With a leg on each side of the Pyrenees, the Basque Country ranges from the gentle mountain slopes of southern France and the rough Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic coast to the sophisticated cities of Bilbao–home to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum–and San Sebastián. This is also the last terrorist redoubt in Europe.
Fighting for a mixture of old-fashioned Marxism and secular nationalism, the group named Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Fatherland and Liberty) is still killing after forty years. ETA has murdered almost a thousand people, kidnapped seventy-seven and held the business class hostage by demanding and collecting millions of dollars in “revolutionary taxes.” Those who refuse to pay face harassment, abduction or even death. Some 5,000 acts of politically motivated vandalism–targeting banks, public property and government offices–were linked to ETA between 1996 and 2000. The organization is on the US State Department’s updated list of global terrorist organizations, along with Hamas and Al Qaeda. Last November London and Washington announced they would freeze ETA’s foreign bank accounts, along with those of twenty-four other terrorist organizations, and in February, the Bush Administration blocked the assets of twenty-one people linked to ETA.
ETA’s violent struggle for its goal of an independent homeland comprising the seven Basque provinces (four in Spain and three in France) continues even as today the Basque Country enjoys considerable autonomy within the Spanish polity. Spanish policemen have been mostly replaced by Basque officers, who are often welcomed as a buffer between the people and the terrorists. The Basque language is taught in schools and widely spoken. The Basque Country collects its own taxes and pays for central government services; controls the educational, judicial and health systems; and has its own premier and Parliament.
Yet, as Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar says, the “Basque question” remains the single most important issue in Spanish politics. The two main parties, the conservative ruling Popular Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), refuse to negotiate with ETA unless it renounces violence. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the government has cracked down harder on the group. And with Spain chairing the European Union since January, Madrid has intensified diplomatic pressure on nations that have in the past given ETA members a safe haven.
ETA was founded in 1959, during the fascist dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, by students who were disgruntled at the moderation of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in the struggle for independence. Its first military action was in 1961–an unsuccessful attempt to derail a train carrying war veterans. The police responded with repression. Many Basques went into exile, while others joined ETA’s struggle. “Thousands [of Basque nationalists] were tortured under Franco. Once it is in your body, it doesn’t go away,” says Joseba Zulaika, an expert on terrorism at the University of Nevada. “They are unable to condemn ETA, because it represents the Basque military response to Spanish fascism, even twenty-seven years after Franco died.”