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The Basque pro-independence movement, the Abertzale Left, fought the Spanish State for over four decades. in 2012 its leadership renounced armed struggle without any reciprocal agreement with the Spanish State, declaring its faith in an imagined “Basque peace process”, sought alliances with social democratic and capitalist-nationalist parties and publicly apologised for its past actions of resistance. The movement sank into general inactivity except on the electoral front. But in recent weeks there have been signs of awakening, though under a different leadership – or is the giant merely muttering and twitching in its sleep?
How does the description “Giant” fit a resistance movement in a total population of less than three million people? A nation divided between the Spanish and French states? Part of the answer is precisely in those features, also in its history during the Spanish Civil / Anti-Fascist War and “French” Maquis and earlier. Also in its long struggle in defence of its native language Euskera, almost certainly the oldest in Europe and perhaps the first to reach it in neolithic times.
This is a movement that carried out general strikes against the Franco dictatorship, ensured that three of its provinces rejected the 1978 Constitution of the Spanish State which, in atmosphere of fear and murderous repression and with the collusion of the newly-legalised social-democratic (PSOE) and communist (CPE) political parties, was voted in by a majority in every other region of the Spanish State (population another 35 million people).
Inspired by the examples of the Algerian independence struggle and socialist Cuba, the Abertzale Left movement rose from the defeat of the nation in the Spanish Civil/ Anti-Fascist War and the terrible repression under the fascist dictator General Franco and in 1959, formed the ETA (Land and Freedom) organisation. The youth wing of the conservative Basque Nationalist Party conceded the Left-inclination in order to join with them. Enduring arrests and torture of its supporters, it was not until 1968 that ETA took an armed action; halted at a police checkpoint and determined not to be arrested, Txabi Etxebarrieta shot a policeman dead and was in turn killed himself by pursuing police.
The first planned armed action carried out was also that year when an ETA squad shot dead Meliton Manzanas, head of the political police in the Basque Country, a notorious torturer of prisoners and a Nazi sympathiser in the past.
A number of other actions were taken by ETA over the years, some of them spectacular but, like many armed resistance groups, some also questionable in value or even in justification from a revolutionary point of view. But in December 1973 an ETA squad in Madrid assassinated Admiral Carrero Blanco, General Franco’s nominated successor, an action which many credited with hastening the progress of the Transition of the Spanish State to nominal democracy. General Franco died without a strong agreed political replacement almost exactly two years later, in December 1975 and the Transition process ran from then until 1978.
The struggle continued after the Transition, since the new Constitution declared any breakaway from the unity of the Spanish State a crime unless a majority in the Spanish Parliament voted in favour. The military and police repression in the Basque Country was huge. In the 1980s the social-democratic (PSOE) Spanish Government was exposed as heavily implicated in a number of terrorist groups operating against Basques through kidnapping, torture, gun and bomb attacks (see GAL) and eventually the Minister of the Interior and a number of high-ranking officers were given jail sentences.
In 1983 mass demonstrations and armed actions by ETA brought about the abandonment of the Spanish State’s nuclear reactor at the picturesque coastal spot at Lemoiz, followed by a new Spanish government declaring a moratorium on all building of nuclear reactors.
Another aspect of the struggle was against compulsory military service, which the Spanish State only ended in 2002. People not only evaded it but also protested publicly against it.
Many people in the Spanish state opposed being part of NATO in the 1986 referendum but the Basque Country was highly represented in the vote against, around double the vote of those in favour and along with Catalonia being the only regions with a majority voting “no”.1
The ideology of the movement which found expression in ETA was national liberationist and socialist and this was reflected to a greater or lesser degree in all its parts, whether military or civilian. The Abertzale Left during the period organised itself into one political party after another after each in turn was banned by the Spanish State and forbidden to field candidates in elections.
But the movement had a huge social following too, in youth movements, punk and heavy metal bands, social-cultural centres, pirate radio stations and promoters of Euskera as a spoken language (all leaders of the Abertzale Left were required to be able to speak the language and all public meetings were addressed in Euskera and Spanish or even Euskera alone). There was even a popular Abertzale style of haircut and dress. The Abertzale Left also had a sizeable trade union, LAB which, along with ELA, a union founded by the Basque Nationalist party, recruited the majority of unionised Basque workers2. Feminist, LBGT, linguistic, eco-friendly, anti-animal cruelty sectors all contained many people broadly in support of the Abertzale Left or at least of its stated objectives.
The movement also had newspapers, radio stations and internet sites and many of these were closed down by the Spanish State, alleging that they were “collaborating with terrorism”. Currently the Spanish State is moving towards the closure of the movement’s social-cultural centres, the Herriko Tabernak (People’s Taverns). This arises from a judgement by the National Court in 2011, a judgement corresponding to an infamous statement by Baltazar Garcón, at the time a prominent Judge of that Court, that “Everything is ETA”. The closures are to be carried out now although ETA ceased armed activity permanently in 2012 and disbanded itself a little later.
Repression by the Spanish State has included executions and clandestine assassinations and led to relatively huge numbers of Basque political prisoners, not all by any means military fighters and conviction with “confessions” extracted through torture during the five-day incommunicado period ensured a problem-free conveyor belt for the Spanish State. That conveyor belt delivered its victims to jails dispersed all over the Spanish state, nearly every one hundreds of kilometres and sometimes over a thousand from the prisoners’ homes. The financial, physical and mental strains on friends and relatives, including elderly and children having to travel such distances to visit their loved ones are hard to imagine, often facing abuse or harassment on the way or at their destination, apart from serious accidents on motorways (including fatalities). Many pickets and demonstrations are held in the Basque Country throughout the year and each January a monster march clogs the streets of Bilbao.
The issue of the prisoners has always been a big one for the Abertzale Left and despite dispersal the prisoners built an organisation within the jails, responding to their situation in a disciplined manner.
During the first decade of this century it was clear that ETA was not doing well and the Abertzale Left in general was facing many more years of struggle against an unyielding state with repression everywhere and hundreds of political prisoners in jails.
The leadership was attracted to the much-advertised pacification/ peace processes of South Africa, Palestine and Ireland. By any estimation the Palestine process soon collapsed and its rejection by most of Palestinian society was clearly indicated first by the Intifada and secondly by the electoral gains of Hamas, pushing Al-Fatah into second place. To undiscerning eyes the Irish and South African3 processes seemed to be doing well and both the ANC and Sinn Féin lent strong support to the Abertzale Left’s imagined “peace process”. Despite that support and that of such prominent imperialist figures as Tony Blair and Kofi Annan, the Spanish ruling class was not interested in playing and eventually the Abertzale Left’s leadership was left with nowhere to go. However, they persisted in trying to build alliances with the majority Basque National Party and with smaller nationalist-social-democratic groups; they succeeded with the second sector but failed with the first and seem condemned to second-party status electorally in a Spanish colony, a nation divided by the French-Spanish border.
However, in their search for acceptance by the above-mentioned sectors, the Abertzale Left not only renounced armed struggle but apologised for past actions, ended street confrontations and called on the prisoners to negotiate their progress individually through prison system grades to eventual parole. Some of Abertzale Left public representatives even attended events commemorating Guardia Civil and Ertzaintza (Basque police) killed by ETA in the past.
When the struggle for independence broke out again recently in Catalonia with the 2017 Referendum and the Spanish State responded with a violent Guardia Civil invasion and jailing of politicians and social activists, the Abertzale Left leadership noticeably declined to open up a second front of struggle.
There were early but sporadic signs that not all movement was happy with the Abertzale Left’s new path. Askapena, an organisation set up within the Abertzale Left to work on internationalist solidarity, which at one time could list affiliated groups in Ireland, Germany, Italy4, Paris, Brittany, Barcelona, Madrid, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and a number of Latin American countries, broke quietly with with the Abertzale Left over its change of policies5. Notably also, when four members of Askapena were accused of “assisting terrorism” in 2010, they refused to apologise for their work and fought the case, being eventually cleared of all charges in 2016.6
In addition, many Basques were critical of the process, feeling that even if they were prepared to go down the new road, it had been handled badly by the leadership.
A leading Marxist theoretician of the movement, Inaki Gil, resigned from the national leadership years ago, though not from the movement; however he may well be persona non-grata in it now due to a published interview in which he criticised the decision of the 47 on trial in September last year to apologise for past actions of the Basque liberation movement, even after 50,000 had marched through Bilbao streets in their support two days earlier.
When Arnaldo Otegi — generally seen as the architect of the new road for the Abertzale Left7 – was arrested with others in 2009 and, while on pre-trial detention began a hunger strike only to end it soon afterwards, it did not reflect well on him. While he beat a charge of “glorifying terrorism”, he was convicted in 2011 for allegedly reorganising Batasuna, banned political party of the Abertzale Left and sentenced to ten years, reduced on appeal to six and walked free in 2016. In the meantime a Free Otegi campaign (2015) attracted some notable foreign support (including Desmond Tutu) but was criticised in the Basque liberation movement for highlighting the case of one political prisoner above many others8 (including those who were serving much longer sentences).
Some years ago a new Basque political prisoner solidarity organisation came into being, calling itself ATA (Amnistia Eta Askatasuna – Amnesty and Freedom9). They enjoyed a good showing at their first demonstration but came under public attack not only by the Abertzale Left leadership but by a number of ETA members on trial in France. They were accused of using the prisoners as a stalking horse when what they really wanted was to attack the new line of the movement’s leadership. Censorship and condemnation in the Abertzale Left’s daily newspaper GARA followed.
Although their public support waned for awhile, in 2018 a youth group of the Abertzale Left was expelled after they had publicly denounced their annual conference managers for refusing to put their position paper forward for discussion; this youth organisation now collaborates with ATA. Last year, a new Basque revolutionary group called Jarki was formed and drew a sizable crowd to their commemoration of the annual Gudari Eguna (Basque Soldier Day)10.
However the issue of development remained in doubt and no-one could predict with confidence that the movement would be rebuilt along revolutionary lines under a new leadership.
The week before last, Basque political prisoner Patxi Ruiz embarked upon a hunger and thirst strike and although he abandoned the thirst component after 11 days he continues on the hunger strike. He took this action in protest against harassment and beatings by the prison administration and jailers and highlighted the fact that prisoners
were being refused virus-protection clothing or testing and that the jailers were not being tested either. He also wanted visits from his family to be permitted and prisoners allowed to attend funerals of family members (he had been refused permission to attend his father’s funeral). More recently he has demanded that prisoners be relocated to jails near their homes, a long-standing demand of the movement and which is entirely in accordance with model rules for prisons in the EU and the UN. Despite the official leadership of the Abertzale Left firstly ignoring the situation and then condemning his supporters, Ruiz’s struggle galvanised the mostly dormant Abertzale movement.
Every day has seen small actions across the Basque Country, including protest pickets on bridges, beaches, town squares etc; solidarity fasts; slogans painted … Large solidarity marches have been held in Irunea/ Pamplona (Nafarroa province), Donosti/ San Sebastian (Guipuzkoa), Baiona (Bayonne), Bilbao and Durango (Bizkaia). ATA’s web page is full of developing news and the facebook page, which had fallen into silence, is active again. Last Sunday in Pamplona/ Irunea, police attacked demonstrators with batons and fired rubber bullets at close quarters.Patxi Ruiz solidarity demonstration 24 May 2020 attacked by police with batons and rubber bullets
Some of the Basque prisoners who are part of the “official list” have begun taking solidarity action, refusing food or to leave their cells for periods in Almería, Brevia-Ávila, Castelló I, Córdoba, Huelva, Murcia (where Patxi is), Puerto III, Rennes, Sevilla II, Topas-Salamanca …. refusal to leave one’s cell also means forgoing family phone calls. Patxi had been expelled from the Abertzale prisoners’ collective in 2017 for speaking out against the new line of the official leadership which another four prisoners have repudiated also11.
However the mass of Basque political prisoners have so far remained quiet, “concentrating on moving through their grades while Patxi lies dying”, in a quotation from an ATA commentary which blamed this new lack of unity on the fragmentation engendered by the official leadership.
A group of ex-prisoners has now also called for solidarity with Ruiz.
“COULD NOT SINK LOWER”
According to a public statement by ATA denouncing political parties Sortu and EH Bildu, the official Abertzale leadership made no comment until Patxi Ruiz was into his fifth day of hunger and thirst strike and then it was to mention him only in passing, while denouncing the spray-painting of political parties’ buildings by protesters and the burning of an ATM. On the 10th day the official leadership again released a statement, saying they were trying to organise one of their elected politicians to visit the prisoner but condemning the mobilisations across the Basque Country and accusing them of endangering Patxi Ruiz’s life. “They could not sink lower”, commented ATA, who also pointed out how late the official leadership had come to comment and that without the public-space protests, neither the media nor the official leadership would have taken any notice whatsoever.
What the future holds for Patxi Ruiz in the short-term is hard to predict, already weakened by ten days of thirst strike and now into his 16th day of hunger strike. What the near and medium-term future holds for the Basque movement is also an open question, depending to some extent on how ATA is able to capitalise on this upsurge and build an organisation or a network of coherence and unity, at least in action.
The official Abertzale leadership will do what they can to destroy any such movement but they have already yielded the streets, one of the main arenas of the movement in the past. Both groups are mutually exclusive and the advance of one in the wider Basque movement can only be at the expense of the other.
The Spanish State too will be watching developments and no doubt considering its own options of repression, although not so easily done as before, without even an ETA existence to justify their response to the public.
Meanwhile the Catalan independence struggle simmers on and if both should link up in mutual solidarity …..
2The main unions in the Spanish state, Unión General de Trabajadores and Comisiones Obreras were founded respectively by the PSOE and the CPE. Both are Spanish unionist and have the majority of unionised workers in every region of the Spanish state except the southern Basque Country and Galicia.
3While the people in South Africa have the vote and the ANC political party has done well out of the deal, going almost straight into Government, the mass of people struggle on low level income, high level violent crime, unemployment and badly-delivered services, while an ANC clique wallow in riches gained through corruption. Sinn Féin went first into the British colony’s government and now has the most elected parliamentary delegates from the February 2020 General Election in the Irish State; however over two decades after the Good Friday agreement the country is no nearer unification or nation-wide independence and is run by neo-liberal capitalist classes selling out the natural resources and services of the nation.
4Germany and Italy had a number of these; in Ireland the cities of Belfast, Dublin and Cork each had one.
5This organisation effectively ceased to exist due to the new line of the Abertzale Left. Although a number of foreign committee delegates did not disagree with the new line (some certainly did) nevertheless it began to fade away from then on.
6In marked contrast to the apology in September last year for previous actions of the movement by 47 members of a number of Abertzale Left organisations, including those against repression and in solidarity with prisoners, before they had even been tried by the court. This shameful action was taken two days after 50,000 had taken to the streets to support them and left deep hurt, bewilderment and shame throughout the movement. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/16/mass-trial-of-basque-activists-in-spain-ends-with-plea-deal
7He had come into the political leadership with Joseba Permach of the Abertzale Left in 1997 after 23 members of the Batasuna leadership were jailed for seven years by the Spanish State. He was elected General Secretary of the political party Sortu in 2013.
8The Abertzale Left had never previously endorsed any campaign focusing on individual prisoners except in the case of terminally and seriously-ill prisoners, of which at one time there were as many as 15 who, even under Spain’s own prison regulations, should have been paroled home or to hospital.
9Though now it gives the translation as “Amnesty and Against Repression”. An Amnistia organisation had existed earlier but dissolved or reformed after banning by the Spanish State and one of the accusations of the Abertzale Left is that dissidents misappropriated the name.
USEFUL LINKS & FURTHER INFORMATION:
AMNESTIA ETA ASKATASUNA
Webpage: https://www.amnistiaaskatasuna.com/es (Spanish language version, also available in Euskera).
Facebook: https://www.amnistiaaskatasuna.com/es (Spanish and Euskera languages, lots of photos and videos)
JARKI: No media link available.