The Spanish terrorist organization ETA (which comes from Euskadi Ta Askatasuna – and stands for Basque Homeland and Freedom) is one of the most brutal terrorist organizations that Spain has ever had. Since the end of the Franco regime in the 1970s, the Basque region enjoys more autonomy than any other – it has its own parliament, police force, controls education and collects its own taxes. But despite this, ETA and its hard-line supporters have remained determined to push for full independence no matter what it costs, including terrorist attacks.
In total, since their creation in the 1960s, they killed more than 850 people, kidnapped many more and blackmailed for money an unknown number of people as well. But in 2010, they launched a statement saying that they would stop all terrorist activity, and indeed no terrorist attacks took place afterwards. For many citizens, ETA terrorism ended there, but in fact it has not disappeared since then. The reasons for ETA’s ceasefire are various, the most important being the effectiveness of the Spanish police and authorities in bringing the activists to courts and behind bars. But perhaps the main reason for ETA to stop their physical violence is that the Spanish Supreme Court legalized the Basque party “Bildu”, after many previous bans of very similar – if not identical – parties which followed the same goal of independence and did not condemn the use of violence.
For the Spanish courts, the most important argument for banning them in the past was that it would reduce the flow of funds and support to ETA units as well as preventing it from gaining political representation. However this legalization – which was linked to the new dialogue-seeking approach towards Basque independentism promoted by the socialist government of Zapatero – stated that links between this new party (compared to its predecessors) and ETA could not be proved and that a ban would therefore restrict democratic participation in the region.
These two happenings, the legalization of “Bildu” and the announced ceasefire, established a new era in Spain where violence has come to an end. However, it is still worrying that a party like “Bildu” – that does not condemn ETA and its terrorist attacks – has such broad support from the Basque population. It has had very good electoral results and is currently governing in some of the most important cities in the Basque region (such as San Sebastián). The reason for this support is difficult to understand for a Spaniard like me who since his birth saw on the news how ETA was killing innocent people for their political goals. One of the most used explanations for this vast support is that Basque nationalism has always highlighted the fact that they were oppressed by the Franco dictatorship and that, even in a democratic state, killing those who in a way represent Spain (like policemen or elected politicians) was “fighting for their freedom”.
This new era of peace in Spain and especially in the Basque region should of course be welcomed. Nevertheless, I believe that saying that terrorism in Spain has come to an end is a foolish statement. ETA abandoned its activity because it saw that it could be – with the same people – involved in politics and follow the same goals. That can seem to be a peaceful alternative, and should of course be welcomed. However, the problem is that a democracy should be built by people, and parties, of different ideologies – but who are all democrats. And a party that explicitly does not condemn terrorist attacks – no matter which reason is behind – is a problem for democracy and for social stability.
In order to consider this, ETA must announce its dissolution (which has not happened, as through the ceasefire it announced that it would stop killing but not existing), hand over their arms (as it has been repeatedly asked for by the Spanish government), and most importantly not receive the support of that many Basque citizens. This last issue is perhaps the most important one, because no democracy can be built by politicians and citizens who are not democrats themselves and who justify murdering innocent people for political gains. But this social change – which is taking place as support for ETA has fallen in the last three years – cannot happen all at once. As seen in Colombia with the FARC or Ireland with the IRA you cannot abolish a terrorist organization with haste. It can take generations.
For further reading, I suggest a very interesting analysis by “The Economist”.