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By Dick Nichols
May 6, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The military-terrorist organisation Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) made public its “Statement to the Basque Country: declaration on harm caused” on April 20, an apology for the suffering arising from more than 40 years of violent operations that ended in a permanent ceasefire announced on October 20, 2011.
On May 3, ETA’s definitive dissolution was announced in a public declaration to the people of the Basque Country (Euskal Herria).
On May 4, at a ceremony held in the Iparralde (French Basque Country) region of Lapurdi, international mediators who have overseen ETA’s disarmament and dissolution took part in an event certifying the end of the organisation. The event consisted in the reading of the Arnaga Declaration, named after the villa in Kanbo (Canbo-les-Bains) where it took place.
The ceremony was attended by an international delegation which included former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, former IMF head Michel Camdessus and Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, founder of the Mexican Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), as well as South Africa negotiator Brian Currin and other members of the International Contact Group (ICG) that have helped guide the eight-year process of ETA’s dissolution.
Elective representatives of Basque government entities on both sides of the Spanish-French border also attended, as did representatives of the conservative nationalist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the left-independentist EH Bildu and the local affiliate of Podemos. However, there was no representation from the regional governments of Euskadi (the Basque Autonomous Community in the Spanish state) or Nafarroa (Spanish Navarra).
ETA’s April 20 apology expressed “our respect to all the victims of ETA’s actions, in that they were harmed as a consequence of the conflict, whether they were killed, injured or harmed in any other way. We are truly sorry.”
Reconciliation is necessary to bring out the truth in a constructive way, to cure wounds and to build guarantees for such suffering not to happen again in the future. It is possible to build peace and achieve freedom in the Basque Country by finding a political solution to the conflict.
ETA’s May 3 declaration of its final dissolution noted:
ETA was born at a time when the Basque Country was agonising, strangled by the claws of Francoism and assimilated by the [French] Jacobin state, and now, 60 years later, thanks to all the work carried out in many spheres and to the struggle of many generations, the Basque nation is alive and wants to be the master of its own future.
From now on, the main challenge will be to build a process, as a people, based on the accumulation of forces, grassroots mobilisation and agreements among those with differing viewpoints, to overcome the consequences of the conflict and to address its political and historic root causes. A key part of this will be to bring into effect the right to decide, in order to achieve recognition of our nationhood. Left-wing pro-independence people will work for this to lead to the establishment of a Basque state.
The May 4 Arnaga declaration gave a “warm welcome” to the ETA’s decisions since the ICG first helped produce its 2011 permanent ceasefire, while noting that the Spanish government had had no contact with the ICG. It welcomed ETA’s April 20 apology but also pointed out that reconciliation “on the basis of our experience in the conflicts in which we have been involved is something that will take a long time [since] deep wounds persist and communities remain divided.”
It stressed that “there has to be a greater effort in acknowledging and helping the victims. This requires that both sides be honest about the past: a spirit of generosity will be needed to cure the wounds and rebuild shared community” and also said that “important issues like that of the prisoners and the people who find themselves in exile remain to be solved and persistent efforts will be needed to reach a complete normalisation of political and ordinary life.”
ETA’s final statements were welcomed by all forces with an interest in overcoming the conflict in the Basque Country, which has long suffered repression at the hands of the Spanish state. EH Bildu described the April 20 apology as “an unprecedented historic event” that “makes a definitive contribution to peace, social harmony and reconciliation”. The pro-independence union confederation Patriotic Workers Commissions (LAB) described it as “a sincere reflection and contribution [which] lays the foundation for moving forward on the resolution of the consequences of the conflict.”
Aitor Esteban, spokesperson for the PNV which governs in Euskadi, said that his party “valued as a step forward ETA’s attempt at reconciliation with the victims and recognition of the damage caused. We think it is an attempt to give an answer to a unanimous demand of Basque society.” Well-known Basque journalist and ETA victim Gorka Landaburu described the declaration as “the most important and critical” ever made by the organisation, even though lacking a political assessment that he urged Basque patriotic (abertzale) left forces to elaborate.
Within Spain’s many associations of terrorism victims, the most appreciative response was that of Robert Manrique, spokesperson of Catalan Association of Terrorism Victims and himself wounded in ETA’s 1987 Hipercor supermarket bombing in Barcelona (which ended all Catalan sympathy for ETA): “Really very great news”. In a radio interview Manrique said he accepted the apology “despite the damage caused to me and my family”, even while rejecting the possibility of reconciliation.
Some family members of individual victims of ETA terrorism were equally pleased. For Carmen Torres Ripa, widow of murdered journalist José María Portell, “that they should ask you for forgiveness 40 years after murdering your husband is pretty moving. I’m so happy: this was what was needed. I would like the GAL [the Spanish state-sponsored Antiterrorist Liberation Groups that murdered suspected ETA members] to also put out a communiqué asking for the forgiveness of its victims.”
Pedro Sánchez, leader of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), greeted the statement as “a great step forward towards a definitive peace: the recognition of the terrible damage and pain caused”.
The negative reactions to ETA’s April 20 statement were led by the Euskadi branch of the ruling People’s Party (PP). It said that “the truth about ETA is that it is a criminal organisation that has dedicated itself in this country to sowing terror, murder, extortion and kidnapping.” The PP viewpoint was also that of the majority of terrorism victim associations, which typically made these points about the statement:
• ETA was defeated by Spanish democracy. This was the message of all three Spanish unionist forces—the PP, the PSOE and the new right force Citizens. The Rajoy government described the ETA statement as “a consequence of the strength of the rule of law”, adding that “it is good that the terrorist gang asks for forgiveness from the victims, because the victims, in their dignity and memory, have been critical to the defeat of ETA”.
• There is no political conflict in the Basque Country. According to communiqué signed by 21 associations of terrorism victims the Basque national struggle was a “non-existent conflict” while former PSOE leader and interior minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcalba said “the only conflict there was in the Basque Country was ETA”.
• It’s still the same ETA. “ETA treats the victims as collateral damage in the imposition of a totalitarian project which neither the terrorists nor their political arm have abandoned” (Terrorism Victims Collective).
• The declaration is a manoeuvre. For Dignity and Justice spokesperson Daniel Portero the statement reflected “cynicism in the highest degree” aimed at creating the political conditions for transferring ETA prisoners, presently dispersed in jails across the Spanish state, to jails in Euskadi.
• ETA still has much to atone for. “The only declaration that we expect from ETA is that in which it acknowledges that it has been the main violator of human rights in the Basque Country and the rest of Spain for decades [and] recognises that the use of violence has no justification whatsoever” (Association of Terrorism Victims). Aside from that, “the only contribution that ETA can make to society ... is to clarify the more than 400 unresolved murders and point out the location of the corpses of the disappeared victims” (Terrorism Victims Collective).
• No concessions. “ETA achieved absolutely nothing in exchange, they didn’t achieve it when they were killing, much less now that they have been defeated by the rule of law. We owe them nothing” (PP Euskadi statement).
These positions, which play well in some sections of Spanish society outside Euskadi, are in a small minority in the society most ravaged by ETA’s actions and the violent replies of Spanish police operations. Inside Euskadi, as revealed in a July 2017 survey by Euskobarometro, 74% support the transfer of ETA prisoners to Basque Country jails; 85% think that that the violence carried out by ETA should not be the only focus of attention; and 76% believe that “for a good end to the cycle of violence there should be neither winners nor losers”.
In this context, the most common criticism of the ETA statement by the forces that greeted it as a step forward was its classification of the victims of its violence into those directly engaged in warfare against ETA and those who were never its targets.
For former ETA member Carmen Guisasola, ETA’s declaration “adopted a formula of the IRA’s”, making a distinction between those who took part in the conflict and those who didn’t. She asked: “Where do Yoyes [María Dolores González Cataráin, ex-ETA member murdered by ETA for accepting re-insertion into society] and Isaías Carraso [socialist councilor murdered by ETA in Mondragon] fit in?”
According to Euskadi premier (lehendakari) Iñigo Urkullu (PNV), the end of ETA should be accompanied by a formal recognition that all victims of ETA are to be viewed in the same light. He said on April 20: “At the moment of its disappearance I hope they think about all the victims they have provoked. If they think about all the victims their declaration will have to be clear, sober and intent on making amends—capable of recognising the injustice of the immense pain they have caused.”
In a joint May 4 appearance with Nafarroa premier Uxue Barkos after the Arnaga ceremony, Urkullu regretted the absence from ETA of any recognition of the equal status of all victims of the armed conflict, even while welcoming the end of the armed organisation as a very important step forward.
A similar criticism of ETA’s April 20 statement was made by the Socialist Party of Euskadi (PSE), the PSOE’s Euskadi affiliate, and Elkarrin Podemos, the left coalition between Podemos Euskadi and the Euskadi affiliates of the United Left and green party Equo. These forces also focussed on what they detect as the most vulnerable point in the abertzale left position following ETA’s end—its lack of an agreed position on whether there had ever been any positive aspect to ETA’s activities.
On April 20, Elkarrin Podemos spokesperson Lander Martínez said: “The overarching question at the moment is what has been gained through so much undeserved suffering. What has been achieved by decades of violence and the fracturing of community relations? The challenge—so that nothing similar ever happens again—is to unanimously reply: ‘zero’.”
ETA as Spanish political factor
ETA’s apology and dissolution will mark the beginning of a new phase in the politics of the Basque Country. Despite ongoing efforts of Spanish centralism to portray the Basque national struggle and the abertzale left as congenitally violent, the underlying issue of a Basque right to self-determination will increasingly emerge more clearly.
However, the ETA factor will not wither away overnight: the forces of Spanish centralism—parties, media, police forces and monarchy—have every interest in maintaining the identification between the movements for national self-determination and military-terrorist methods. Spanish chauvinism has no better camouflage for its own rejection of the right to national self-determination, as confirmed by the headline of the Madrid conservative daily La Razón on the day after ETA’s disappearance: “ETA dissolves in order to start the [Catalan] ‘process’ in the Basque County”.
In addition, the rise of the ultra-centralist Citizens, presently ahead of the governing PP in opinion polls, guarantees a competition between the parties of the right as to who can be toughest on the “secessionist and terrorist threat”. This will rule out the slightest compassion and any agreement to shift ETA prisoners to jails in Euskadi, as long demanded by prisoner support associations and civil rights groups. The tone was set by Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s May 4 response to ETA’s dissolution:
Today ETA has at last recognised that its entire history has been a failure. It has not achieved any of the goals that it sets itself in its long criminal existence. It achieved no gain by killing and it will achieve none from announcing its dissolution. The crimes of ETA will continue to be investigated and sentences imposed will continue to be carried out. There has not been and there will not be any impunity. We owe them nothing. They have taken too long to recognise their defeat.
This statement marks the final step in the PP government’s response pattern to ETA’s progressive winding down of its activities since 2011. When ETA announced it would cease armed activity, the Rajoy government demanded that it surrender its arms; when it surrendered its arms, Rajoy said it was a fraud and demanded its dissolution; now that ETA has dissolved, the central government demands its collaboration in clarifying unsolved murders and disappearances.
This last task could, of course, be carried out by a truth and reconciliation commission, but such a step is unthinkable for a Spanish state which, in both PSOE and PP guise, has overseen criminal activity of its own in the Basque Country: it would be obliged to accept investigation of the role not only of the Civil Guard and the Spanish National Police but also of the state-terrorist GAL.
Inevitably, then, the forces of the Spanish establishment have every interest in keeping the “ETA factor” alive in some form or other for as long as they can. Three recent examples show how this operates:
• Eight young men involved in an October 2015 brawl in a bar with two Civil Guards and their partners in the town of Altsasu in Nafarroa were charged with “terrorism” (carrying up to 50 years jail) and kept in preventive detention for 500 days. In their trial, which is presently taking place, the prosecution is trying to link two defendants with an ETA splinter faction supposedly committed to maintaining the “armed struggle”. An April 14 solidarity demonstration drew 50,000 to the Nafarroa capital Iruñea (Pamplona);
• In Catalonia on April 12, Tamara Carrasco, an activist with her local Committee in Defence of the Republic (CDR) in the town of Viledecans, was charged with “terrorism” and “rebellion” by the arresting Civil Guard. So grotesque were these charges that the magistrate hearing the case released Carrasco on bail after downgrading them to disturbance of the public order;
• In Galiza (Galicia) over the years 2005-2013, minor explosions outside council and regional government offices and radio and TV stations were ascribed to an organisation called “Galician Resistance”, dubbed by a Spanish National Police spokesperson in 2013 as “the main terrorist threat in Spain”. Yet whether “Galician Resistance” was responsible for these explosions when (unlike ETA) it never acknowledged responsibility, has caused many, including a dissenting judge of the National High Court, to question whether “Galician Resistance” ever existed as a terrorist organisation at all.
ETA’s apology and dissolution helps all those democrats in the Spanish state who are fighting for the rights of its peoples to decide their future. It adds to the dogged persistence of the Catalan independence movement in convincing growing numbers across the Spanish state that a democratic outcome to the national question has somehow to be found. This trend has shown up in the April GESOP poll: compared to the 39.7% all-of-Spain support for a negotiated Scottish-style referendum in Catalonia in its February 2017 edition, GESOP’s latest survey shows support now standing at 46.9% (with 78.7% of Catalans in favour).
Sooner or later, despite today’s Spanish-patriotic cries of victory, the end of ETA can only add to the perception that there is no repressive solution to an issue that has haunted the Spanish state for at least 300 years. It also gives the all-Spanish left, especially Podemos, an extra reason to be more courageous in arguing that recognition of the democratic rights of that state’s component nations is also in the interest of its working people.
And most importantly of all, it lifts the last chains from the shoulders of the Basque movement for national liberation itself. Whether ETA’s military-terrorist tactics ever had a place in the struggle for the Basque liberation struggle is an issue that the abertzale and all-Spanish left will continue to discuss: for example, was the murderous Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s appointed successor a “victim of terrorism” when ETA blew up his car in 1973?
In the end, however, ETA was defeated by its own methods, which with every increase in its harvest of victims alienated ever more democratically-minded people—first in Spain, then in the other “historical nationalities” (Catalonia and Galicia), and finally in the Basque Country itself.
It was this increasing social and political isolation—and not Spanish and French police operations in and of themselves—that revealed that the “armed road” of this “socialist revolutionary organisation for national liberation” was just counterproductive: neither revolutionary, nor socialist nor of any use at all for the Basque nation’s own just struggle for self-determination.
Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site.