Guest Post: A Death Rattle that Explodes

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by Phil Koretz

masked-etaOn March 22, 2006, three Basque news outlets received a peculiar DVD in the mail.  The video portrayed three hooded figures seated at a table, surrounded by Basque nationalist symbols and an ETA pennant taped to the wall behind them.  The hooded figure in the middle states in a northern Spanish lisp, that ETA had declared a permanent ceasefire, with the objective of solving the conflict through the democratic process.

Nine months later, ETA claimed responsibility for the Barajas Airport bombing in Madrid, which left two civilians dead and more than fifty wounded.

A few days ago, ETA released another peculiar video, which portrays three hooded figures seated at a table, surrounded by Basque nationalist symbols and an ETA pennant taped to the wall behind them. The hooded figure in the middle states in a northern Spanish lisp, that ETA had declared a permanent ceasefire, with the objective of solving the conflict through the democratic process.  Sound familiar?

Muting the videos and watching them in parallel, it is difficult to discern which is which.  The arrangement of the figures, their costumes and the placement of the flags around them in the recent video suggest that the allusion to the previous ceasefire was deliberate.  If deliberate, the similarity of the videos could be chalked off to habit – perhaps that’s just how ETA produces its ceasefire videos – or to a more insidious cause.

The last time around, ETA blamed the broken ceasefire on the Spanish government for its infringement on Basque rights.  Could this newest ceasefire video be a veiled threat?  Overtly blackmailing the Spanish government into compliance through threats of violence would diminish ETA’s credibility even further.  The ceasefire video, in its content at least, denounces violence; however, the similarity of its form and resonance with the earlier video imply that, should ETA not get its way, another attack may be in store.

Moving beyond the video’s aesthetic, Spaniards have little reason to expect an end to ETA’s terrorist attacks.  The Spanish government and press are skeptical of the most recent peace declaration.  One television satirist commented that the ceasefire had more small print than a telephone contract.   Only the anti-independence Basque lehendakari (president) Patxi López reacted with optimism, suggesting that the eventual end to ETA would bring more tourist dollars to the region.  This is certainly true, although the militant group’s end is anything but certain.

The signs are less hopeful than lehendakari López would have you believe.  For one thing, ETA hasn’t promised to give up its arms: it has only promised to stop using them.  This pronouncement carries all the reassurance of a drug abuser promising never to touch the poison again, but hanging on to the stash in his sock drawer.

What’s more, ETA’s demand for a democratic solution doesn’t jive with its goal of complete sovereignty and separation from Spain, since less than a third of Spanish Basques support full Basque independence (according to a 2009 Euskobarómetro poll).  The Basques didn’t even reelect the Basque nationalist Juan José Ibarretxe, former lehendakari of the Basque parliament, to office in the 2009 elections.

Could it be that ETA has actually chosen to lay down its arms because the situation is so much better now than the last time they broke their ‘permanent’ ceasefire?  This is unlikely.  Although the Basques are cantankerous about the state of democracy in Spain, the rate of dissatisfaction hasn’t changed significantly.  (Readers who know Spain might well point out that Spaniards everywhere, not just in Basque north, are generally critical of the central government.)  The Basques also enjoy a stronger regional economy than most in Spain and a high level of autonomy, which includes a separate Basque parliament and police force.

Furthermore, Spanish Basque citizens, like most people in the first world, are far more concerned about the economy and unemployment than violence or the political situation, and have been for years, according to the same Euskobarómetro polls.   Although several Basque nationalist parties have been banned because of their alleged links to ETA, the successful PNV (Partido Nacional Vasco) participates in Basque and Spanish politics, and espouses the same Basque nationalist and democratic causes as the most recent ETA video.

In other words, ETA is fighting for an independence that few want and for the democracy and autonomy that Spanish Basques already have.  The Spanish government would do well to take the wind out of ETA’s sails and allow the banned Batasuna party a voice in government.  ETA’s violence, if it were to resume, would be recognized for what it is: the desperate acts of an obsolete and dying organization.

Phil Koretz is a first-time contributor to Streit Talk and recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations.  Photo Credit: www_ukberri_net

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