending the regime that have been welcomed by prisoners’ support associations like Etxerat (of family members), but the normalising conditions for abertzale prisoners is still incomplete. While none are now held in the jails most distant from the Euskadi, around 100 are still in Spanish jails outside the region, while 20 are held in French jails (see this graphic for detail). 

The Sare statement announcing the January 8 demonstration stated:

It is true that the last year has seen progress towards another type of prison regime. Due to the effort of the men and women of this country, along with the political and trade union majority of our people, we have advanced. We have left behind the jails of the Levant, Andalucia and Galicia.… Our job now is to empty the jails of Castille, Aragón, Cantabria, Asturias, Logroño and Madrid, and it is up to our comrades in Iparralde [the French Basque Country] to do the same with the French prisons.

With the application of a normal prison policy, more than a third of these prisoners would already be home.

For Sare, the October 1 transfer of prison administration in Euskadi from the Spanish to the Basque government creates the opportunity “to develop a penal policy of a humanist, non-repressive character, one that brings us closer to reconstructing coexistence after so many years of confrontation and suffering.”

…as Spanish lawfare rolls on

By contrast, in a country with no agreed peace process, the PP-dominated Spanish judiciary’s war on the abertzale left just rolls on, as the following three examples show. 

First, in November 2018 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that Arnaldo Otegi and four other abertzales had not had a fair trial in the case for which they had already served sentences for reconstructing an illegal organisation (six years in Otegi’s case). In response, having had to annul the sentences, the Spanish Supreme Court decided in December 2020 that the National High Court, which had brought them down, should simply retry the five. On November 4, the Constitutional Court ruled that the new trial should be suspended while the defendants' appeals against it were heard.

On October 19, Javier Pérez Royo, professor of constitutional law at the University of Seville, commented on the case, in which minorities on both the Supreme and Constitutional courts had supported the defendants’ original appeals against their sentences.

A minimum of decency would have led the Supreme Court to apologise to Otegi, to the others convicted, and to the whole Spanish people, because we have all been condemned by the ECHR as a result of the sentences brought down by the National High Court, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. The “guardians of basic rights” of Spanish citizens have been those who violated them. 

Secondly, in order to justify a trial involving up to 86 years jail for the accused, the prosecution in the case against eight lawyers charged with belonging to ETA via Halboka (its alleged “legal defense wing”) and with acting as couriers for the organisation, insisted on October 29 that “ETA has not disappeared”. The case is partially based on evidence supplied by agents of Spain’s National Intelligence Centre (CNI), who have not been required to appear in court.

Thirdly, on September 22, a judge of the National High Court ordered the immediate closure of Sortu’s quarterly magazine Kalera.Info and of the web site, on the grounds that they had engaged in the crime of “exhaltation of terrorism”. The two publications were directed to informing abertzale prisoners of developments in Basque politics, particularly of the demonstrations in support of their rights. Sortu spokesperson Oihana Garmendia commented:

These people cannot tolerate this latest attack by the state’s most reactionary sectors, especially now the broad consensus has been created as to how to solve the situation of the prisoners and exiles, thanks to the collaboration of many different protagonists ... They [the Spanish police and magistracy] want to close this window of opportunity to a solution at any price.

By contrast, on September 1, the Paris Criminal Court absolved historic ETA leader Josu Ternera of membership of the organisation during the years 2011-2013. It turned down the prosecution’s demand that Ternera serve five year’s jail, accepting his affirmation that he had left ETA in 2006 in disagreement with its decision to continue with armed actions after its bombing of Madrid airport.


ETA’s choice of a military-terrorist strategy was legitimate in the fight against Francoism and understandable in the early years of the post-dictatorship transition in which the police and Civil Guard in Euskadi often acted with murderous impunity, but became increasingly self-defeating and finally disastrous, to the point that the abertzale left itself had to move to end it.

The October 18 declaration confirmed that the complex, very painful, but necessary discussion of ETA’s history — going well beyond facile and self-interested condemnations of violence — will be an inextricable part of the fight for a just and sustainable Basque Country whose citizens are free to decide its relation to the Spanish and French states.

As a wave of books and films seek to recreate the “ETA experience” — notably in the HBO version of the novel Patria and the recent release Maixabel, based on the experience of Maixabel Lasa — the unwinding of its heritage will continue to require hard decisions of the abertzale left. However, these will come in a context where discussion of the right to self-determination will be liberated from the thinking of those for whom strategy against national oppression necessarily entails guns and bombs and the military mystique that goes with them.

ETA’s farewell to arms has been having positive effects in the Spanish state for a decade, beginning with the 2015 victory of EH Bildu and allies in the election for the mayoralty of Iruñea (Pamplona). Today, it is allowing increasing collaboration and discussion between the forces of Basque and Catalan independentism, an important precondition for putting the undemocratic Spanish state into rising crisis for its rejection of the democratic right to self-determination.

It is also seeing debate grow in Euskadi as to what revolutionary strategy for the Basque national liberation movement now means post-ETA, reflected in the emergence of new organisations such as the Socialist Youth Coordinating Committee (GKS), which helped organise a 1500-strong Basque Socialist Youth Encounter in Altsasu (Navarra) in October.

Sare’s  25,000-strong October 23 demonstration in Donostia in support of the rights of the ETA prisoners was attended by some of the freed Catalan leaders, who got an enthusiastic welcome from the Basque crowd: it was an important moment in the struggle of the Spanish state’s captive nations.  

Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site