This article comes all the way from South Africa, a country that know a thing or two about self-determination:
Source : Daily Dispatch
Basques' long battle for a place in new Europe
Spain's government is in trouble with voters over Iraq and a disastrous oil spill -- but its war on the Basques is unrelenting.
Daily Dispatch editor Gavin Stewart reports.
MAYBE we should not draw deep meanings from the cavalier way José Maria Aznar's Spanish government copes with an oil spill, supports war in Iraq and treats the Basque people.
Or find too many links between those puzzles and the dark cupboards of history.
Last week they banned the Basque newspaper Euskaldunon Egunkaria and arrested 10 of the staff, "on suspicion of belonging to or collaborating with a terrorist organisation, ETA". The newspaper resurfaced defiantly one day later as Egunero.
More than 600 Basque nationalists are in prison; the nationalist party Batasuna is suspended, and the maximum prison sentence has been increased from 30 to 40 years.
The similarities to South Africa are so striking Basque leaders look to our successful struggle for inspiration and support. They have similar claims to an ancient home and similar experiences of oppression, massacre, imprisonment and torture.
But at the beginning and end of last week, the Spanish people took to the streets of Madrid in vast numbers. An estimated two million protested government support for war in Iraq, which is opposed by 85 percent of voters; and 500,000, said one report, protested Aznar's botched handling of the Prestige disaster, which dumped 25,000 tons of oil into the Bay of Biscay.
Aznar was not there. He was in the United States talking war with George Bush.
"We can understand your problem," he is reputed to have told Bush at a previous meeting. "We have our terrorists."
The Basques may be any government's nightmare -- a national group with a distinct language, culture and history claiming the right to decide their own future. But they are not Al Qaeda. Or AUM.
"Europe is in the process of construction," says Loren Arkotxa, mayor of the fishing village of Ondorroa, which gets the best price for fish in Europe. "We want to take part in that construction."
Arkotxa left Basque country at 17 for Australia, where he spent seven years cutting cane and started his first gymnasium. Later he fled into exile, to work as a lumberjack in the Canadian forests.
Today he is president of Udalbiltza, the first Basque national assembly, comprised of almost 2000 elected representatives from local and provincial councils, the Spanish parliament, and one key member in the European Parliament in Brussels.
Late last year I was the guest of Udalbiltza at the International Conference for Peoples Rights in San Sebastian (Donostia) -- a conference of nations without states.
"What we seek is self-determination," Arkotxa insists. "Recognition of the right of Basque people to decide our own future."
The right is enshrined in a dozen international declarations, from the Charter of the United Nations of 1945 to the Durban Declaration against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances of 2001.
But it finds little sympathy among governments. Far too many face "peoples" in their own states making their own claims -- Hawaiians and Native Americans seeking independence from the United States; Scots, Northern Irelanders and Welsh; West Saharans, Berbers, Kurds, Quebecois; Saamis from Norway; Catalonians, Corsicans, Sardinians, Flanderens; Mapuche from Chile; Chiapas from Mexico ...
The Basques themselves are divided on how much they want and how to get it.
Such claims raise questions about boundaries, challenge constitutions and threaten to remove prosperous regions from tax pools. They threaten the very idea of the state -- in a world built of states.
We all take the state as the defining unit of just about every human activity -- politics, economics, trade, money, maps, weather forecasts. Even the arts and sport are shaped by the biscuit-cutter of the state.
Hard core of Basque opposition to the Spanish state is ETA, Euskadi ta Askatsuna, born of the impatient years after the Second World War when national groups everywhere were claiming independence. One of their first actions was to define "a Basque" by language rather than race.
Basques trace a history back more than 100000 years to the time Cro Magnon people inhabited the region. So long as they were undisturbed, they were at peace.
Arkotxa says: "The Romans passed. They respected us. Islam did not intrude. The trouble began with the Gauls. They wanted control."
But Basque custom also scraped against religious neighbours. Women have long held almost equal power with men, able to inherit and control property and minister in churches: customs which so goaded the Spanish Inquisition there was a mass burning of witches in 1610 in the Basque town of Lograno.
"The real struggle in modern times started with the French Revolution and the creation of the modern state," says Arkotxa.
To people not of the mountains, the high ridges of the Pyrénées drew an obvious boundary between the new states of France and Spain. By 1800, the Basques were cut in half. Their old laws were abolished.
Many Basques backed the pretender to the Spanish throne, Carlos. "He said, support me and I will respect your rights," says Arkotxa. "We were betrayed."
By the time Spain made its second bid at becoming a republic in 1931, Basque mills were producing half of Spain's iron, three quarters of its steel; Basque banks controlled a third of investments.
A Basque government was sworn in under the ancient oak at Guernica in 1936.
But General Francisco Franco and his Falange mutinied against the new republicans. The Basques, who mixed the socialist and conservative of many rural peoples, were split between Falange and republicans.
Franco was happy to get help from the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy. As Mark Kurlansky puts it, "a 20th century force arrived to fight a 19th century war."
When civil war ended and the Second World War began in 1939, the Basques carried on their fight. They held the mountain passes and forest footpaths known only to local woodsmen and hunters. Hundreds of Allied airmen, spies, even German deserters, were smuggled to Vichy France.
As a reward, General Charles de Gaulle promised to rout fascism from Europe. The Basques would have their independence.
Ever the survivor, Franco quickly pointed to the "greater threat" of communism. The French wanted to sell him Mirage jets; the Americans needed air bases in Europe and a base for nuclear submarines at Rota.
Once again the Basques were sold out.
Franco ruled until his death in 1975, one of the longest reigns in modern history. But he would leave no heir.
His chosen successor, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, known as "The Ogre" to Basques, was blown to bits by ETA.
Franco's men shot scores of Basque prisoners. ETA murdered an almost equal numbers of Guardia Civil and other Spanish officials. 800 have died since then.
Basque politics remained divided. Udalbiltza is an attempt to create a uniting assembly, with Basque hopes pinned on next year's realignment of Europe.
With more people and a more powerful economy than several countries which have the same aspiration -- Cyprus, Malta, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia -- there seems no logical reason why the Basque flag should not fly there.
"I am very optimistic," says Arkotxa. "The main task of Udalbiltza for 2003 is as a social agency for the Basque country -- language, culture, economy and sport."
But Spain is determined to stop them.
Source : Daily Dispatch
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