Spain without ETA? Basque group may be nearing end

AP News
Posted: Oct 31, 2010 1:36 PM
Spain without ETA? Basque group may be nearing end

Europe's last big violent political militancy has been decimated by arrests and dwindling support. Its outlawed political wing wants to create a new party that rejects violence and turns its leaders into legitimate politicians.

This whirlwind of events in recent weeks has sparked a raging debate across Spain: Is this the beginning of the end for the Basque separatist group ETA?

The armed movement has not killed anyone in Spain in over a year and it declared a cease-fire in September. While nearly a dozen such truces have come and gone over the years, raising hopes only to see them dashed with more bloodshed and tears, this time something bigger and potentially historic might be afoot.

ETA "has never been as weak and cornered as it is now," Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez told Parliament last week. "The end of ETA is near."

Besides ridding Europe of its last major separatist group, ETA's disappearance could rescue a Socialist government that is struggling with a nearly 20 percent jobless rate and a crippling debt crisis _ and trailing conservatives badly in the polls with general elections 18 months away.

Weakened by wave after wave of arrests and declining support at grass-roots level, ETA has hinted it might go further this time on the path to peace. It is expected to issue the latest in a series of statements, perhaps in just a few weeks. Whether it will go so far as to renounce violence altogether is the key question.

ETA's banned political wing Batasuna, now backed by some mainstream Basque parties and civic groups, is increasingly vocal in its new position that blowing up police cars and shooting politicians in the head at point-blank range is not the way to work toward some Basques' cherished but unlikely goal of a country of their own. ETA has killed more than 825 people since it first launched its campaign for an independent homeland in the late 1960s.

While other regions of Spain are constantly pushing the government for greater autonomy, most notably the Catalonia region where Catalan is the dominant language, Spain's Basque region has always been the nation's violent separatist hotspot.

Batasuna has now called on ETA to declare a permanent cease-fire that could be internationally verified "as an expression of will of a definitive cessation of its armed activity."

Ex-Batasuna leaders say they want to form a new party that renounces violence and regain legal status and thus a voice in the small but wealthy region of northern Spain, a proud patch that boasts its own ancient language and culture and already enjoys a broad degree of self-rule.

Txelui Moreno, a spokesman for the pro-independence movement, said Friday the Basque region is living "a historic moment." Of Batasuna's decision to reject violence, he said: "This was not just another debate. It was THE debate."

Three weeks after ETA declared its latest cease-fire, two hooded members of the group gave an interview to the pro-independence newspaper Gara in which they said ETA was prepared, under certain conditions, to accept the call for an internationally verifiable cease-fire.

Moreno said those members' comments also meant ETA "respected and embraced the debate that the nationalist left has undertaken and that therefore in some way it was going to take positive steps in that direction." He did not elaborate.

An international group featuring four Nobel laureates including the Nelson Mandela Foundation is nudging the pro-independence movement and ETA toward peaceful politics. Then there's this possibly telling signal: in a Spanish government reshuffle last week in Madrid, politicians who are old hands at the intricacies of Basque politics were promoted to high-profile posts.

"I firmly believe that the political situation in the Basque country is on the verge of irreversible change," said Brian Currin, a South African lawyer who was involved in the peace processes in Northern Ireland and South Africa and instigated the international appeal seeking to shepherd the region toward political normalcy.

Currin, who has been in contact with Spain's former Batasuna members, said from South Africa it is crucial for ETA to take the extra step Batasuna is seeking, which is the expression of a will to renounce violence altogether.

"A cease-fire is a cease-fire, but giving up violence is much than a cease-fire and that's really what I would hope for," he said.

Skeptics abound who say ETA can never be trusted, and even the government, while saying there is reason for hope because of Batasuna's turnaround, is trying to sound cautious. It denies any negotiations with ETA or Batasuna.

The opposition Popular Party is livid about the prospect of Batasuna being allowed back into politics, saying this should not happen even if Batasuna condemns ETA _ the magic words that Spain's government insists the party must pronounce in order to be legalized.

"No, because Batasuna and ETA are the same thing," the party's No. 2 official, Maria Dolores de Cospedal, said in an interview with the newspaper El Mundo.

She said ETA simply has to dissolve and acknowledge defeat. "There have to be winners and losers," de Cospedal said. "It is inconceivable for the executioners to be as victorious as the victims" of ETA violence.

But optimists are just as outspoken. "Basque society is screaming out for peace, and those who do not want it are a minority," said Abel Corral, a 30-year-old chef in Bilbao, the once decaying industrial port city that has undergone a stunning facelift over the past decades and now proudly boasts the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, its exterior a wonder of curving, flowing titanium plates.

Kepa Aulestia, a former ETA member who is now a writer and political analyst in the Basque region, said he thinks it possible that ETA will renounce violence but he is also wary. Aulestia cited past truces that have led to nothing and said ETA will not give up without some kind of concession, such as release of ETA prisoners.

"We are talking about a phenomenon that is what I would describe as slippery," he said of Spain's previous experiences with hints that ETA might be on the way out.


Jorge Garma in Bilbao and Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.