By Jose Martinez-Flores
On October 20th, the Basque separatist group ETA declared that it would cease its armed activity once and for all. Despite renunciations of violence in the past, the organization has never followed through, it now seems that a definitive end has come to the terrorist campaign that began in 1968 and has claimed over 800 lives.
Due to the forthcoming Spanish elections, the ETA’s announcement has had a substantial effect on Spanish domestic politics. Two days after ETA’s announcement tens of thousands of Basque separatist sympathizers marched in the region’s largest city, Bilbao, to demand greater political autonomy, prodding the Spanish government to come to an agreement with ETA similar to the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. The Socialist Worker’s Party candidate for the presidency, Alfredo Perez Rubalcalba, has kept silent on the matter arguing that this topic should not be an electoral issue. However, the conservative People’s Party’s candidate Mariano Rajoy, who will likely be the next Prime Minister, stated that his government would not negotiate with ETA, reflecting popular sentiment of survivors’ and victims’ families of ETA attacks. This would be a mistake.
Spanish security forces have played an instrumental role in making violence an unattractive option for ETA by disrupting its activities (albeit not without committing human rights violations, especially in the era under Franco), through arrests and the use of intelligence. But one cannot discount the role that greater democracy and devolution of power, by the Spanish state to the Basque Autonomous Community, has played in lowering nationalist tensions in the Basque region by giving Basques a non-violent alternative to pursue their political aims. ETA’s declaration came shortly after regional elections, when a coalition made up of nationalist parties run by the Bildu party made a strong showing last April. As the vote became a more effective tool for Basque nationalists to pursue their political objectives, the use of violence has become increasingly unpopular.
No matter the outcome of the November 20th elections, the Spanish government needs to resume peace talks with ETA. Spain need not look far for inspiration on how to negotiate with nationalist terrorist groups. The aforementioned Good Friday agreement has been a resounding success in reducing political violence down to historically low levels in Northern Ireland. A peace deal like this in Spain would have to include a general amnesty for members of the organization in exchange for ETA laying down its arms. Spain should also eliminate its policy of incarcerating ETA prisoners all across the country, far from their relatives.
These concessions will be difficult to make for both sides, but more so for the Spanish government. A general amnesty for the current members of ETA will very likely be incredibly unpopular among the Spanish public. But if Spain hopes to finally end its conflict with the ETA, it has to take these steps.
[Photo courtesy of R.Duran]