In December 1970, 16 members of the Basque separatist group ETA, the acronym for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty), were charged with the murder of a Spanish police commissioner. The Burgos 16, court-martialed and found guilty, had little or no access to attorneys. Six of the accused were sentenced to death by firing squad.
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The case drew global notoriety, calling attention to the larger issues of independence for the Basque Country and the disregard for civil liberties and human rights under the rule of General Francisco Franco. In Idaho, many Basques protested, urging the commutation of the Burgos sentences. For many Boise Basques, this was the latest chapter in a centuries-old cycle of repression and cultural subjugation.
ETA’s goals were Basque solidarity, independence and reunification, along with the preservation of Basque culture and language. These goals had significant support among nearly all Basques, but there was a large divergence over tactics. In faraway Boise, Basque nationalism was “an undercurrent, not a ground swell: a matter of concern, not action,” as New York Times columnist Anthony Ripley wrote in 1970. For a full history of ETA, see Mark Bieter’s “The Rise and Fall of ETA.”
BASQUE DIASPORA POLITICS
Basque immigrants who came to Idaho in the years before the Spanish Civil War hesitated to get involved with the political and social turmoil of their homeland. Survival in America seemed to be their priority. But an influx of new Basque immigrants, those after the 1950s who had experienced first-hand the Franco repression, were more involved in the political fortunes of the homeland. In the aftermath of the Burgos 16 trial a few of these recent Basque immigrants formed an entity that supported Basque nationalism. The group called itself Anaiak Danok (Brothers All).
Anaiak Danok was initially comprised of members of the established Basque organizations: the Basque Center, the Idaho Basque Studies Center and the Idahoko Euzko Zaleak (Idaho Friends of the Basques). More interviews on Anaiak at Boise Weekly. At its peak, Anaiak Danok included about 50 members, both Basque and non-Basque. Members of Anaiak Danok were interested in the political climate of the Basque homeland as well as in preserving the Basque language and culture. The group “wanted to educate the people of Idaho, Basque and non-Basque, about what was going on politically in the Basque country,” said one of the organization’s founders. Many prominent members of the Basque community in Boise, including Idaho Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa and Boise business leader Justo Sarria, hosted discussions, dinners, holiday celebrations and other activities, often at the Sarria residence.
This essay is excerpted from the new book Becoming Basque: Ethnic Heritage on Boise’s Grove Street, Volume Six in Boise State University’s Investigate Boise Community Research Series. The book is available at the Basque Museum, 610 Grove St., in Boise, and at area booksellers. Cost: $19.95.
As in the Basque Country, the local Basque community had mixed feelings about the region’s politics. Almost all felt that the Basques were a unique people and should be given the right of self-determination. Some felt independence from Spain was the only way to ensure Basque identity, while others felt that a model of regional autonomy similar to states in the U.S. would be sufficient for the Basque regions.
BROTHERS DEBATE ANAIAK
Two first-generation immigrants are symbolic of those divergent views within the Boise Basque community. In 1952, Basque native Simon Achabal wrote a letter to his uncle, Andres Achabal, explaining his interest in coming to the United States. The 18-year-old Achabal came that same year to herd sheep. Two years later, his younger brother, Julian, came to the U.S. and worked alongside Simon. Simon said that his intention was “to come to this country, sacrifice, save money, go back to the Basque Country, buy something [a house] and make a living.” But upon his return from a visit to the homeland, he realized that Franco had made life “miserable” for the Basque people. He made up his mind that Boise had become his home.
Although Simon had little interest in Anaiak Danok, Julian immersed himself in its activities. He served as president of the organization for a year. Julian was also passionate in his animosity toward the Spanish government. He once asked a family member who visited Franco’s tomb, “Did you piss on that bastard’s grave?” Julian tried to recruit Simon, but Simon never felt the political intensity of his younger sibling.
Simon surely had reasons to join Anaiak Danok. His father was a prisoner for four years after the Spanish Civil War, accused of being a “comunista terrorista.” Simon also related that if one wrote a letter from the U.S. to Basque friends or family members, any mention of politics meant retribution against the recipient in the homeland. Even so, Simon refused to join.
According to Simon, Anaiak Danok supported ETA. This position was in line with Julian’s political ideas, but it was not with Simon’s. According to Simon, Anaiak Danok began as an organization that supported Basques back home and held local celebrations of Basque culture. But it transformed into a group that became too enamored of ETA’s political aims and tactics. “When you start killing people, I can’t go for that,” Simon said. This was the central conflict for many Basques, both in the homeland and the diaspora.
CENARRUSA AND IDAHO BASQUE DIPLOMACY
The most notable Basque voice in Anaiak Danok was former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa. He joined the organization after a trip to the Basque homeland. Born in Carey, Idaho, in 1917, of Basque immigrant parents, Cenarrusa was a prominent supporter of Basque independence. Since the Basque Country is the motherland of the Basques, wrote Cenarrusa in his memoirs, the Basque Country is a nation. The Basque people should have the right of self-determination, Cenarrusa argued; they ought to have the right to become a nation-state if the majority of the people chose to do so in a free election.
The Basque people, according to Cenarrusa, have wanted an independent Basque state since the 18th century. Basque independence was a crucial political goal for Cenarrusa for decades. He never wavered in his support for ETA’s political aims; however, Cenarrusa publicly rejected the small number of ETA supporters who resorted to violent tactics, once stating to Spanish Ambassador Javier Rupérez, “Our end is to get rid of terrorism.” From Cenarrusa’s point of view “patriotism” better reflected ETA’s goals for Basque autonomy.
The Burgos 16 case instigated the first activity of protest toward the Franco regime in Idaho. Cenarrusa led the effort. The trial focused the world’s media attention on the political repression in Spain. Governments and international political groups demanded that the death sentence for six of the accused be commuted. Cenarrusa worked with the Idaho congressional delegation in an attempt to influence the U.S. State Department to pressure for restraint by the Spanish government. Idaho Gov. Don Samuelson, a close political ally of Cenarrusa, sent a cable to Gen. Franco espousing the principles of trying civilians in civil rather than military court.
After the death sentences were announced, Cenarrusa organized a declaration signed by more than 200 Boise Basques asking Franco to commute the sentences. A benefit dance followed, with the proceeds going to the 16 families of the accused. U.S. Sen. Frank Church, then a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also lent his voice for commutation of the sentences. On Dec. 30, 1970, one day before the first scheduled execution, Franco commuted the sentences to 30-year prison terms for each of the six.
In 1975, two Basques were executed for the death of a Spanish police officer, bringing more criticism of the Spanish court system. Members of Anaiak Danok asked the U.S. to support 16 other nations in protest by removing their Spanish ambassadors. Anaiak Danok met with Sen. Church, asking him to address the Basque conflict. In 1978, Sen. Church and his wife, Bethine, visited the Basque Country and received a hero’s welcome. It was viewed as a victory for Basques living in the U.S. when Church visited the symbolic Tree of Gernika and the historic Basque parliament.
In October 1975, Anaiak Danok received a request for aid from Anai Artea, a Basque refugee house in the homeland. Bombings and cruelty in the southern provinces sent an overflow of refugees to the house. The Basque women of Anaiak Danok launched an effort in Boise to gather blue and green stamp books, money and other necessities. They sent their fellow Basques at Anai Artea Christmas packages that were graciously accepted. By the late 1970s, however, Anaiak Danok disbanded due to lack of interest and some internal discord. At its core, this discord related to the use of violence by ETA.
POST-FRANCO BASQUE-AMERICAN ORGANIZING
Idaho, primarily through Cenarrusa, has had a long, often vexed, relationship with the Spanish government over the Basque Country. Cenarrusa devoted a lot of time to Basque affairs outside of his duties as Secretary of State. He was extremely concerned with his homeland; his relatives lived in the Basque Country under Franco’s dictatorship. The Idaho Legislature, at Cenarrusa’s request, passed a resolution in 1972 calling on the United States to pressure Spain to stop executing, torturing, jailing and suppressing Basques for political reasons. The resolution called for the halt of all Spanish foreign aid unless amnesty was granted. The U.S. had sent nearly $2.5 billion in assistance to Spain during the Cold War years in exchange for military bases. A longer version of this article appears in the recently published Becoming Basque: Ethnic Heritage on Boise’s Grove Street from Boise State Publications.
Years later, Cenarussa had the opportunity to defend Basque autonomy and criticize Spanish policies in a face-to-face meeting with Ambassador Rupérez. In the 2001 meeting arranged by Idaho Sen. Larry Craig to discuss Spanish-U.S. relations, the ambassador declined to mention Spain’s relationship with the Basques. This failure to address the Basque question angered Cenarrusa, who was present at the meeting. In the ensuing heated discussion, Cenarussa, who believed the ambassador cavalierly dismissed three decades of Franco’s repression, stated, “It [ETA] started with Franco suppressing Basque culture and assassinating people.” Rupérez and Spain’s Prime Minister, José María Anzar, believed that the issue of Basque independence had nothing to do with politics. Rather, it had to do with getting rid of ETA. Rupérez claimed that ETA kidnapped him in 1979, a claim that Cenarrusa vehemently denied.
In 2002, one year before he retired as secretary of state, Cenarrusa and then-state Representative David Bieter ushered another memorandum through the Idaho Legislature supporting self-determination in the Basque Country. The measure caught the attention of the U.S. State Department, which strongly suggested the addition of wording that condemned terrorism. The Basque-language newspaper Egunkaria covered news of the resolution. Soon after, the Spanish government closed the paper’s offices and arrested its editor and eight staff members, according to Cenarrusa’s memoir, Bizkaia to Boise. Cenarrusa continued his fight for Basque causes until his death in November 2013.
The issue of the Basque homeland remains unresolved and tenuous, but more hopeful than at any time in recent memory. Even after Cenarrusa’s death, his consistent calls for Basque self-determination continued to resonate on both sides of the Atlantic. Rupérez himself penned an op-ed/obituary for ABC, a Spanish newspaper, taking the late Cenarrusa to task for his pro-Basque advocacy and in none-too-kind terms, practically celebrating his death. The Idaho Basque community was quick to respond with a group blog post in defense of Cenarrusa.
In their response, the Basque bloggers cite the 2002 Memorial that the Idaho Legislature passed, which, in their words, “described the history of Basques in Idaho, the earlier actions by the Idaho Legislature to condemn the repression of Franco’s dictatorship, the efforts of Basques to maintain their culture, and all ‘but a marginalized fraction’ of Basques’ condemnation of violence.”
One demand of that resolution still remains unfulfilled, however: “The state of Idaho further supports the right of the Basques to self-determination.” It’s a call that the new, post-ETA generation has already taken up.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.