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IA-Forum Interview: Dr. J.P. Linstroth

International Affairs Forum: Who are the ETA and what do they want?

Dr. J.P. Linstroth: ETA stands for ‘Euskadi Ta Askatasuna’, meaning ‘Basque Homeland and Freedom’ and was created in 1959 as a response to the extreme oppression of Basques by the dictator, Francisco Franco’s military regime (1939-1975). During the Franco dictatorship, the patriotic Basques believed it was necessary to counteract the many assassinations and tortures of Basques as well as combat the regime’s attempt to eradicate Basque culture and the Basque language (euskera). (Similar measures of repression occurred in Catalonia against the Catalansby the Franco regime.) Actually in the early years, ETA had a lot of popular support, not only among Basques but also among Spaniards in genera because of the group’s militant opposition to Franco and the general dislike of Franco in the country. Of course popular opinion in Spain has changed now. Interestingly, at the outset of its existence, ETA was influenced by the Catholic Church, especially from the inspiration of young Basque seminarians who were quite nationalistic toward the Basque cause of independence and fighting Franco’s dictatorship. This changed in the '70s toward a more Marxist and Socialist approach. So too ETA was predisposed to other liberation movements in the world such as IRA Republicanism, the Palestinian PLO, and the South African ANC, as just some examples.

Basically, ETA is a militant insurgency group—some call them ‘Freedom Fighters’, while others consider them to be ‘terrorists’, a perspective highly dependent from the view of a Basque or a Spanish nationalist or government agency and so on. There have been acts of violence, performed by ETA since 1968, with the killing of the Basque secret police officer Meliton Manzanas who had been responsible for torturing and killing hundreds of Basques. But, probably the most famous assassination was in 1973 of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, who was to be the successor to the Dictator, Francisco Franco after he died.

Today, what ETA wants is an independent Basque Country, which would mean not only independence for the Basque territories in Spain but also the Basque territories in France. Recently, news reports in the Spanish media and Basque media, suggest that supporters of the ‘Basque Patriotic-Left’ (Izquierda Abertzaleak) wish to negotiate their right to a peaceful end to the Basque conflict. (This Basque political movement is the equivalent of the Sinn Fein and the Republican movement in Northern Ireland during that conflict.)

IA-Forum: Has ETA made any progress toward achieving their goals?

Dr. Linstroth: There have been ceasefire negotiations with the Spanish government. In recent years, there was the 1998 ETA ceasefire and then the ultimate one lasted from March 2006 to June 2007. During these last ceasefires there were secret negotiations between the Spanish government and ETA toward a political solution for resolving the Basque conflict. Yet nothing came of these meetings in terms of resolving the conflict.

IA-Forum: But have they been successful in achieving any of their goals?

Dr. Linstroth: I would say as far as territorial independence, no. Yet, since the establishment of the Spanish Constitution in 1978, the Basque Country in Spain (Euskadi) has enjoyed considerable autonomous powers. For example, if comparing other nationalistic and ethnic-minority groups, whether in Europe or elsewhere, the Basques have considerable autonomy in regional governance, taxation, and a separate police force. The last Basque President of the Basque Country, Juan José Ibarretxe, tried unsuccessfully to make Basque autonomy even greater with less interference from the Spanish federal government and pushed for a referendum for Basque independence.

IA-Forum: Why have negotiations failed?

Dr Linstroth: In my view, and shared by others, Spain did not keep all of its promises with ETA during the negotiation process of the last ceasefires. Of course, in the last negotiation ETA also broke its ceasefire with the bombing of Barajas International Airport in Madrid at the end of December, 2006. But I think the Spanish federal government did not concede on issues such as the disbursal of Basque political prisoners throughout Spain.

It is equally important to understand what is happening at the present time regarding the Basque conflict in order to understand why negotiations have failed in the past. For example, there are clear indicators which demonstrate not only the Spanish state’s reluctance to negotiate with ETA but also abuses of state power as well. To many Basque political activists the Spanish federal government has continued its oppressive measures against Basques to the present from period of the Franco dictatorship. This may surprise some but examining the Basque conflict and what has hppened from the late 170s during the democratic transition to the present, analysts will find the use of a ‘state of exception’ by Spain in relation to the Spanish-Basque provinces.

There are also many examples of ‘dirty tactics’ employed by the Spanish security forces against the Basques, especially against the Basque ‘patriotic left’ (Izquierda Abertzaleak), whether in relation to reports of questionable suicides, disappearances, or the continued torture of Basque activists.

This past spring in April, 2009, a Basque political-militant and former political prisoner, Jon Anza, disappeared somewhere in southern France. Anza was expected to travel by train from Baiona to Toulouse but has not been heard from since. In protests against Spain and France, Basque activists have demonstrated with signs: Non Dago Jon? (or ‘Where is Jon?’). To this day neither the Spanish government nor the French government has adequately explained to the family members of Jon Anza what has happened to him. For Basque militants such a questionable disappearance has parallels to the past when José Antonio Lasa Arostegui and José Ignacio Zabala Artano, two ETA activists, were tortured and then killed in 1983 by Spanish security forces.

Furthermore, International Affairs Forum readers may wish to have a closer look at Spain’s human rights records concerning questions of torturing Basque detainees and political activists. Since the democratic transition period in Spain beginning in 1978, a majority of Basques from the left-patriotic movement (Izquierda Abertzaleak) have claimed to have been tortured while in police custody. For a more thorough investigation on torture and Spain, readers may wish to read the United Nation’s reports from the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, Theo Van Boven from September 2004 and also the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Martin Scheinin report from December 2008.

IA-Forum: What about the current state of ETA, have their strategic aims been changed at all in terms of what the current group wants to do, using violent tactics or going back to the negotiation table?

Dr. Linstroth: In the '90s it was fairly radicalized and there was a clear shift between former leadership. In the 1980's and throughout the 1970's the targets were mostly military and police. This had changed in the 1990's to include civilians and politicians. In 1997 the town councilor Miguel Angel Blanco was assassinated by ETA. Thousands of people protesting against Blanco’s kidnapping and execution demonstrated a clear shift in popular opinion against ETA. This shift in popular opinion clearly had an impact on Basque activists. Then in 2004 ETA was falsely accused of the March 11th bombings at train stations in Madrid which were carried out by Al Qaeda related groups from Morocco. These events prompted Basque nationalists to look for other avenues in resolving the conflict and to begin reassessing the political strategies of the Basque independent movement.

Yet other factors have influenced the conflict in other ways and increased Basque nationalist resolve to continue with the struggle. For example, outlawing the Basque political party, Batasuna (United Front) in 2003 and then labeling it a terrorist organization was a clear mistake for solving the conflict. It would be equivalent to labeling Sinn Fein, a terrorist group, on the eve of peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. What is more the civil liberties of Basques and Basque political activists are continually being violated in terms of right of assembly, right to vote, and the right against suspending the writ of habeas corpus.
Incomunicado detentions of Basque militants by Spanish security forces are carried out for days (as much as 2 weeks) before a detainee is able to have access to a lawyer or make a statement before a judge.

Such repressive measures against nationalist Basques do not help if there is to be a concerted effort in moving forward to a peace process and thereby end the conflict. In recent media reports from the Spanish and Basque press, the left-Basque patriotic front (Izquierda Abertzaleak) has made several statements for a willingness to negotiate an end to the Basque conflict through political dialogue with the Spanish state.

IA-Forum: What steps would you advocate to facilitate a sustainable peace with ETA?

Dr. Linstroth: Clearly there needs to be international mediation of his conflict, because from my perspective the Spanish government has a very intransient position against the Basques. In my view, Spain has arbitrarily arrested those who are not linked to any types of errorist acts and put them in jail for a long period of time.

The case which comes to mind is 18/98+, which is actually several judicial cases, implicating 50 Basque nationalists who were served sentences on the average of 16 years each. The Spanish government tried to link these Basque nationalists from the Izquierda Abertzale with ETA. But none of those implicated in the prosecutorial charges were involved in ETA paramilitary activities. Therefore, much of these heavy handed approaches have only served to prolong the conflict, or will serve to prolong the conflict. Such police measures by Spain will only make the Basque nationalist movement that much more determined to continue in its struggle against the Spanish state.

In the long run what needs to happen is mediation by international mediators helping to bring all Basque political parties together with the Spanish governing party (PSOE, Partido Socialista Obrero Español, Spanish Socialist Party) for a dialogue to end the stalemate between ETA and Spain.

President Barack Obama and his administration have a good window of opportunity here to change the intractability of the Basque conflict and help a peace process along in moving forward with resolutions. The Basques are hopeful to have solutions to their conflict similar to what happened in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement.

Unfortunately in the past, the issue of ETA was viewed as an internal security problem for Spain (and nowadays France as well). As such the United States did not interfere in these matters in so far as resolving the conflict through political means. Moreover, Spain’s prominent involvement in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its leadership role as a member state in the European Union (EU) have in part prevented other nations from becoming involved in stepping up efforts for a peaceful resolution of the Basque conflict.

IA-Forum: Any final thoughts on your research and analysis of the situation?

Dr. Linstroth: My academic training is social and cultural anthropology and therefore my perspectives about this particular conflict are derived from having lived in the Basque Country during fieldwork and knowing many Basques. Further to this, it is important also to realize much of what is reported in the media about the Basque conflict is generally superficial at best. Most interpretations of the Basque conflict do not consider the point of view of the political activists themselves to understand why the Basque political struggle has continued to the present. The anthropological approach of interviewing people face-to-face and actually participating in and observing the daily lives of people from another culture such as Basques for an extended period of time in my view provides a more nuanced perspective about other cultures. This
approach is also particularly important in relation to understanding ethno-nationalist conflicts and subaltern movements.

Dr. J. P. Linstroth is a Senior Researcher of the Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding Programme of The International Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Dr. Linstroth has two forthcoming books, titled respectively: Marching Against Gender Practice: political imaginings in the Basqueland; and, Violence and Peace Re-Imagined: a new interdisciplinary theory for cognitive anthropology.

Comments in Chronological order (3 total comments)

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Tue, May 04, 2010 07:24 AM (about 124686 hours ago)
I was amazed when I read the interview. The tendentious answers of Dr. Linstroth were full of inaccuracies, omissions and distortions. He doesn’t even remember the 1.000 persons killed by ETA during the last 50 years. When asked about ETA being successful about achiving their goals he does’t answer at all, because there is no success but death, suffering and fear. Mr. Ibarreche wanted a referendum for basque independence which was declared unconstitutional by the Spanish Government which is not, by the way, a federal government. Why does Dr. Linstroth answers with Mr. Ibarreche’s expectations when asked by achievement of ETA goals?. Unbelievable! Please, ask about the Basque conflict and about ETA to people aware of the problem. “ETA: an assessment” published in your web is an insult to people who believe in democracy and freedom.
Mercedes Valbuena
Mon, September 20, 2010 11:58 PM (about 121334 hours ago)
I don't agree with Juan and Mercedes. I think he explained pretty well what is going on in the Basque Conflict during the last decade. If PSOE would want to end, this conflict was over in 2007.
International mediators know that Spain didn't respect any commitment during the last ceasefire. Nowadays they don't like the new ceasefire cos ETA don't want to negotiate with them, it's better with PP.
Tue, September 21, 2010 05:50 AM (about 121328 hours ago)
Ms Merces, I think you are avoiding also 259 people killed by the spanish state, 5390 tortured men and womens and 3959 wounded in demonstrations (Without mention the thousands of deads and tortured during the franco dictatorship).

Mr Juan, the new basque president is legal, but not elected. More than 100,000 votes where not taken into account (10% aprox.). However, even in legal votes, basque nationalists have more votes than spaniards. The new "legal" president is due to the strange mathematics of the elections.

I think Dr. J.P. Linstroth explains very well the basque conflict. For the spaniards one thought: Legal does not mean legitimate. Try to know, and learn about the basque conflict.
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