In October 2011, Martxelo Otamendi, the editor of the Basque newspaper Berria, received a small package in his office. There was no return address, but he had a good idea who’d sent it. He’d seen similar packages before.

Inside, there was a thumb drive holding video and audio clips of the Basque terrorist group ETA announcing the end of its four-decade campaign of violence. The announcement, read in both Spanish and Basque by hooded members of the organization, said ETA “has decided on the definitive cessation of its armed activity,” and it had a “clear, solid and definitive commitment.” Within hours, the clips appeared on news outlets throughout the world.

A SENSE OF SERENITY

One boiling day in the summer of 2012, Otamendi showed me the thumb drive in Berria’s offices outside Andoain, a town in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa in northern Spain. I held it in my palm. It seemed odd that such a weighty event could be captured in something so tiny and mundane, and Otamendi read my mind. “Some day,” he said, “that little thing will be on a museum wall.”

Story Guide
1. A sense of serenity
2. An island of antiquity
3. On Spain’s sinking ship
4. The birth of ETA
5. The Burgos Affair
6. ETA, post-Franco
7. The Dirty War
8. The new terrorism
9. Of Spain
10. Toward reconciliation
11. Passion for sacrifice
12. Sabin Etxea
Coda: Exhausted serenity
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Navigate by map.
He was joking, but there was a weariness behind it.

Flickr

UKberri.net / Flickr
Martxelo Otamendi, editor of Berria.

Otamendi was born in the nearby town of Tolosa in the late 1950s, around the time ETA was formed, and the group had intertwined with his life ever since. Over the years, ETA had killed, wounded and kidnapped hundreds within a roughly 75-mile radius of his hometown. Reporting about the group has been a major part of Otamendi’s career. The pinnacle was probably his three interviews with members of the organization. He followed the same procedure each time. He was told to be at a certain spot late at night. He was picked up, blindfolded and driven in silence. When the car stopped, he was led into a room, the blindfold was lifted, and he found himself seated in front of a group of masked ETA members. He asked them his questions. Afterward, he was blindfolded again, driven around and dropped off at a different spot. He never knew where he was or who was talking.

“When ETA made its announcement, people were happy, but they weren’t out in the streets celebrating. It was more a sense of serenity.”

His access to the organization came with a price. In 2003, when he was managing editor of the Basque-language daily Egunkaria, Spanish police arrested Otamendi in a predawn raid of his home and interrogated him about his ETA contacts. Otamendi said he was tortured, forced to stand naked in his cell for three straight days. Guards held pistols to his face. They administered the technique known as “La Bolsa,” pulling a plastic bag over his head and holding it tight until he was close to suffocation. They demanded the names of his ETA contacts, but Otamendi insisted he had none and took no instruction from the group. Eventually he was released and in 2010, a Spanish court threw out all charges. Last October, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Spanish government to pay Otamendi 24,000 Euros (about $32,000) in damages and expenses for failing to investigate his torture allegations.

How to navigate this story

“The Rise and Fall of ETA” is TBR’s first longform investigative research piece. We’ve provided two ways to navigate the 13 chapters of this story. Use the map above as a geographic “table of contents” to click through the chapters, or use the index in the left column to navigate.

As I spoke with Otamendi and other Basques about ETA’s announcement, I expected sheer joy in their responses, particularly since almost a year had passed without an attack. ETA, which was responsible for some 843 deaths and hundreds of injuries, bomb explosions, kidnappings and bank robberies, had dominated Basques’ relationship with Spain and their international image for more than 40 years. Their activities had led to a heavy crackdown by the Spanish government that affected all Basques, whether nationalist or not. A University of Maryland terrorism database lists ETA as the fourth most active terrorist group in the world, responsible for more than 2,000 attacks from 1970 through 2010. Beyond the violence and agony ETA caused, its activity has been a heavy burden for Basques like Otamendi who seek separation from Spain through political means. As Irish Times journalist Paddy Woodworth observed, “No one has done a better job than ETA at discrediting the Basque nationalist cause.”

Yet while among Basques there was a clear sense of relief and a confidence that ETA really was finished, I didn’t see the kind of elation I had expected. “When ETA made its announcement,” one Basque man told me, “people were happy, but they weren’t out in the streets celebrating. It was more a sense of serenity.” One year later, it felt like a war that had ended in stalemate, where little had been accomplished and everyone still had to face the rubble and the rebuilding.

AN ISLAND OF ANTIQUITY

Altamira

Wikimedia
Replica of ancient cave paintings in the Cave of Altamira.

Nobody can explain the origins of the Basques with much certainty. Humans have lived since at least 20,000 B.C.E. in the region, set at the Spanish-French border where the Pyrenees and Cantabrian mountains intersect; local cave paintings of horses, goats and other animals date to 14,000 B.C.E. It’s impossible to know whether those early painters were Basque ancestors, but scholars can say with confidence that modern Basques are the descendants of indigenous groups that were in the region from 5,000 to 3,000 B.C.E., and maybe earlier, making Basques the oldest permanent residents of Western Europe — as British historian Roger Collins describes them, “a peculiar island of antiquity in a sea of newer people.”
Story Guide
1. A sense of serenity
2. An island of antiquity
3. On Spain’s sinking ship
4. The birth of ETA
5. The Burgos Affair
6. ETA, post-Franco
7. The Dirty War
8. The new terrorism
9. Of Spain
10. Toward reconciliation
11. Passion for sacrifice
12. Sabin Etxea
Coda: Exhausted serenity
Navigate by map.

Those relative newcomers included the first non-Indo-Europeans who migrated from the north and east beginning about 600 B.C.E., including Celts, Romans and Visigoths, who came into varying degrees of contact with the Basques and noted their separate characteristics and habits. Their language, one Roman claimed, sounded “like dogs barking.”

That language, still in use today, is the strongest proof that Basques lived in the area much earlier than anyone else. While many have tried to use physical characteristics to argue that there’s a unique Basque ethnic type — their high incidence of Rh-negative blood, for instance — it’s really their language that sets them apart. Euskara, as Basques call it, is the last surviving non-Indo-European language in Western Europe. Since it has no established link to any existing language, linguists suspect Basques lived isolated in the area for a very long time before Indo-Europeans and other groups arrived. Through proximity and necessity, Basques have borrowed some vocabulary from Spanish and French, but Euskara’s grammatical structure and syntax are completely different. “One, two, three” is bat, bi, hiru. “I gave you the books,” reads, Nik liburuak eman nizkizun.

Centuries ago, Basque was spoken in a much larger area than today, but it has long disappeared outside what most call “the Basque Country,” or “Euskal Herria,” an area that covers about 8,000 square miles (not quite the size of Massachusetts) in four Spanish and three French provinces. And even many of the three million people who live within that area would dispute that they’re part of a unified Basque “country.” The largest and southernmost of the Spanish provinces, Nafarroa, was for centuries the heart of a kingdom that controlled large portions of northern Spain, and today it’s a separate autonomous community. Another southern Basque province, Araba, has long had close ties with Castile, the geographical and political center of Spain, and most of its population does not speak Euskara and hasn’t for centuries. Even in the coastal provinces of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, where one hears the most Basque today, industrialization brought migrants from all corners of Spain. Most of them never considered themselves to be Basque. Then there is the most obvious separation of all, the Spanish-French border, which has set off the three northernmost Basque provinces since 1512.

But to many Basque nationalists, these divisions are simply the most recent in many thousands of years of obstacles they’ve overcome. An elderly man told me that his grandfather once took him to a bridge built by Romans in the Basque countryside. “The Romans are gone,” his grandfather told him, pointing to the bridge. “We’re still here.”

ON SPAIN’S SINKING SHIP

Basques survived the Romans and the Visigoths, but their biggest threat may have been their own industrial success. The area around Bilbao, by far the Basque Country’s largest city, holds some of the world’s most significant iron deposits, and it became the foundation for the Basques’ advanced economy, one of the strongest in Western Europe. By the late 1800s, Basques supplied two-thirds of England’s iron ore and 20 percent of the world’s steel, and Bilbao’s population tripled in the decades straddling 1900.

Suddenly, it was too valuable for Spain to let go of. There were too many Spaniards who wanted to work there. The many new “immigrants” (as some locals described them) flowing in from other parts of Spain had no interest in the Basque language or traditions, and neither did many of the Basque elites, who prospered while the middle class in Bilbao suffered the miseries of rapid industrialization.

Sabin Arana Goiria (1865-1903)


Father of Basque nationalism, Sabin Arana Goiria (1865-1903).

It was an ideal setting for a Basque nationalist movement that sought to distinguish Basques from all the newcomers, initiated by a highly unlikely forefather, Sabino Arana. Arana was born near Bilbao in 1865 to a wealthy family, spoke only Spanish as a child, and spent most of his formative years outside the Basque Country. But he saw the ugly side of industrialization in the area and became obsessed with finding a way to combat its effects. To Arana, fighting to preserve Basques’ unique identity — their language, their rural, agricultural traditions, even their physical characteristics — became the solution. He loathed the Spanish, who represented everything he thought was wrong with industrialization. (He was imprisoned for treason after sending a telegram to Theodore Roosevelt, congratulating him for the liberation of Cuba from Spanish dominion). Basque counter-diplomacy of this sort is still in evidence today. See 2002 resolution in Idaho Legislature calling for Basque self-determination and international incident that ensued.Basques who married Spaniards had “confounded themselves with the most vile and despicable race in Europe.” The only way to preserve a pure Basque identity against Spanish influence was to form a separate nation, a goal that many Basques still embrace.

He founded the Basque Nationalist Party (“Partido Nacionalista Vasca” or PNV), which has dominated Basque politics for more than a century. The party put Arana’s beliefs into practice. In the decades after Arana’s death in 1903, PNV gradually convinced Basques, both urban and rural, that their identity and culture merited preservation through political autonomy. This nascent Basque nationalism coincided with the stormy times in Spain, where in 1936, a group of military leaders including General Francisco Franco initiated a Nationalist rebellion against the governing Republic that led to years of civil war and hundreds of thousands of deaths. In exchange for Basque cooperation in the fight, the embattled Republic agreed to grant them autonomy; Basques elected a government headed by President José Antonio Aguirre, a former professional soccer player. For at least a brief time, there was a semi-independent Basque Country.

But Aguirre was taking command of a sinking ship. As he took his oath of office, Nationalist General Emilio Mola’s troops were 25 miles away, preparing for a spring offensive that began with history’s first aerial attacks on civilians. On April 26, 1937, the German Condor Legion raided the town of Gernika for three hours, destroying almost all the buildings and mowing down civilians. Since it was market day, Gernika was more crowded than usual and by the time the attack was over, some 1,645 had been killed and 889 wounded. Years later, at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, Hermann Goering admitted that the Gernika attack was a rehearsal for Nazi aerial bombardment. The attack presaged the coming doom for the Basque forces, and by June, rebel soldiers were raising the monarchist flag at Bilbao’s city hall.

Basque Boutonnière

Joxefe Diaz de Tuesta / Flickr
Franco’s attempts to quash Basque culture were met with resistance.

Franco’s forces showed little mercy after the surrender. As Robert Clark described in The Basques: The Franco Years and Beyond, thousands of Basques, including priests who had served as Basque military chaplains, were taken to the countryside and executed. Many others were given long terms at prisons like El Dueso Prison, in the city of Santoña, where groups of 40 prisoners were crammed into cells smaller than 30 square yards with no running water or toilets. Life was not much better for civilians, whose property was seized by Nationalist forces and whose life under a democracy was now over. It set the tone for the next decades, when arrests, torture, and middle-of-the-night searches became standard in the Basque Country.

The rebels also attempted to erase Basque identity; they prohibited the Basque language in all public places, and those caught speaking Euskara on the street were jailed. On birth, marriage and death certificates, Basque entries were replaced with Spanish equivalents and Basque names on tombstones were scratched off. After the war ended in 1939, Franco made these types of initiatives official government policy for most of the next four decades. Older Basques would never forget their teachers smacking them on the knuckles for speaking Basque on school grounds.

THE BIRTH OF ETA

In the 1940s, Spain was an underdeveloped country, largely reliant on agriculture and still in a shambles from a war that left at least a million dead or injured. The number of people killed in the Spanish Civil War is still in dispute.Franco’s solution to improve things was to shift the burden of growth to areas that were already largely industrialized — conveniently, areas of his former enemies such as the Basques and Catalonians — and direct larger portions of public investment to poor regions to speed up growth. By the 1970s, Madrid took three times more in tax revenue from Basques than it gave back. Whether the result of Franco’s policies or not, by the 1960s, Spain had the fastest growing economy in Europe. But because of his redistributionist policies, areas like the Basque Country that bore the heaviest burdens of rapid industrial growth — congestion, pollution, urban decay — were underequipped to address them. Combined with the political repression, Franco’s economic measures created the perfect breeding ground for a Basque resistance movement.
Story Guide
1. A sense of serenity
2. An island of antiquity
3. On Spain’s sinking ship
4. The birth of ETA
5. The Burgos Affair
6. ETA, post-Franco
7. The Dirty War
8. The new terrorism
9. Of Spain
10. Toward reconciliation
11. Passion for sacrifice
12. Sabin Etxea
Coda: Exhausted serenity
Navigate by map.

The resistance grew from bits and pieces of the wreckage of the civil war. The Basque government, then headquartered in Paris, was a distant but active advocate, supported financially by Basque exiles, many of whom retained a lifelong hatred of Franco for separating them from their homes and families. In Spain, Basques led a number of substantial labor strikes in the late 1940s, which, although largely unsuccessful, were among the first public demonstrations against the dictatorship. Young Basques organized mountain climbing clubs that offered an opportunity for clandestine political meetings.

Universidad de Deusto

Wikimedia
The Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao served as a meeting ground for early ETA activism.

In the 1950s, a group of Basque students began to meet secretly at the Jesuit Deusto University in Bilbao to discuss culture and politics. Although they respected PNV’s leadership for attempting to maintain governance under trying circumstances, they were frustrated about what they thought was its passivity against Franco. They were convinced that Basques would never receive concessions from Madrid without a fight.

On July 31, 1959, the feast day of the Basque Saint Ignatius of Loyola, some of the Deusto students and their associates formed ETA (“Euskadi ta Askatasuna” or the Basque Country and Freedom). At first, the group took symbolic steps, such as flying the banned Basque flag. But there was an appetite for a more radical response to Franco’s repression, and ETA soon tried something bolder. On July 18, 1961, ETA attempted to derail a train carrying Franco supporters to the Basque city of Donostia for a celebration honoring the 25th anniversary of the rebellion preceding the Spanish Civil War. Fearful of killing anyone, the group was so cautious laying bombs that it didn’t derail a single car. Despite the failure of ETA’s first operation, the Spanish response was swift and fierce. More than 100 suspected ETA members were arrested, tortured and given long jail sentences, a show of force that essentially shut the group down and sent its remaining members fleeing to France for a period of planning and reorganization.

As it regrouped over the next several years, ETA made a series of crucial operational and organizational decisions that shaped its course for the coming decades. It defined its ultimate goal: an independent Basque Country that included the three provinces “lost” to France. To achieve that state, ETA would use “all means possible, including violence,” the leadership announced in 1965. Woodworth quoting Loren Arkotxa, former mayor of Ondarroa, in World Policy Journal: “ETA is simply the thermometer which tells us we have an illness. It is the loudspeaker which transmits our conflict to a wider world.”As Irish journalist Paddy Woodworth has written, ETA settled on an action-repression-action strategy: By attacking Spanish police and military, ETA would force the Spanish government to overreact in response, which would in turn lead to even greater support from the Basque public.

ETA also developed its basic commando cell structure, which remained largely intact for the next four decades. Rather than forming one monolithic force, ETA would consist of many units of three to five members, locally organized but commanded by a single directorate based in France. Individual cells worked in complete secrecy, cut off from all other cells, and sometimes they knew the identities of only a handful of other members who were liaisons with the central leadership. The structure was efficient and essential to ETA’s survival over the years, particularly since any captured members would have little to report if they were caught and tortured, a common occurrence.

They also armed. The group stockpiled weapons and explosives, which it rarely had a problem obtaining, either through the international market (Paris and Brussels were fertile territory) or by theft from arsenals or factories in Spain. As historian Robert Clark noted, ETA’s success in obtaining arms was revealed during one Spanish police raid in the 1970s, when they arrested 123 ETA members and confiscated 30 submachine guns, 21 shotguns, 63 pistols, 45 extra magazines and 1,900 cartridges — about one gun for every member in the organization at the time. To pay for the weapons and to take care of commando members who were known to the Spanish police and therefore couldn’t hold regular jobs, ETA started robbing banks and, eventually, taking hostages and collecting “revolutionary taxes” paid by businesses that received ETA’s death threats, a technique learned from the IRA.
Negotiating with ETA: Obstacles to Peace in the Basque Country, 1975-1988

In June 1968, after conducting one of those bank robberies, two ETA members were stopped by a roadblock patrolled by two members of the Spanish Civil Guard, the elite paramilitary police force that was Franco’s front line against Basque separatism. The ETA members shot and killed one of the guards. He was the organization’s first victim. There would soon be many more. In August 1968, during a heavy rainfall, a single gunman shot a Spanish police commissioner, Melitón Manzanas, at close range in the Basque town of Irun. There was little doubt the assassin was a member of ETA, since Manzanas had a reputation as a sadist who relished beating and torturing Basque nationalists. Franco immediately imposed a state of exception in Gipuzkoa, temporarily suspending constitutional guarantees. It was the first of many such orders in the coming years. Dozens, if not hundreds, of suspected ETA members were arrested, including the pregnant wife of an ETA leader who suffered a miscarriage under torture.

THE BURGOS AFFAIR
Story Guide
1. A sense of serenity
2. An island of antiquity
3. On Spain’s sinking ship
4. The birth of ETA
5. The Burgos Affair
6. ETA, post-Franco
7. The Dirty War
8. The new terrorism
9. Of Spain
10. Toward reconciliation
11. Passion for sacrifice
12. Sabin Etxea
Coda: Exhausted serenity
Navigate by map.

At that point, ETA’s action-repression-action strategy was in full force and seemed to be working. Franco’s crackdown efforts — the checkpoints, the residential searches — affected almost all Basques, including those who hadn’t considered themselves nationalists. Hundreds of Basques with no ETA connection were arrested and tortured, deepening the hatred many had for the Franco regime. ETA was also helping to publicize Franco’s excesses to the world. In December 1970, right-wing forces in the Spanish Army convinced Franco to try 16 suspected ETA members collectively before a military tribunal in the northern city of Burgos, near the Basque region. It was a chaotic scene inside and outside the courtroom, and it captivated the international media. The defendants, including two priests, had limited access to their attorneys, who were not allowed to cross-examine witnesses. Three presiding army officers, one of whom brandished his ceremonial saber, rejected motion after motion by the defendants. A few days after Christmas, the court found all the accused but one guilty, and nine were given the death penalty. The rest were sentenced to an aggregate 341 years in prison.

Burgos


The Palacio de Justicia in Burgos was a scene of high tension during the ETA trials.

The trial and its result drew widespread condemnation. There were demonstrations in the Basque region on a scale never seen before. Pope Paul VI spoke out against the verdicts. The Catalonian painter Joán Miro locked himself in a monastery along with hundreds of others, declaring support for the “national rights of the Basque people.” Mobs attacked Spanish embassies in Western European countries and demanded that their governments break relations with Spain. Bowing to the international pressure, Franco commuted all the death sentences to 30 years in prison.

The whole Burgos affair was a public relations coup for ETA, and it was followed by another, the most dramatic attack in the organization’s history.

In 1972, ETA’s executive committee received an interesting piece of intelligence from one of its Madrid agents about Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, generally regarded as the power behind Franco and his likely successor. The agent reported that Carrero Blanco attended Mass daily at the same church in a wealthy Madrid neighborhood accompanied by only one bodyguard and a driver. Kidnapping Franco’s heir apparent, a huge blow against the regime, looked fairly achievable. ETA’s executive committee called it “Operation Ogro” (after Carrero Blanco’s nickname, “The Ogre”), a mission detailed by its principal operatives in a fascinating oral account with the same title. A four-man ETA commando team spent the early part of 1973 observing Carrero Blanco’s routine and planning the abduction. They watched Carrero Blanco travel to and from the Church of San Francisco de Borja, day after day, sometimes attending Mass themselves and sitting close enough to touch him.

But that June, Carrero Blanco was promoted to prime minister and president of the government, a position that brought heavy security. ETA reconsidered the plan. The executive committee concluded that kidnapping Carrero Blanco would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. It would be easier just to kill him. The commandos returned to Madrid and rented a basement apartment located along Carrero Blanco’s daily route. For months they dug a T-shaped tunnel through the wall and under the street in front of the building, storing the dirt in plastic bags in the apartment. They told their landlord they were student sculptors to explain the mess and the noise. The tunnel was finished in mid-December. Members of another ETA cell delivered explosives obtained from a cache stolen earlier in the year, and the materiel was placed deep in the tunnel, directly under the road where Carrero Blanco’s car would pass.

Luis Carrero Blanco

Gianni Cattaneo / Wikimedia
ETA targeted Franco’s heir apparent Luis Carrero Blanco with a 1973 car bombing that changed the course of Spanish history.

At about 9:25 a.m. December 20, 1973, the ETA cell, disguised as a group of electricians working on cables along the street, detonated the charge and escaped in the chaos afterward. The explosion thrust Carrero Blanco’s car over a five-story building and into a courtyard on the other side, killing Carrero Blanco, his driver and his bodyguard. Within days, ETA issued a statement claiming responsibility for the assassination, and confirmed it later at a press conference in France conducted by hooded members of the leadership.

The assassination altered Spain’s history. Carrero Blanco had been considered the only person capable of uniting the disparate sectors of Franco’s support and continuing the dictatorship after he was gone. Since there was no such heir apparent to take over when Franco died two years later, Prince Juan Carlos de Borbón reclaimed the throne on behalf of his family and immediately began the conversion of Spain to a constitutional monarchy.

It was ETA’s peak. If the organization had stopped then, it might have been viewed by history as a successful resistance movement fighting fascism. But it didn’t stop then.

ETA, POST-FRANCO

The years after Franco’s death in 1975 were ETA’s most active, with high-profile attack after high-profile attack. More than 90 percent of the 843 deaths that have been attributed to ETA occurred after Franco died; 20 percent happened from 1976 through 1979. In May 1977, several members disguised as hospital orderlies broke into the Bilbao home of wealthy industrialist Javier Ybarra and took him away in a stolen ambulance. ETA demanded the release of 23 Basque prisoners. Spanish President Adolfo Suárez agreed to the terms and began to release the prisoners, but then ETA demanded $14 million from Ybarra’s family, who couldn’t obtain the money. Ybarra’s body was soon found near an abandoned farmhouse in Nafarroa.

ETA militants celebrate The Day of the Basque Soldier.

Barcelona Indymedia / Wikimedia
ETA militants celebrate The Day of the Basque Soldier.

The organization began to target victims other than police and politicians, and to explode bombs in public places, often with advance warning so it could avoid casualties while still sending a message to the Spanish government. In July 1979, it activated more than a dozen bombs in Spanish luxury resorts and three in Madrid, including one at Barajas Airport, causing two deaths and multiple casualties. In 1980 ETA killed 94 people, its highest one-year total. A poll in the late 1970s by the magazine Cambio 16 showed that 53 percent of Spaniards were “seriously worried” about terrorism.

ETA clearly had no intention of retreating simply because Franco was dead. To the contrary, it was trying to influence the many crucial political events happening in rapid succession as Spain moved to democracy and Basques negotiated their future relationship with Madrid. In 1977, there were Spanish general elections, the first since the Civil War four decades earlier. In 1978, there was a referendum on a new Spanish constitution, which would set the framework for regional self-rule. And in 1979, there were negotiations and a vote over Basque autonomy. ETA likely believed that if Basques compromised and accepted a watered-down autonomy, Madrid would have no reason to negotiate again, since it could say it already gave Basques what they wanted. That meant that as the process went forward, terrorism was always in the background, no matter what was happening politically.

And things were shifting fast. Spanish voters approved a new constitution in 1978, and although more than half of eligible Basque voters followed PNV’s call to abstain, the document offered some advantages to the region. It recognized the “right to self-government of the nationalities” in Spain, including the Basques, who would be allowed to form an autonomous community.

Basques immediately introduced a proposed autonomy statute for the three provinces that would be part of the new Autonomous Basque Community: Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa (the province of Nafarroa would obtain a separate autonomy agreement). After painstaking negotiations that whittled down much of the Basques’ initial proposal, the Spanish government approved the arrangement. Among its most significant elements was the creation of the Autonomous Basque Government and a declaration that Basque was an official language in the community, along with Spanish. In October 1979, Basque voters approved the statute. Just as critically, Basques reached a new tax revenue arrangement with Madrid, the concierto economico. Basques would collect all taxes and submit to Madrid only the funds necessary to administer specific duties ceded to the central government — control over airports, borders, national defense and courts. All other tax revenue would be retained by the Basque government and spent as it saw fit on areas such as health care, education, transportation, industry, culture, arts and, especially critical at that time, police powers. Since then, Basques have controlled more than 90 percent of all tax revenue collected in the three provinces, spending it as they decide. It’s the only region in Spain, apart from Nafarroa, that obtained such a favorable arrangement.

THE DIRTY WAR
Story Guide
1. A sense of serenity
2. An island of antiquity
3. On Spain’s sinking ship
4. The birth of ETA
5. The Burgos Affair
6. ETA, post-Franco
7. The Dirty War
8. The new terrorism
9. Of Spain
10. Toward reconciliation
11. Passion for sacrifice
12. Sabin Etxea
Coda: Exhausted serenity
Navigate by map.
With Basques enjoying the greatest amount of self-rule in decades, and perhaps in their history, it seemed like a logical time for ETA to declare victory and disband. Many in ETA’s more politically inclined branch in fact abandoned violence in return for amnesty from the Spanish government. But much of the militant sector was dissatisfied, unwilling to cease operations until Basques had the opportunity to vote on separation. As if on cue, the separatists soon received another “propaganda gift,” as journalist Paddy Woodworth described it in Dirty War, Clean Hands, in the form of a Spanish counter-offensive that kept the organization active for many years.

French Basque


The French Basque provinces long provided shelter to ETA.

At the center of the event was the border between France and Spain. While ETA was theoretically fighting to erase that border, it wouldn’t have been able to survive without it. ETA enjoyed a de facto sanctuary in the French-Basque provinces, where it couldn’t be pursued by the Spanish authorities. Its members often existed quite openly in France, bringing their families over and opening successful businesses in a kind of radical utopia among their French-Basque brethren. They were aided by poor relations between Madrid and Paris. During the Franco era, the French Government was somewhat sympathetic to ETA exiles, sometimes awarding them political refugee status. After Franco died, the French remained reluctant to hunt down ETA members, much less extradite them to Spain. When the Spanish government submitted a list of ETA members living in France and requested that they be pursued, French Interior Minister Gaston Deferre dismissed it as “old propaganda.”

To really destroy ETA, Spain would have to be bold enough to attack in French territory. That was the atmosphere in which senior members of Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González’s Socialist administration initiated an operation to assassinate ETA members in France, an effort that became known as the “the dirty war.” The first action by the organization Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL) came in October 1983, when Spanish Civil Guards abducted two young ETA members in France, ushered them across the border and tortured them for several weeks in a specially prepared dungeon outside Donostia. Their remains were found two years later buried in quicklime deep within Spain (a Civil Guard general and Socialist politician were eventually convicted of their murders). During its three years of operation, GAL killed at least 27 people, some of whom were not ETA members, including two young girls who were shot in a gun attack in the French-Basque town of Bayonne. After a long investigation by magistrate Baltasar Garzón (who later gained international fame by issuing a warrant for the arrest of Augusto Pinochet), it was discovered that GAL had ties to the highest level of Spanish security forces. GAL operatives and several high-level politicians, including Interior Minister José Barrionuevo, were convicted. For remaining ETA members, the scandal legitimized their actions and boosted recruitment for years.

“Why should a few dozen people get to speak for millions of others who don’t agree with them?”

But any good will ETA might have gained from the affair was short-lived, overshadowed by the group’s own horrific and senseless actions. In the 1980s, the organization seemed to detach itself from reality, from any concrete goals and from its dwindling Basque support, completing its evolution “from a separatist group to a terrorist group,” as a Basque journalist described it later. In 1987, a three-man commando team in Barcelona detonated a car bomb below a busy supermarket, killing 21 people, all civilians, including a young pregnant woman and two children, ages 9 and 13. It was the largest single action in the organization’s history. Around the same time, some of ETA’s supporters began an urban guerilla movement called the kale borroka (street fight), an effort, as some described, to “socialize the suffering” for all Basques, supposedly so they could better identify with the sacrifices of the organization’s prisoners and militants and feel some pain themselves. Its main method was vandalism. Groups of young men pushed over buses, burned ATMs and hurled Molotov cocktails at businesses. Not surprisingly, it was a spectacular failure among Basques. For decades, they had been killed and harassed by Franco. Now they were being killed and harassed by ETA.

The organization was out of touch with Basque society and appeared completely indifferent to human life. In 1996, ETA kidnapped a Spanish prison officer, José Antonio Ortega Lara, and held him for a year and a half in an eight-by-six foot windowless room in an abandoned factory. Civil Guard troops finally rescued Ortega Lara in July 1997 without firing a shot, and he appeared on television that night, disorientated and cadaverous after 532 days in captivity. It was a damaging image for ETA, and it was followed just a few weeks later by an event that likely destroyed any remaining popular support for the organization. An ETA commando kidnapped Miguel Ángel Blanco, a popular 29-year-old councilor in the Basque town of Ermua. ETA issued an ultimatum: Blanco would be killed unless the Spanish returned all ETA prisoners to the Basque Country within 48 hours. Shortly after the deadline expired, Blanco’s body was found in the woods of Gipuzkoa. His hands were tied and there were two bullets in the back of his head. The kidnapping and murder brought millions to the streets throughout Spain and made headlines worldwide. Basque outrage toward ETA was deep and remained that way. “Why should a few dozen people get to speak for millions of others who don’t agree with them?” one Basque man asked.

ETA stood alone. While it was still exploding bombs and kidnapping businessmen and politicians in the late 1990s, the Irish Republican Army and its political allies were negotiating the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. Its signing in April 1998 was a blow to many in ETA who had viewed the IRA as a fellow revolutionary group that wouldn’t quit until it achieved total victory. International news media would soon routinely describe ETA, quite accurately, as the last remaining terrorist organization in Western Europe.

As Paddy Woodworth describes, an incident in January 1999 symbolized the group’s deterioration. To honor the first anniversary of ETA’s assassination of a town councilor, the victim’s family gathered with local politicians to lay flowers at his gravesite. After they left, a bomb planted by ETA exploded, scattering remains of the dead around the cemetery.

THE NEW TERRORISM
Story Guide
1. A sense of serenity
2. An island of antiquity
3. On Spain’s sinking ship
4. The birth of ETA
5. The Burgos Affair
6. ETA, post-Franco
7. The Dirty War
8. The new terrorism
9. Of Spain
10. Toward reconciliation
11. Passion for sacrifice
12. Sabin Etxea
Coda: Exhausted serenity
Navigate by map.
September 11, 2001 only hastened ETA’s decline. Within months of the attacks, the Spanish government convinced all 15 European Union member states, for the first time, to declare ETA a terrorist organization. Madrid also began to target ETA’s political allies. In summer 2002, the Spanish parliament banned the Basque left party, Batasuna. Judge Baltasar Garzon ordered Batasuna to pay more than 23.4 million Euros (about $22.8 million, in 2002 dollars) in damages from bombings and vandalism.

Scene from the 2004 train bombings in Madrid.


Scene from the 2004 train bombings in Madrid.

In its zeal to crush ETA, however, the Spanish government once again overreached. On March 11, 2004, days before Spanish general elections, explosions blasted four commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people. Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, himself the survivor of a 1995 ETA car bomb, immediately blamed the bombings on ETA, even though the attack didn’t fit the organization’s modus operandi or known capacity. After the initial shock dissipated, many Spaniards began to suspect that Aznar had misled the country about ETA’s role and downplayed indications that the operation had been conducted by an Al Qaeda group retaliating for Spain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq, which was deeply unpopular among voters. (An official investigation by the Spanish judiciary eventually concluded that the attack was done by an Al Qaeda-inspired cell.) That weekend, the Socialist Party soundly defeated Aznar’s Partido Popular.

The resurrection of the Socialists, combined with ETA’s weakness and the recent, successful precedent in Northern Ireland, seemed to align the stars for a negotiated conclusion to the problem. In May 2005, Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero offered peace talks to ETA on the condition that they agree to a permanent end to violence. The following March ETA finally responded, announcing a “permanent ceasefire,” and Zapatero confirmed publicly that the Spanish government was negotiating with ETA. But there were no signs of progress, and in late October, ETA was suspected of stealing more than 350 handguns and ammunition from a factory in France. In December 2006, ETA detonated a van bomb in a parking lot outside Madrid’s Barajas Airport, killing two Ecuadorian immigrants who were asleep in their parked car and injuring 52 others. It was an enormous disappointment to those who had hoped ETA was finally finished. Zapatero promptly declared the end of any peace process. Over the next four years, ETA would kill 10 people and continue its high profile attacks, including the July 2009 bombing of a Civil Guard barracks in Burgos in which 65 were injured.

But whether negotiated or not, ETA’s end seemed near. Most fundamentally, the organization’s ranks were thinning. From 2007 through 2010, Spanish police ran a series of successful raids on commandos and arms caches, and the French, who by then had abandoned passivity toward alleged terrorists living within their borders, netted a number of high-profile arrests of the organization’s leadership.

Yet the ultimate blow may have come from ETA’s own political allies. Basque popular support for ETA had traveled a long, torturous route over the decades. During the Franco regime, when Basques suffered the consequences of dictatorship and ETA undertook some of its most spectacular actions, the organization enjoyed a significant amount of respect from Basques. A 1978 survey showed that while only about 6 percent of Basques supported armed struggle to achieve independence, 32 percent considered ETA to be patriots, and about half supported the group’s political goals. Two decades later, that support had essentially disappeared.

The political party most associated with ETA was Batasuna, which routinely received around 10 to 15 percent of the vote until its 2002 ban (after 2002, Batasuna was known by a variety of other names). Even though it denied any ties to ETA, Batasuna didn’t publicly condemn the organization’s attacks for years. That changed after the party continued to be barred from elections regardless of changes to its platform, and, in particular, after ETA ended its 2006 ceasefire with the Madrid airport bombing. Disillusioned and isolated, the party undertook an intense debate over cutting itself off completely from the organization. “ETA had always imposed its will on Batasuna,” said Joseba Zulaika, a professor and co-director at the Center for Basque Studies at University of Nevada, Reno who has written extensively about ETA and Basque politics. But the party “realized that ETA was disastrous politically.” Batasuna’s leadership gradually met with local supporters “town by town,” Zulaika said, convincing them that it was time for ETA to give up and that they should say so publicly.

Their opportunity came in September 2010, when ETA offered a murky ceasefire purporting to end “offensive operations” but not “defensive ones.” Batasuna leaders publicly criticized the announcement, saying that ETA had to declare a ceasefire that was “unilateral, permanent and verifiable by the international community.” It was a role reversal: The party was calling the shots for the militants. “[ETA] could not operate without political support,” Zulaika said. “ETA was politically finished. At the social level, it was finished. In practical terms, it was finished. In some ways, it had already died years ago.”

On October 17, 2011, a group of international negotiators, including former United Nations head Kofi Annan, former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, met for a peace conference in the Basque Country. The group urged ETA to end violence and called on the Spanish and French governments to negotiate “technical” issues, such as the fate of ETA prisoners and a disarmament process. Three days later, the flash drive was delivered to Martxelo Otamendi at Berria. ETA announced the end of its violent movement. It was over.

OF SPAIN

But was it over? In the two years since it announced the end of its armed campaign, ETA has refused to officially disarm. ETA had declared at least six ceasefires before, so there has been reason for skepticism. Yet almost all of the dozens of knowledgeable people I spoke with while doing research on this story in the Basque Country had little doubt that ETA is finished (except for one, who still retained a bodyguard). In early 2012, several months after ETA’s announcement, Rodolfo Ares, then Basque interior minister, announced he had solid information proving ETA had stopped recruiting. ETA itself issued a statement a year ago reaffirming its decision.

“After ETA’s announcement, Partido Popular condemned ETA as they always do, but they condemned it with a small ‘c.’ It would shock me if ETA got zero out of that announcement.”

Some observers were confident partly because they believed the Spanish had in fact negotiated a deal with ETA, likely focused on the fate of members who were in prison or at large. The Basque left has long objected to the treatment of the approximately 600 imprisoned ETA members, particularly their detention far from the Basque region — and, as many suggest, because their convictions were based on confessions coerced by torture. Spanish officials may have concluded that a complete surrender by ETA, even a weak and dying ETA, was worth concessions on the release or transfer of prisoners, and perhaps some form of amnesty for those at large. One observer who was involved in previous negotiation efforts told me that he “couldn’t imagine ETA’s giving up” without such a deal. He pointed out that ETA’s “definitive” announcement came only weeks before the November 2011 Spanish government elections, when it was all but certain that the Socialists were going to lose badly to the hard-line Partido Popular. “Why would ETA announce at that time?” he asked. Without a deal, “the timing would be preposterous. After ETA’s announcement, Partido Popular condemned ETA as they always do, but they condemned it with a small ‘c.’ It would shock me if ETA got zero out of that announcement.”

ETA press conference


ETA members announce 2012 cease fire, perhaps their final action as an organization

If there had been such concessions, they weren’t immediately implemented. The Spanish and French governments have continued hunting suspected members, and at least 24 have been arrested since ETA’s announcement, including Izaskun Lesaka, allegedly head of the organization’s arms and explosives caches, who was captured in eastern France October 28, 2012. (She is suspected to be one of the three hooded members appearing in ETA’s October 2011 announcement video.) There was also no public change to the prisoner situation, and protests, posters and graffiti honoring imprisoned members were still abundant throughout the Basque provinces. In early October 2013, thousands marched in Bilbao to demand that prisoners be brought to the Basque Country to serve their sentences.

There was one change in the prisoner situation about a year ago, however, and it concerned the fate of Iosu Uribetxeberria, a jailed ETA member who was in the late stages of kidney cancer. (Uribetxeberria was serving a 32-year sentence for the kidnapping of José Antonio Ortega, the Spanish prison officer who was held for 532 days.) The Spanish government agreed to grant Uribetxeberria special status to apply for release on humanitarian grounds, a decision affirmed by the Supreme Court. He was released last October. (Uribetxeberria is alive but doctors have concluded his cancer is “irreversible.”)

The release was condemned by organizations of ETA’s victims and by their most vocal political supporters in the Partido Popular, which currently controls the Spanish government. Formed in part by former Franco devotees, the party first came to power in the mid-1990s under former Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, who cut his teeth in a student group supporting the Falange, Franco’s political organization. He moderated the party’s appearance as a reactionary holdover from the dictatorship, and it managed to gain an absolute majority in 2000 (as it did again in the 2011 elections held just weeks after ETA’s announcement). Partido Popular had consistently taken a hard line against ETA, refusing to negotiate under any circumstances, and it opposes any effort to devolve additional powers to the regions. Not surprisingly, the party has remained a relatively small opposition party in the Basque provinces, gaining just 11 percent of the vote in the Basque government elections last October.

“We have always been Spanish, and there is not a single moment in our history when we have not been Spanish.”

One day, I met Juana Bengoetxea, a vice president for Partido Popular’s Basque regional organization. It was a drizzly, muggy day, a public holiday, so it was quiet on the square in front of the Irun city hall where we had agreed to meet. She came with a bodyguard, who seemed unimpressed with me and disappeared almost immediately. Bengoetxea asked if we could drive, and we took a circuitous route to her home in a suburb of Hendaia, just across the French border. We sat in her kitchen and she made coffee and chain-smoked. She reminded me that her great grandfather was an early Basque Nationalist Party leader, a contemporary of the party’s founder, Sabino Arana. I asked her how it came to pass that his great granddaughter now belonged to a party that was adamant against Basque independence.

“All nationalism is the same,” she said. “It’s like a religion. Basque nationalists are guided by emotion, not reason. They live a lie and deny who they are. Yes, we are Basque. But we are also Spanish. We have always been Spanish, and there is not a single moment in our history when we have not been Spanish.”

Unlike others I spoke with, Bengoetxea did not discuss ETA in the past tense. She estimated there were 300 members still at large, either abroad or within the Basque region, at least three times more than the highest estimates I’d seen. It reminded me of a comment that one Basque made about Partido Popular’s reluctance to give up the political advantages ETA offered: “Partido Popular is not comfortable with ETA being done. Partido Popular is comfortable with ETA.” It seemed like a cynical view, but it wasn’t inconsistent with what Bengoetxea said. “ETA views itself as an army of an independent Euskadi,” she told me. “It’s absurd to think that an army would just disappear overnight. And that is because neither the lie nor the hatred has been extinguished.” ETA’s supporters “have an illness,” she said.“It’s hatred. ETA is just a symptom of that illness. The leftists are doing what they’ve always done, to make the oppressors seem like the victims. They want to save their own history so they are also fighting for that. What is the narrative going to be for the next 40 to 50 years? That’s what we’re fighting over now. What is the narrative going to be?”

Her feelings about ETA were not especially surprising since many of her friends and colleagues have been killed, wounded or threatened by the organization. And she had her own scare from ETA. In 1996, while walking up the stairs to her Partido Popular office, she saw two ETA members trying to break in. They fled. “I knew I was a target. My heart was pounding and my hands were sweating. I felt like I was floating.” She soon moved from Irun across the French border to Hendaia and hired two bodyguards. She’s had at least one ever since.

Partido Popular has developed a strong relationship with the Association of Victims of Terrorism (AVT), one of the largest victims groups in Spain. ATV has long opposed negotiations with ETA and continues to demonstrate against any act that seems a form of appeasement. Other victims’ groups have remained active despite ETA’s apparent demise, because as one Basque pointed out, their parents, children, spouses aren’t coming back, whether ETA exists or not.

TOWARD RECONCILIATION
Story Guide
1. A sense of serenity
2. An island of antiquity
3. On Spain’s sinking ship
4. The birth of ETA
5. The Burgos Affair
6. ETA, post-Franco
7. The Dirty War
8. The new terrorism
9. Of Spain
10. Toward reconciliation
11. Passion for sacrifice
12. Sabin Etxea
Coda: Exhausted serenity
Navigate by map.
I felt a part of the consequences of ETA’s violence when I shook hands with Gorka Landaburu, the editor of the popular news magazine Cambio 16. Landaburu was missing a thumb and several fingers, which were blown off in May 2001 when he opened a package bomb ETA sent to his home in the Basque town of Zarautz. The package looked like a news magazine he subscribed to, and he opened it up without a thought, detonating the dynamite inside. Alone in the apartment, he managed to reach his front door and yell for help. Besides the damage to his hands, he lost sight in one eye and hearing in both ears.

I met Landaburu at a Donostia hotel lounge, which offered a view of the city’s breathtaking bay, quite a contrast to the grisly story Landaburu was telling me. Yet he told it without an ounce of bitterness. Landaburu’s father, Francisco Javier de Landaburu, was a senior member of PNV, the vice president of the Basque Government in exile in Paris after the Civil War. Gorka was born there in 1951 but moved to the Basque Country in the early 1970s. He became a well-known journalist, a frequent critic of ETA. His attack received heavy publicity, and he remained under bodyguard protection for more than 10 years. “I decided to stay in Euskadi” after the attack, he said. “I wanted to show them I wasn’t afraid, to reaffirm what I had been writing about all along. I wasn’t going to go into exile. And we won in the end.” His attack reflected ETA’s lack of judgment, he said, particularly its use of violence without any apparent objective besides spreading fear. “All of the sudden they started to attack journalists, businessmen. They recruited young people to damage and vandalize businesses; they ‘socialized the suffering.’ That was just a reflection of what had always happened. The radical, violent sector of the group always won out. Whenever there was a ceasefire and some type of negotiation, it wasn’t the Spanish prime ministers who ended things. It was ETA. In the end, it was finally their political side that said ‘enough.’ That was it. ETA stopped now out of necessity, not out of conviction.”

Shortly after ETA’s announcement in 2011, Landaburu met with seven imprisoned members. None had been involved in his attack, yet all of them apologized for it. Although there is no formal reconciliation program among ETA and its victims, such sessions have become more common in recent years, facilitated by Madrid’s Department of Victims of Terrorism and its equivalent in the Basque Government. Generally, the meetings have happened at the request of prisoners. Some have apologized directly to the families of victims of their own crimes, and, as in Landaburu’s case, most seem ashamed and regret the whole enterprise. Landaburu accepted their apology, but he said that while such events help, they don’t change what ETA did. “My father and those after him fought against dictatorship. We’ve instead fought against another form of dictatorship, the dictatorship of ETA and terrorism. Now we have to teach kids that terrorism was just as evil as dictatorship. We need to turn the page. But we should read it first.”

PASSION FOR SACRIFICE

If ETA considered itself to be at war, it undoubtedly lost. But did it achieve anything in the process? That’s a difficult, politically charged question that I asked many people. I heard a variety of answers. “It was a total disaster for us,” one Donostia resident told me. “A few hundred militant leftists got to speak for the millions of the rest of us all those years? They set us back decades.” One Basque politician simply said, “We were colonized by ETA.” Some felt that ETA might have been justified in its early years, as a balance against Franco’s excesses, but any such justification disappeared long ago. “The violence did have some explanation during the dictatorship,” Gorka Landaburu, the journalist injured by an ETA package bomb, said. “But [ETAs’] ideology at the end had nothing to do with the ideology of 50 years ago, of the 1950s and 1960s.” Martxelo Otamendi, the editor of the Basque-language Berria newspaper said, “In the beginning, they were effective. They took their model from [Basque Nationalist Party founder] Sabino Arana, not Che Guevara. They created an atmosphere for others to follow, cultural activities, plays, concerts in Basque. Internationally, there’s no question they made people aware of the problems in the Basque Country, Franco’s repression. But the cost was very high. A lot of people died. It would have been much better if they had ended 30 years ago.”

Leaving aside the morality of its methods, ETA undoubtedly played a role in changing Spain’s political structure. The assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s heir apparent, effectively ended the dictatorship and opened the path for democracy, but ETA’s ongoing presence influenced many other events. “[ETA] accomplished a lot,” said William Douglass, a founder and emeritus director of the Center for Basque Studies at University of Nevada, Reno. “There wouldn’t be a Spain of the autonomies without ETA. During the negotiations [over the post-Franco transition], ETA was the teeth of the barking dog. ETA was always present in the room during the negotiations, even without having a representative in the room. They turned Spain into a federal republic.”

The difficult thing to understand is why ETA wasn’t satisfied with that, and why it continued fighting long past the point of diminishing practical returns. There were likely many reasons, but one crucial aspect was the ties of an “unconscious brotherhood,” as professor Joseba Zulaika described it. “When you have family that was killed or tortured, there is a sense of shared suffering, and the power of suffering is something you can’t change easily. You feel beholden to a struggle and a way of thinking. You’d rather be wrong than feel a traitor to those you love.” To abandon that ideal, Zulaika said, “is a difficult conversion. It’s a step that requires deep reflection and deep change. You’re giving up the passion for sacrifice.”

SABIN ETXEA
Story Guide
1. A sense of serenity
2. An island of antiquity
3. On Spain’s sinking ship
4. The birth of ETA
5. The Burgos Affair
6. ETA, post-Franco
7. The Dirty War
8. The new terrorism
9. Of Spain
10. Toward reconciliation
11. Passion for sacrifice
12. Sabin Etxea
Coda: Exhausted serenity
Navigate by map.
One morning in the summer of 2012, I visited Sabin Etxea, the elegant, massive headquarters of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in central Bilbao. Aitor Esteban Bravo, a PNV representative in the lower house of Spanish Parliament, gave me a brief tour of the building, which was almost deserted for the August holidays. Sabin Etxea (“Sabino’s house”) stands on the site of the childhood home of Sabino Arana, the party’s founder. In 1960, Franco ordered the home to be razed. Only a few pieces were saved, including a balcony, now set at one end of the headquarters’ enormous foyer, and I gripped its iron rails as Esteban Bravo and I spoke about the building and the state of his party.

The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.

Txanoduna / Flickr
The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.

Since its founding in 1895, PNV has become a force in the Basque provinces, the dominant mainstream expression of Basque nationalism, managing to appeal both to those content with a relatively strong regional government within Spain, and to others who want complete independence. For decades after the Spanish Civil War, the party managed, at least symbolically, to govern in exile, and even some Basques who don’t belong to PNV retain a deep respect for the early party leader’s heroics. Except for one four-year period, PNV has led all Basque governments since the creation of the Basque Autonomous Community in 1980, and in last October’s regional elections, it won a plurality of the vote with 34 percent, allowing its members to elect Iñigo Urkullu as president of the Basque Government.

Yet PNV has always had a difficult juggling task, trying to work within Spain’s political framework to gain greater Basque autonomy without appearing to collaborate too closely with Spanish parties — all the while having to distance itself from ETA. Few have experienced that challenge as much as Esteban Bravo, who has represented Bizkaia province in the central Spanish parliament since 2004. “We in PNV have always thought we had to convince people about our goals with openness, with our kindest face. ETA had another strategy, and it cost us everything. Violence is the biggest reason we don’t have independence today. We were ostracized internationally, including by those who probably would have given us our strongest support. The Catalonians. The Scottish. They’d say, ‘Oh, don’t mix us up with Basques. They’re different because of the violence.’ But now, without ETA, the Spanish state can’t say ‘no’ to everything anymore because they won’t have the usual excuse: the terrorists. Without ETA, we can defy the [Spanish] state democratically.”

While ETA’s end will almost certainly bring advantages to PNV, it also presents challenges. The other Basque nationalist parties, also free of ETA’s burden, can now legally participate in elections, and there is already stiff competition for the Basque vote. In the Spanish general elections held the month after ETA’s announcement, Bildu, a coalition of Basque nationalist parties won a quarter of the vote, beating PNV and taking over town halls throughout the Basque Country. Bildu finished just behind PNV in the October 2012 Basque elections. The Bildu coalition represents a substantial sector of Basque society that believes PNV moves too slowly to achieve independence, that it’s too comfortable with a status-quo relationship with Spain. The recent electoral results may be the beginning of a long rivalry and could partly explain why the mood among many Basques still seemed subdued, despite ETA’s being out of the picture. “People aren’t happier about ETA [ending] because we still have a long way to go. We’re still in a tough political time,” Esteban Bravo said. “The Basque parties are still very far apart. They all agree on the same goal, which is independence. But it’s how to get there that’s different.”

One thing they all share is a keen interest in what happens in Scotland, which plans to hold a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom next year. “If that’s successful,” Berria editor Martxelo Otamendi told me, “that might create some space to work through Europe, a precedent we can follow over time. We might be able to swim in behind the current that Scotland creates.” He and others recognize that Scotland is different, and that the Spanish government, particularly one led by the far right Partido Popular, would oppose such an effort. Still, passage of a Scottish referendum would be welcome news among Basque nationalists. PNV’s annual carnival last year had a Scottish theme. Some of the leadership wore kilts.

And ETA’s ending was merely the most dramatic in a series of events that have made Basque independence seem a more realistic proposition. “Basque nationalism is not going away,” professor William Douglass said. The Spanish government might have to worry about “losing the peace.” Over time, Basques will have a stronger case using only political means, without the weight of ETA’s violence. “There could be a sense that once you take away ETA, you take away the bogeyman. They won’t be able to portray all Basques as [terrorist] sympathizers.”

There is also Spain’s economic trouble, which has increased popular support for regional independence. Catalonia, a region that’s responsible for about one-fifth of Spain’s economy, has complained about paying more to Madrid — $15 to $20 billion annually — than it gets back in spending. Last September, on their national day, more than one million Catalans marched in the streets. A motion to permit a Catalonian independence referendum was soundly defeated in the Spanish parliament last fall, but with recent polls showing about half of Catalonians wanting a separate state, the issue will likely return.

Basques have a more favorable economic arrangement with Madrid than the Catalonians, but the recession and financial crisis have left more Basques feeling they’d be better off without Spain. The Basque economy, focused on its traditional manufacturing strength, has been less affected by the finance and real estate busts that have crippled the rest of Spain, and unemployment in the Basque provinces is about half of the 25 percent Spanish rate. As in Catalonia, these numbers have only increased calls for independence. Even before the economic downturn, Basques had taken concrete steps in that direction. In 2005, by a thin majority, the Basque Parliament approved a plan pushed by former president Juan José Ibarretxe that would have created separate judicial and financial systems and provided for separate citizenship. Spain’s Parliament flatly rejected the plan. Even if Basques were allowed to vote on independence, the outcome isn’t guaranteed. Basque parties received about 60 percent of the vote in recent regional elections, but that wouldn’t necessarily translate into a successful independence referendum. Voting for a party is quite different from voting for a new country. Still, in a poll taken shortly after ETA’s October 2011 announcement, 56 percent of Basques supported holding a referendum on self-determination.

Regardless, as even ETA acknowledged in its announcement, “a new political time is emerging in the Basque Country” after eight decades of civil war, dictatorship and terrorism. ETA, with its package bombs, hooded messengers and Marxist, revolutionary rhetoric, had long been an anachronism in an area with one of the highest standards of living in Europe. What I had perceived as a lack of enthusiasm over its ending might have simply been signs that Basques had long moved away from ETA, beyond it. While violence stole headlines, the vast majority of Basques had been focused on tasks like making sure their ancient language survives another century, an effort that has been relatively successful, particularly recognizing the real risks of extinction that Euskara faced during Franco’s era. There are thriving Basque language radio and television stations and most schoolchildren in the Basque Autonomous Community receive the majority of their education in Euskara. Last August, an astrophysicist explained on Basque television how a multinational mission managed to land a rover on Mars. That he did it in Basque seemed almost as impressive to me as the landing itself.

CODA: EXHAUSTED SERENITY
Story Guide
1. A sense of serenity
2. An island of antiquity
3. On Spain’s sinking ship
4. The birth of ETA
5. The Burgos Affair
6. ETA, post-Franco
7. The Dirty War
8. The new terrorism
9. Of Spain
10. Toward reconciliation
11. Passion for sacrifice
12. Sabin Etxea
Coda: Exhausted serenity
Navigate by map.

After leaving my meeting with Estaban Bravo at Basque Nationalist Party headquarters, I walked through central Bilbao. Even on a scorching August day, with much of the city on vacation, there was a lot of movement. After decades of deterioration, when the city became a place that the New York Times described as “the ideal setting for a film on the death of the industrial revolution,” Bilbao had reinvented itself, erecting dozens of new buildings, and even many of the old buildings seemed new, with their grime sandblasted off. I walked by the city’s most recognizable new building, the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, with its titanium sheets curving around like ship sails. A large crowd lined up for the museum’s major exhibition of paintings by English artist David Hockney.

Behind the museum, I sat for a while on a short wall and looked at the Nervión River. Twenty years ago, the river was a nearly immobile mass of brown sludge formed by decades of uninterrupted pollution. Now it was clear. I could see rocks on its bed, fish swimming, a sparkle on the surface where the sun reflected.

See writer Mark Bieter’s backgrounder on the research and writing of “The Rise and Fall of ETA” on his own blog.It was difficult to imagine that near the same spot in 1997, ETA gunmen had shot and killed a Basque policemen guarding the museum on the eve of its opening. It was one of many things that were difficult to imagine about the ETA years: how the organization had managed to survive for decades in such a condensed area; how it could have recruited so consistently among a population that has a distaste for violence, in a place with a low crime rate and strict gun laws.

Above all, it was difficult to imagine why ETA kept going so long after any point of justification, long after it had lost broad Basque support, where even its ending was met not with exuberance but an exhausted “serenity,” as one Basque described it. It could simply be that ETA members were incapable of surrendering because they were too far into a battle without having achieved the ultimate goal. A Basque man knowledgeable about the organization said to try to look at it from ETA’s perspective. “Whether to join ETA or not was a difficult decision. You gave up forever any normal life you may have had. You might not see your family again. There was a very good chance you’d end up in prison or in a grave.  Once you’d made that commitment, you lived in a different sort of reality. Even though you’re losing badly, you want to maintain a sort of dignity, so you keep up the fight. It’s very hard to see from the outside, but when you live in ETA’s reality, it makes some sense. You don’t want to give up and accept that you did it all for nothing.”

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.

  • SteveHards

    Congratulations, Mark, on the most balanced and comprehensive article on
    the history of ETA that I have ever read. I am English and my wife is
    Spanish-Basque. I have been visiting that beautiful part of the world
    since 1974 – and lived there for a few of those years – and so have
    lived through much of the time you have so accurately described. I
    recall the emotion in my wife’s village the first time that the Basque
    flag was flown from the town hall after Franco died.

    If I may, I’d like to add a footnote because I do not recall seeing it mentioned
    in any texts about ETA: the founders undoubtedly had a sense of humour
    and were clever marketers. I say this because although ETA is an acronym
    (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), ‘eta’ is Basque for ‘and’. This means that
    Basque speakers are constantly and subconsciously reminded of the
    organisation each time they speak, read or listen. Also, after the death
    of Franco, when ETA started to spawn political organisations to
    represent it one of these in 1976 was KAS (Koordinadora Abertzale
    Sozialista). ‘Kas’ was the local market-leading fizzy drink at the time!
    I am sure there must be other examples of which I am unaware.

  • Matt Whisnant

    I taught English and lived in Vitoria– serendipitously– during the tregua of 1998-99. I fell deeply in love with the Basque Country, its traditions, its people, its food, and its way of life. Daily life was more idyllic than I can even begin to explain to anyone who has never lived there. I miss it almost every day.

    As an American southerner and a scholar with a MPhil in Scottish Studies, I found ETA and the Basque separatist movement fascinating. I also found it frightening. I saw the allure it held to some of my young students, particularly those struggling in some way or another with the hardships of life. Any kid who got the reputation (whether real or imagined) of involvement with ETA immediately had a dark sort of caché. Virtually every Basque I knew supported a greater degree of Basque independence, so it was sometimes hard to tell where any given individual drew the line with their support. Even the most vocal Basque nationalists I knew decried and renounced violence. But I always wondered if, for some, that renunciation of violence was just an act they put on for outsiders. (This was probably unfair, though, not unlike northerners who believe that all southerners are secrectly racist.)

    I wish I had been able to read such an illuminating piece about the history of ETA and Basque separatism while I was living there. Bravo and thank you for the excellent work.

    -Matt Whisnant