Madrid's 70-year war on the Basque struggle
BY PATRICK O'NEILL
Vowing that his "priority is to fight every type of terrorism," the new Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has made it plain that his Socialist Party government will make full use of the March 11 train bombings in Madrid to reinforce the Spanish capitalist rulers' decades-long assault on the struggle by the Basque people for national self-determination.
The incoming administration supports the ban that the outgoing Popular Party government imposed last year on the main Basque pro-independence party, Herri Batasuna, which had won 10 percent of the votes in the 2001 elections in the Basque country, in the north of Spain. Zapatero has even said his government will "fiercely oppose the Ibarretxe Plan"—a proposal for increased limited autonomy made by Basque National Party leader and regional president Juan José Ibarretxe.
The Spanish rulers' anti-Basque offensive has been waged in the name of fighting "ETA terrorism," referring to a small underground Basque pro-independence group that has assassinated a number of government officials over the years.
Living in an area that straddles the modern-day border of France and Spain, the Basque people, who today number 3 million, are a distinct national group, with their own language, culture, and geographical area, known as Euskadi. Spain, one of the most economically backward nations of Western Europe, was late in forging a single bourgeois republic, a historic task of the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century. As a result, Spain became a imperialist power in the 20th century but maintained significant economic and cultural differences between different regions—the Basque region, Catalonia, Galicia, Andalusia, and other areas.
While Euskadi and Catalonia are the two main industrial centers, they have historically been subjected to national oppression.
The Basque national movement arose in the 19th century with protests against compulsory taxation, military service, and other indignities imposed by Madrid on a region that had previously enjoyed a degree of economic autonomy. During the Spanish revolution of the 1930s, workers and peasants throughout the Spanish state overthrew the monarchy and established a republican government. The Basque National Party (PNV)—a bourgeois nationalist formation—and allied forces rose to power throughout the Basque provinces, advocating increased autonomy.
By the time the republican government, comprised of Socialist, Communist, and bourgeois parties, granted formal autonomy to Euskadi, it was already split in two by Franco's fascist rebellion. But the refusal of the leaders of the Socialist (PSOE), CP, and the anarchist movement to champion the Basque struggle for self-determination had effectively handed the initiative in the region to the PNV and other bourgeois forces.
The labor misleaders rationalized their stance by pointing to the reactionary character of the leading Basque parties, which were closely tied to the Catholic Church hierarchy. As Felix Morrow writes in Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, this policy "gave the Basque clericals"—who were themselves threatened by the growth of the working-class movement in weight and political confidence—"a new hold on the masses."
The social-democratic and Stalinist parties, compromising with their bourgeois allies, blocked the working-class upsurge from heading toward the overthrow of capitalist rule and the establishment of a workers and farmers government. This course mortally weakened the republic in the face of the fascist rebellion led by Gen. Francisco Franco, which was employed by the majority of the capitalist rulers to crush the worker-farmer revolution.
While Basque country president José Antonio Aguirre opposed the rebellion, the Basque provincial governments split in their alliances, half siding with Franco and half backing the republic.
Like their brothers and sisters across Spain, many Basque workers and peasants fought heroically against the fascist forces in the ensuing three years. In April 1937 the Nazi government in Germany used its air force in support of Franco against the ancient Basque city of Guernica, leaving it in ruins and killing more than 1,600 people. This was a decisive blow to the Basque resistance and to the republic, which was overthrown in 1939.
Repression under Franco
The Basque people were a special target of the Franco dictatorship. In the period immediately following the seizure of power it jailed and executed thousands of Basques. One historian says that in 1937 alone up to 150,000 were forced into exile in France, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. In the ensuing four decades Franco's police killed and imprisoned thousands more. All displays of Basque culture, including spoken and written use of the language, were banned.
The late 1950s and 1960s saw a resurgence of national resistance among Basques, sparked by the ferocious repression and inspired by the wave of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, including revolutions in Cuba, Algeria, and Vietnam. This was the context for the formation in 1959 of the armed group ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna—Basque Homeland and Freedom). ETA's leaders demanded the right to establish an independent Basque state, incorporating Basque regions on both the Spanish and French sides of the border. By the late 1960s ETA had embarked upon a strategy of kidnapping and killing government officials and prominent figures.
As the Franco regime came to an end in the mid-1970s, Basques mobilized in a series of massive demonstrations to assert their national rights. Since then the Basque people have won a degree of autonomy—including a regional government with limited powers—but not full self-determination.
But the capitalist rulers of Spain are afraid that a successful Basque independence movement would give workers and farmers and other oppressed nationalities renewed confidence in their ability to struggle. As a result, successive Spanish governments have cracked down on the Basque movement—all under the pretext of combating ETA and "terrorism." The government has enacted a raft of legislation giving authorities greater powers to spy, harass, and imprison Basque nationalists by accusing them of supporting ETA.
The PSOE and Communist Party, along with the union federations they lead, have played a key part in helping the wealthy minority mobilize bourgeois public opinion in Spain against the Basque struggle. On several occasions massive demonstrations have been organized to condemn ETA's armed actions and to support the government's crackdowns in the Basque country.
The 1982-96 PSOE government was notorious for its repressive policy toward the Basques. The administration of Prime Minister Felipe González oversaw a "dirty war" against the pro-sovereignty movement, using death squads made up of cops, known as the Antiterrorist Liberation Group (GAL). Revelations about police murders of 27 people accused of being ETA members helped to end González's reign in disgrace.
Today hundreds of Basque political prisoners remain in Spanish and French jails. Many of them, accused of supporting ETA, go before special tribunals. "Detention doesn't follow an investigation—it's the other way round. Electrodes, beatings, drowning, putting a bag over the person's head, sexual assault, and death threats" are among the interrogation techniques, said Iñigo Elkoro, a lawyer representing Basque political prisoners, in a 1997 interview in the Militant.
"Spain's antiterror laws permit the use of incommunicado detention, secret legal proceedings, and pre-trial detention for up to four years," said a March 2003 report by Human Rights Watch. "The investigating magistrate of the Audiencia Nacional, a special court that oversees terrorist cases, can request causa secreta [secret cause] for thirty days, consecutively renewable for the duration of the four-year pre-trial detention period. Secret proceedings bar the defense access to the prosecutor's evidence, except for information contained in the initial detention order."
In May 2003 tens of thousands protested in Bilbao against the outlawing of Herri Batasuna by the outgoing administration of Jose María Aznar. The previous year the National Court had suspended the party, accusing it of being linked to ETA, a charge denied by Batasuna leaders.
On March 22 Zapatero, having reaffirmed his support for this repressive course, dismissed an offer by ETA representatives of negotiations and a possible ceasefire.
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