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Posted by on Oct 21, 2011 in International | 4 comments

Spain’s Basque Separatist ETA Group Announces “Definitive” End to Violence

If this announcement is to be believed, Spain has now made a shift nearly as important as the end of the Spanish civil war, the death of dictator Francisco Franco, the approval of Spain’s first post-war democratic constitution and the first democratic election in post-Civil War Spain: the Basque separatist ETA has announced that this time it’s for real: it’s is deep-sixing its use of violence to promote its ends:

The Basque separatist group ETA announced Thursday a “definitive cessation of its armed activity” in a statement published on the website of Gara, a newspaper that the group has used to convey messages in the past.

Listed as a terrorist organization by Spain, the United States and the European Union, ETA is blamed for hundreds of deaths in its decades-long fight for an independent Basque state that it wants carved out of sections of northern Spain and southwestern France.

Thursday’s announcement follows a recent push for the group to abandon violence permanently. That effort was led by international figures who include Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams of Northern Ireland and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In a nationally televised address hours after the announcement was posted, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero termed ETA’s announcement as being of “transcendental importance” and a “victory for democracy.”

“Ours will be a democracy without terrorism, but not without memory,” Zapatero said, referring to 829 people killed by ETA and their families.

And each of the deaths has been a major, traumatic event in Spain, with newspaper coverage, stories of grieving families, demands from part of the population for the ETA to give up violence, and demands from part of Spain’s population for the government to clamp down do more to eliminate ETA and/or its use of violence.

The prime minister praised Spanish police, Civil Guard personnel, the intelligence agency and judicial authorities “who have contributed to this end.” Zapatero also singled out France — which has traditionally been used as a rearguard base for ETA — and its president, Nicolas Sarkozy, for their assistance.

The prime minister said that it would be up to Spain’s next government — which will be formed after parliamentary elections on November 20 — to lead the peace process.

Zapatero, whose popular standing has soured amid Spain’s deep economic crisis, is not running for a third term. Soon after he was first elected, in 2004, the police intensified their crackdown on ETA as the group’s popularity among some segments of Basque society began to wane.

In its own statement Thursday, ETA called of “enormous significance” a one-day meeting held Monday in which Adams, Annan and other leaders met in San Sebastian, a principal Basque city, and called for peace.

After that conference — which did not include representatives from the Spanish government, the Basque regional government or the main opposition party in Spain, the Popular Party — former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern read a statement calling for ETA to issue a declaration akin to what it made on Thursday.

The leaders also called on the Spanish and French governments to welcome it and “agree to talks exclusively to deal with the consequences of the conflict.”

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso hailed ETA’s move Friday as “a truly historic moment which ends years of terror and attacks on Spanish society.”

On a personal note, I covered ETA extensively once I left India in May 1975 and relocated to write from Madrid, Spain. I arrived writing mostly for the old Chicago Daily News’ Foreign Service and a large number of newspapers throughtout the world which used my self-syndicated op-ed columns. I also contributed to Newsweek’s Madrid bureau in Franco’s waning days when he clamped down on ETA and executed a few members to howls of international outrage after ETA-implemented bloodshed. Once Franco died I became Special Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, which Monitor editors then told me was a kind of super stringer (they never sent a staffer in during my time). I filed several stories a week for the CSM.

A major beat remained ETA and the Basque country and I made several trips up north (partially funded by the Monitor) to cover Basque language schools, efforts to Basque moderates to find non-bloody solutions to Basques demands for more autonomy and their attempts to outflank ET and, in one of my last trips, an attempt on my part to contact ETA members for a major two page center fold Monitor feature (I am told I came close since they were “checking you out” as I was up there even at a dinner in a village but my I ran out of time on the trip and never went back again before I left Spain in December 1978.)

ETA was a major foe of the Franco government and gained lots of sympathy because it appeared to be willing to use force against a goverment that didn’t shirk in using force, but once Spain shifted to its post-Franco “evolution without revolution” transition to democracy endorsed by King Juan Carlos, ETA faced more opposition because it was beginning to appear as an enemy of the country’s fragile, young democracy. Additionally, in the past key factor in ETA’s operations had long been France, which would look the other way as ETA members either scurried across the border or supposedly in some instances came down from France to conduct killings or kidnappings in Spain. Once that changed and Spain was now clearly a democratic country the political context in which ETA — an organization always credited with having an appeal to young Basques in the past — had shifted: ETA seemed a kind of relic of the past. A segment of Basques always agreed with some of ETA’s aims but its techniques were now counterproductive.

Will this hold? Is this for real? I suspect this time, it is for real.

And it is indicative again of how late 20th century, early 21st century Spain has solved its huge issues: transitioning from dictatorship to democracy and now seeing a day when ETA says its use of violence is over, and being praised by the government for its decision. Spain and Basques who seek more autonomy from Spain can now on tackle issues in a quieter, less bloody manner than you see in some parts of the world.

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