Will It Hold? the ETA Ceasefire in Spain

By Li, Peiyin Patty | Harvard International Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Will It Hold? the ETA Ceasefire in Spain


Li, Peiyin Patty, Harvard International Review


The people of the Basque country are accustomed to living in uncertainty. For thirty years the Basque Homeland and Freedom Separatist Organization (Euskadi ta Askatuta or ETA) has carried on a campaign of terrorism in pursuit of its ultimate goal: independence from Spain.

More than 800 people have died and thousands more have been imprisoned or exiled during the course of the conflict pitting ETA against Spanish and moderate Basque authorities, but the end might now be within reach. ETA declared its first unconditional cease-fire on September 16, 1998--a promising move that could allow the Madrid government, Basque moderates, and fierce separatists to reach an agreement over the future of the troubled Basque territory.

Basque separatists' demands for a united and sovereign Basque homeland are based on a centuries-old history of distinctive traditions and language. Hidden for thousands of years among the Pyrenees mountains at the border of Spain and France, the Basque culture evolved in virtual isolation until it was annexed by Castille in 1200--an event which lends credibility to separatists' view of Spain as a foreign power that denied the Basque people their rights. There are seven territories considered a part of the historic Basque homeland, although only three of them make up the present-day Basque territory. General Francisco Franco was especially harsh to the Basque people during his 36 year reign, outlawing the Basque language and posting Guardia Civil (military police) on every road. In response to Franco's harsh regime, the ETA was formed in 1959, but did not take up arms until 1968. Its terrorist activities escalated after the death of Franco and the adoption of the 1978 constitution, which they claim is illegitimate.

In its struggle against the Spanish state, ETA has resorted to frequent assassinations, bombings, threats to the lives of political opponents and members of the Spanish government, attacks on law enforcement agencies, and other acts of indiscriminate terrorism. The violence has not just been confined to the Basque region. Cafes in Madrid and supermarkets in Barcelona have been the targets of devastating bombs. One of ETA's more recent actions, the July 1997 kidnapping and murder of a young Basque councilman, drew international attention and hundreds of thousands of protesters to Spanish streets. The outrage crystallized the growing impatience and intolerance for ETA's activities, even among Basque nationalists and their sympathizers. More people are beginning to feel that ETA, despite its patriotic aims, is no longer serving its purpose.

While ETA is weakened by hostile public sentiment, it is encouraged by events in Northern Ireland. There have been past financial and military relations between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and ETA, and the two groups have been ideological allies for years. The example set by the Belfast Agreement showed ETA and the more moderate Basque nationalists that negotiation was feasible. Encouraged and inspired by the IRA's increasing political engagement in Northern Ireland, ETA met secretly with the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) for a year. ETA's interest was in increasing its political activities in order to be a more effective force for change, and the PNV, as the biggest party in the Basque Parliament, also had an obvious interest in ending thirty years of violence.

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