Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The Trump Card

Rabid nationalism depends on one strategy in order to ensure the unconditional fidelity of the average citizen, the creation of an enemy, either domestic or external. Hitler understood this so he created internal enemies (the Roma and Jewish communities) as well as external ones (the evil Soviets),

In the case of the Spaniards the task is easy, they can always blame the Basques for all of their woes.

In a strange way that is exactly what this article from The Herald Tribune talks about, only that the author Jonathan Power takes the opportunity to aim his criticism both against the Basque Country and against Spain.

Jonathan Power goes to the extreme of denying the historic background and identity of the Basque people, guess he is unaware of all the research that supports the Basques claims of nationhood

Anyway, here you have it:

Playing the Basque card

by Jonathan Power

The ongoing terrorist threat from the Basque separatist group ETA has become the trump card for the governing Popular Party in Spain's general election on Sunday.

This goes to show that while the Spanish think the Americans overdid it with their reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, and 90 percent of them opposed Prime Minister José Maria Aznar's decision to align himself with Washington in the Iraq war, when terrorism knocks on their own door they jump to the right like everyone else.

As with the Northern Ireland conflict, the Basque nationalist terrorism in Spain is fueled by historical sentiment and myth on one side and by narrow-minded authoritarianism on the other.

Nevertheless, Northern Ireland has found a peace of sorts, at least to the extent that the truce of 1998 is prevailing. But Basque militancy, in the form of ETA guerrillas, continues with its ferocious policy of assassination and intimidation, albeit at a slower pace than before - out of step not only with the rest of Europe, not just with the majority mood of the rest of the country, but also with the predominant mood of the Basque country itself.

This is the clear reading not just of what is said and done today but also of the regional elections two and a half years ago, the last time the militants had a legitimate party to vote for. The radical leftist party Batasuna, widely considered to be ETA's political wing, had its vote share cut in half. The party has since been banned.

If violence was repudiated, it wasn't defeated, and neither was the common cause of at least half the citizens of this beleaguered but prosperous region. The joint effort of Spain's two principal national parties - the Popular Party and the opposition Socialist Party - failed to win a clear mandate against independence, gaining just 41 percent of the vote between them. The clear winner was the moderate Basque Nationalist Party with 42 percent of the vote. While the party eschews violence, it has adopted the ETA goal of breaking away from Spain, or at least some status very close to that.

The region is almost the antithesis of Northern Ireland. While Northern Ireland has been depressed economically and divided by ancient religious hatreds, the Basque people share the same religion with Spaniards; they have won a great degree of autonomy, including control of their own police force, and they are now at the heart of one of the more bustling parts of Europe with a marvelous art museum, the Guggenheim Bilbao, helping trigger the urban renewal of its largest city.

In the simple light of day there is no contest. Northern Ireland should be the difficult one and the Basque cause should have been blown away long ago by the winds of post-Franco democratic change. It has not happened, and shows little sign of happening, despite the repudiation at the polls of the pro-ETA party.

This is why Juan José Ibarretxe, leader of the Basque Nationalist Party, says the central government has to re-engage in dialogue with Basque nationalism. "Dialogue to achieve what?" Aznar replies. "I have nothing to say on the question of self-determination."

It is this absolutism, common to both the government and its predecessor, the Socialists of former Prime Minister Felipe González, that has helped make ETA the formidable and dangerous force it has become.

It is not sufficient, as the government does, to query the historical depth of the Basque cause, though often enough Basque loyalists have inflated the uniqueness of Basque culture.

It is, to use shorthand, important to remember Guernica. When elements in the government of González unleashed their dirty war against ETA it resuscitated these bad old memories of repression and brutality.

What Aznar does and says today keeps alive that sense of being badly done by. Though the depth of bitterness and grievance among Basques might appear overdone to outsiders, it was enough to give the parties of independence 53 percent of the vote in 2001. This has to mean the solution lies in negotiation.

Ireland reminds us that democrats do, sooner or later, talk to terrorists who have significant political support. In Spain it is time to talk.

Jonathan Power is a commentator on foreign affairs.

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