Quest for Statehood Deepens Divisions in Basque Society

Times Staff Writer

In this land of verdant hills, nouvelle cuisine and car bombs, where poets and journalists need bodyguards, a new debate on Basque independence is putting everyone further on edge.

For a quarter of a century, the Basque region has uneasily coexisted with Spain, in a tense but functional, flawed but evolving relationship. Granted autonomy after the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975, Basques -- with radical separatists pressing a bloody guerrilla war against Spain -- have revived their language, taken charge of their government and formed their own police force.

But for many Basques, it’s not enough. The nationalists who rule the region have unveiled an ambitious plan that would greatly expand the autonomy and end the arrangement maintained with Madrid.

Spanish authorities are furious. Basque society is deeply divided. And people such as Vidal de Nicolas, a poet with a bodyguard, are nervous.


“Our history is with Spain, and our future is with Spain,” said De Nicolas, 81, head of a small group of intellectuals who oppose statehood.

Proponents of the plan, named for its main promoter, regional President Juan Jose Ibarretxe of the Basque Nationalist Party, or PNV, said change was necessary to establish Basque control over important aspects of its self-rule, including the economy and judiciary, both of which remain answerable to Spain.

“We consider ourselves a nation,” said PNV official Gorka Agirre Arizmendi, who also favors breaking with the Spanish government. “We have the right to self-determination. We don’t want to wait for Madrid to tell us what it is willing to give us.”

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar quickly condemned Plan Ibarretxe as a “barbarity” that violates the constitution and legitimizes the demands of “terrorists.”


As Madrid digs in its heels and opens a challenge in court, Ibarretxe is trying to drum up support before holding a regionwide referendum. As drafted, the plan would establish the region as a “free state associated with Spain” -- a status that party officials say is intended to lead to independence.

The Basque region of northern Spain -- the most autonomous and prosperous of 17 provinces -- is home to 2.2 million people, a little more than half of whom want more autonomy, according to polls. Nationalists envision an independent nation known as Euskadia that would include a piece of the neighboring Spanish province of Navarra and a couple of provinces in southern France.

Many Basques who favor the current relationship with Madrid maintain that the nationalists are xenophobes who have left democracy behind in their quest for statehood. Dissent is not tolerated, says this group, and the veiled threat of violence by the Basque guerrilla group, the ETA, always looms.

More than 800 people have been killed by ETA guerrillas in their four-decade battle to secede. In recent years, the ETA, which stands for Basque Homeland and Freedom, has turned its sights to academics, journalists and politicians in addition to police officers.


Pro-independence nationalists led by Ibarretxe say they condemn the ETA’s tactics, but not its goals, and they argue that sovereignty is the best way to end terrorism. They reject charges that they exclude those who are not like-minded and say Basques deserve their own state no less than Slovaks, Slovenes and East Timorese.

For Ignacio Latierro, the struggle has a familiar ring. He and his friends battled the Franco dictatorship through the 1960s and ‘70s, sometimes ending up in prison. Franquista agents frequently harassed the popular bookshop Latierro owns in the city of San Sebastian.

In recent years, however, his attackers have come from a different quarter.

ETA sympathizers torched the store and vandalized it repeatedly, until Latierro moved in 2001. One of his associates, Jose Luis Lopez de Lacalle, a newspaper columnist and outspoken critic of the ETA, was shot dead, and the husband of Latierro’s business partner was wounded in a murder attempt.


“The situation today is very schizophrenic. We live in liberty, but we can’t exercise it,” Latierro said as customers of his Lagun Bookstore browsed volumes of poetry and history.

“Under the [Franco] dictatorship, we always knew there was a risk you’d end up in jail,” said the 60-year-old former leftist. “But the sensation that you were risking your life, we didn’t feel that then. We do now. Not an everyday sensation, but [a fear of] violence touching you at an unexpected moment.”

Markel Olano Arrese, an official of the Basque Nationalist Party, understands the fear and says it is justified because of the ETA’s tactics. But he says those who would blame his party for fomenting terrorism -- as Aznar does -- are mistaken.

“It is not true that nationalism equals violence,” Olano said.


The pro-independence groups that fight Madrid peacefully also have experienced harassment and repression, he said. This year, Aznar closed the last newspaper publishing entirely in the Basque language and arrested several of its journalists.

The prime minister has rejected dialogue with the ETA, favoring military force. Many suspected members have been arrested in Spain as well as France; two men described as top ETA operatives -- Gorka Palacios Alday, the reputed military boss, and Juan Luis Rubenach, allegedly in charge of planning -- were arrested Tuesday in southern France.

Aznar has sustained a policy of dispersing jailed ETA militants in prisons around the country instead of incarcerating them near their home region, as many Basque activists demand.

The United Nations, the European Union and international human rights organizations have faulted both the ETA and the Aznar government, saying the latter has used the post-Sept. 11 climate to justify an overly harsh crackdown on purported secessionists, which includes holding suspects incommunicado.


Olano, 37, said Basque aspirations for independence should not be discounted because of the violence of a few.

“It’s difficult to speak of secession today, but we can certainly look for a new formula of coexistence -- not what Madrid deigns to give us, but what our majority deserves,” he said at the party’s elegant headquarters in Bilbao. “We’re not talking about the desires of five terrorists. We’re talking about more than a million people.”

Emilio Guevara, a lawyer in San Sebastian, helped draft the 1979 Statute of Guernica, which established the Basque region’s evolving autonomy. He was expelled from the Basque Nationalist Party in 2001 for criticizing its contacts with the ETA and its moves toward independence.

“In the 21st century,” he said, “with globalization, a unified monetary unit and continental policies on everything from fishing to the environment, when states have already given up a lot of their sovereignty to unite Europe, does it really make sense for a small country to throw up new borders?”


“Currently we already have more autonomy than Minnesota, California or Scotland,” he said, arguing that Plan Ibarretxe inflames tensions unnecessarily. “I’m afraid of very dangerous moments ahead.”

It is not yet clear how much popular support the plan has. Outside a stretch of bars and coffeehouses that openly raise money for ETA prisoners, a Basque law student who gave only her first name, Virginia, viewed events wearily.

“I feel like I’m in a tennis match,” she said. “I watch each side throw something out, just for the other side to hit it back. There’s been too much suffering on both sides.”



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Sovereignty bid

Plan Ibarretxe would greatly expand Basque autonomy and end the current arrangement with the Madrid government. Here are some details:

* The plan would create a “free state associated with Spain”


that would enjoy a right to self-determination.

* About 2 million people would remain Spanish citizens but would be divided into two overlapping categories of Basques, defined as “citizens” and “nationals.” The plan might lead to Spaniards who move to the Basque Country being barred from voting in some elections.

* The Basque regional government would gain further powers, and the Basque court system would be largely separate from the Spanish one.

* The Basque regional government would gain the right to call referendums, opening the door to a possible future vote on independence, while removing the Spanish government’s right to suspend the regional government’s powers.


Source: The Guardian