Gloom Returns to Basque Lands as ETA Terrorists Renew Attacks in Spain

Times Staff Writer

Hope burst through the Basque lands of northern Spain for a few weeks this year.

As a Spanish government official met with leaders of ETA, the Basque terrorist organization, supporters of the separatists hung up gaily colored banners calling out “Negotiate!” in the Basques’ language. No one had been killed thus far in 1988. No one had been kidnaped. “For the first time,” Basque businessman and politician Ramon de la Sota recalled, “people could open their eyes and say, ‘There may be peace.’ ”

Then, ETA struck again. In late February, the group kidnaped a businessman, demanding a huge ransom. The Spanish government suspended the talks, which were being held in Algeria. Some Basques still hoped that the abduction might only be a blunder of some kind.

But by spring, ETA made it clear that the kidnaping was no fluke. It bombarded the living quarters of a Civil Guard post with eight powerful grenades, killing a 24-year-old Civil Guard as he drove home with his wife, and fatally shot an 81-year-old retired air force general as he left church on Palm Sunday.


Distant, Fragile Hope

Now, an icy gloom has returned to the Basque lands. Madrid has said it will not talk with ETA as long as the killings continue. And Basques now feel that their problem is as intractable as ever--and that, at best, peace is no more than a distant and fragile hope.

Many Basques still blame their troubles on the national government of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez. They insist that government officials misinterpreted an offer by ETA in January to negotiate a truce.

The government apparently felt that ETA was acting out of weakness, reeling from heavy blows by the French and Spanish police. Instead of dealing with ETA seriously, many Basques believe, the government gloated in triumph even during negotiations in Algeria--and ETA reacted by killing in a show of renewed strength.


For Spain, the Basque problem is a dispiriting blot on one of the most remarkable peaceful transitions in European history. While many outsiders predicted great social upheaval after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain transformed itself swiftly and smoothly from a dictatorship into a European democracy. There have been moments of tension in the transition but hardly any bloodshed, except from the Basque conflict.

Spain has now become such a normal European country that, if it were not for the Basque problem, the most significant controversies these days would center on the design of a modernistic, dog-like creature as the mascot for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the campaign of the cigar-chomping Gonzalez and his government against smoking. Most Spaniards think the design awful and the campaign hypocritical.

But the Basque problem continues to capture as many headlines as the mascot and cigars. In a terrorist war to set up a separate Basque state, ETA, whose initials stand for the slogan “Basque Homeland and Freedom” in the Basques’ language, has killed more than 400 people in the last decade, mostly members of the Spanish army and the Civil Guard, the Spanish paramilitary police.

“If I had the power, I would not know what to propose as a solution,” said one European diplomat who knows the situation well. “This is Lebanon, Palestine, Northern Ireland and Lorraine.”

By citing Lorraine, the diplomat was invoking the French province that has come to symbolize the woefully depressed heavy-industry areas of Europe. The Basque lands are among the worst such areas. Protesting workers who lost their jobs when their shipbuilding plant closed three years ago still set down fiery barricades across the main bridge in Bilbao several days a week. Half the young people of the region are unemployed. This situation helps make recruitment easy for ETA.

But the problem of Basque terrorism goes far deeper than economics. It may even go far deeper than ETA.

“The problem is not ETA,” said Fernando Garcia de Cortazar, a Basque historian at the Jesuit University of Deusto in Bilbao. “The problem is Basque nationalism.”

The intensity of the nationalism is far out of proportion to the numbers of people. The three Basque provinces in northern Spain, a nub of land on the Atlantic edge of the Pyrenees Mountains, have a population of only 2,135,000, a little more than 5% of the total population of Spain.


40% Not Basque

Even this overstates the reality. Perhaps 40% of the people of the Basque region are not Basque but are immigrants or the children of immigrants from other parts of Spain. Fewer than a third of the people of the region speak Euskera, the Basques’ language.

Basque nationalism was spawned during the region’s industrialization toward the end of the 19th Century, powered, in part, by a fear that the Spanish immigrants coming to work in the region’s new mines and factories would overwhelm Basque culture.

The nationalist movement’s prophet was Sabino Arana, a man whom Garcia de Cortazar now describes “as a racist of the worst kind, a Hitler.” Arana, whose teachings took hold in the Basque nationalist movement, preached a nationalism so pure that he insisted that the Basques would sully their language if they taught it to immigrants.

More than 40 years of Franco dictatorship further repressed a Basque culture already weakened by industrialization and immigration. Basque bitterness and desperation under Franco led to the creation of ETA two decades ago.

Killing of Prime Minister

At first, many Spaniards welcomed ETA as the only insurrectionary force against Franco. The assassination of Franco’s prime minister, Adm. Luis Carrero Blanco, by ETA guerrillas in December, 1973, was hailed joyously by leftists and intellectuals throughout Spain as a blow for democracy.

But, when the Franco Era ended, the killing did not stop. ETA, in fact, intensified its terrorism, killing far more soldiers and Civil Guards than it ever had during the dictatorship. As far as ETA was concerned, the democratic Socialist government of Madrid was no different from the dictatorial fascist government in Madrid. Both were Spanish.


ETA has long proclaimed that it is fighting for an independent Basque nation that would include the Basque region of Spain, the Spanish province of Navarre and the Basque departments of France.

However, for a decade, supporters of ETA have said the killing would stop if Madrid agreed to give the region self-determination, incorporate the province of Navarre into it, withdraw all Spanish police and soldiers from it and grant amnesty for all ETA members in prison. In recent years, there have been secret talks between government officials and ETA, but the talks have always broken down after a new outburst of violence.

The prospects now are dark, and no political solution is in sight. Most Basques vote for nationalist parties that call for self-determination, but analysts believe that the nationalists would lose any referendum for an independent Basque state.

“If you do not count the few months that they were isolated during the Spanish Civil War,” said Garcia de Cortazar, “the Basques have never had as much autonomy and power as they have now.”