What a difference five years can make. For Spain, 2011 seems like another era, when economic slump, rather than political or territorial crisis, worried its politicians and when Podemos was a mere glint in the eye of the indignados.
But some things haven’t changed as much as expected since then.
On October 20, 2011, ETA announced the “definitive” end of a four-decade campaign of violence which had taken over 800 lives. Since then, the terrorist group has not killed or carried out any attacks, confirming that peace has indeed arrived in the Basque Country.
As a result, hundreds of politicians, judges, academics, journalists and other public figures have been able to begin something akin to a new life, without worrying about death threats, extortion notes or the sheer inconvenience of being followed everywhere by bodyguards.
But peace is one thing and reconciliation quite another. Last weekend, an incident in a bar in the town of Alsasua was a chilling reminder of the bad old days. According to many media accounts, two civil guards who were drinking with their girlfriends refused to leave the bar when told to do so by a group of young men who arrived on the premises. The ensuing scuffle left the two civil guards in hospital.
Alsasua is not in the Basque Country, but neighbouring Navarre. However, Navarre has long been considered part of the Basque homeland by nationalists and it was the scene of many of the pre-ceasefire murders. The fact this attack took place there is significant and suggests this was more than just a boozy fracas. One civil guard in the town, who was quoted by El País, said that “things have calmed down a lot over the last couple of years.” But he also made a telling comment: “I wouldn’t go to that bar at that time of night.”
Gorka Landaburu, a journalist who survived an ETA letter bomb attack in 2001, put it to me this way: “There isn’t reconciliation yet. What we’ve seen since the end of ETA’s violence is a kind of co-existence.”
Landaburu features in an essay I have published about Basque nationalism: ‘Skin Against Stone: Spain’s Basque Labyrinth’, to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the ETA ceasefire. In it, I explore both how the region of Euskadi fell into such a vicious spiral of violence and its subsequent difficulties in consolidating the new situation over the last half-decade, as the Spanish government has refused to embark on anything resembling a peace process.
But there are plenty of areas I have not been able to explore – the Spanish state’s dubious use of the judicial system, for example, or the limbo many ETA prisoners find themselves in as their independence cause dissolves. One Basque friend, whose family left Euskadi because of the violence, told me she would have liked to see more testimonies from the exiles’ point of view.
But “the Basque issue” is as complex and multi-faceted as the Basque region itself and it would require many thousands more words to explain it in full on the written page. In the meantime, let’s hope that over the next five years “co-existence” becomes something more like “reconciliation”.