When is a ceasefire not a ceasefire? When it is punctuated by bombings. Yet, even after taking responsibility for a blast that killed two people, the Basque separatist group ETA claims that it is adhering to a permanent ceasefire declared in March.
That self-serving logic explains the failure of peace negotiations with the Spanish government better than the charges of obstructionism leveled by Basque militants at the Spanish government. There can be no halfhearted commitments to peaceful change. ETA and its political supporters must unconditionally renounce violence to be credible negotiating partners.
Basque Country is made up of seven provinces in northern Spain and southwest France. Its inhabitants have long chafed under rule from Madrid; they believe that the local language and culture have been suppressed by the central government. ETA is the armed wing of an independence movement that first took shape under dictator Francisco Franco.
More than 800 people have been killed by the group during a violent four-decade campaign to win freedom for the region. In recent years, the Spanish government has negotiated with Batasuna, a banned political group considered the political arm of the ETA, over some form of autonomy for the Basques. To expedite the process, ETA announced the ceasefire last March.
That ceasefire was broken Dec. 30, when a bomb exploded in a car park at Madrid’s airport. The blast leveled a five-story building, killed two men — Ecuadoreans thought to have been sleeping in their cars — and wounded 19 others. The deaths were the first fatalities since May 2003. After some delay, ETA took responsibility for the bombing and then declared that it “affirms” the permanent ceasefire started last March.
It is in keeping with that twisted logic that ETA could blame the government for the fatalities, saying the authorities did not fully clear the area after three warning calls. Moreover, the Madrid government was to blame for “continually creating obstacles to the peace process” and the Basque regional nationalist government was also complicit for backing Madrid.
The first response of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was to “suspend” the political dialogue. He may have been hoping for outright condemnation of the bombing from Batasuna, which would have given him cover to continue discussions, but the political group hedged and merely called on ETA to observe the ceasefire. Madrid has made the renunciation of violence by Batasuna a precondition for the party’s re-legalization, but the group refuses to take that step.
The discovery, after the blast, of 180 kg of explosives that could be used for the type of bombs favored by the ETA has fanned public anger further.
The result has been a demand to halt the peace talks. Mr. Zapatero is hesitant to quit them entirely since that would be giving into his political opponents who have long opposed the talks. Unfortunately, the prime minister was applauding the progress of the negotiations only 24 hours before the explosion; the attack makes him look either incompetent or naive. He has since stated that the ETA put a “final end” to the negotiations, but it is hard to see him sticking to that line.
There is speculation that the bombing was the work of a splinter group opposed to peace talks. That is the most charitable explanation, but there is little to suggest a serious split exists: Batasuna’s failure to condemn the attack is proof that the Basque movement is not that deeply divided.
It is hard to see how there can be real peace discussions when one party feels free to use violence as it sees fit. Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba has said that ETA must renounce violence if the talks are to resume, but ETA retorted that it was the government that had not kept its commitments and was not negotiating in good faith.
ETA continues to demand “a political agreement that recognizes the minimal democratic rights of the Basque country,” a convoluted way of saying it wants a referendum by the Basque people on their future. ETA has miscalculated.
ETA clearly does not understand that the majority of Spanish people may be sympathetic to Basque grievances but will not tolerate bloodshed. It does not understand that they will not tolerate a double standard: ETA cannot resort to terrorism while claiming to honor a ceasefire.
Progress can be made, but only when the ETA commits to peaceful change. The Basque people must take responsibility for their predicament. Spain has changed, so must the Basques.
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