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Trade unions lead Basque society as they respond to Spanish State repression
Cormac Mac Gall
Spanish police attacks answered by moblisation of Basque working class and expression of wider Basque society solidarity in massive demonstration
After a Spanish police raid on the Donosti/ San Sebastian headquarters of the pro-Independence Left trade union LAB, arrests there and elsewhere of trade union and political activists, the Basque trade unions of LAB, ELA, ESK, STEE-EILAS, EHNE and Hiru led Basque society in an expression of resistance to Spanish state repression. The six trade unions between them represent over 70% of the Basque workers in the south of their country,. The protest on Saturday of well over 37,000 displayed a level of Basque unity not seen for ten years in which the whole pro-Basque spectrum of Basque political and cultural organisations were represented.
The numbers of those present at the Donosti/ San Sebastian demonstration on Saturday could not be precisely arrived at, given that people were still in the tunnel as the head of the march reached its destination; but the whole bay was packed and 37,000 was agreed as a conservative estimate. It is thought that many people were also prevented from reaching the city in time for the demonstration as Spanish Police operated many road blocks (around 30 between Bilbao and Donosti alone).
The recent train of events that led to this huge demonstration began on Tuesday when the Spanish police raided the Donosti headquarters of LAB, the pro-Independence Left trade union that represents just under 20% of the Basque workers. The police arrested five people inside, one of them Rafa Diez, ex-President of the union and another being Arnaldo Otegi. Five other well-known political activists were arrested elsewhere. Each of the ten was a well-known political activist and some of them were also active in the trade union movement.
All were taken to Madrid under the orders of Baltazar Garzón, the notorious judge of the Audiencia Nacional (special no-jury national court dealing with charges of “terrorism”). The ten were arrested under Spain’s anti-terrorism laws and Garzón’s interpretation rulings of the same legislation in which, for example, many political activists have been considered to be working for the same ends as the armed group ETA (e.g. a socialist independent Basque state) and to be “coordinating their political activities with them”. The ten were originally held incommunicado, raising fears of the kind of torture that many previous detainees have reported, but after a few days all gained access to their lawyers. After they appeared before Garzón and made their statements, some were released on bail but others, including Otegi, were sent to prison to await trial in the Audiencia. One was set at unconditional liberty after three days in detention in Madrid, as he had been in prison during the time of the alleged offences.
The arrests followed a week during which 20 alleged activists of Gestoras Pro-Amnistia (Basque anti-repression organisation) or of Batasuna (banned main political party of the Izquirda Abertzale movement), after a process of a year, had their sentences of eight to ten years confirmed in the Audiencia Nacional and their roundup by police was initiated. None are accused of any act of violence or of damage to property, but of political “collusion with terrorism”.
During last week small demonstrations were held at the workplaces of the ten detained on Tuesday, including factories, an office and a school, as well as in their home towns. Workers also gathered in front of the LAB headquarters in Donosti to demonstrate their solidarity, also in Bilbao, Gastheiz/ Vitoria and Iruňea. On Wednesday and Thursday, a number of meetings were held in Basque trade union and political circles and a joint press statement was released by the six trade unions calling for a massive demonstration of protest on Saturday. They also called for the immediate release of the ten, an end to Spanish state persecution of political activists and LAB had already called for international expressions of solidarity. During Saturday’s demonstration the union leaders also called for the repeal of Spain’s Law of Political Parties, under which many organisations of the Izquierda Abertzale (Basque pro-Independence Left) have been banned or prevented from fielding candidates in elections, and called for solidarity with the political prisoners.
SOLIDARITY WITH POLITICAL PRISONERS A CRIME?
The issue of the approximately 765 political prisoners is one on which the actions of the Erzaintza (pro-Spanish ‘Basque’ police) caused much conflict during the traditional festivals of the past summer months. The Audiencia Nacional declared that the displays of large photos of the prisoners, whether on balconies, in taverns or held by their relatives at vigils, were “glorifying terrorism” and therefore illegal. As the Erzaintza moved in to tear down photos and harass the weekly relatives’ vigils, clashes took place but afterwards copies of the photos appeared everywhere, including even on the walls of the house of one of the local leaders of the repressive campaign. Solidarity demonstrations were banned and took place anyway, answered by police riots with clubs and plastic bullets and also riots by Basque youth throwing stones and burning rubbish bins.
THE LAST STRAW
For many less politically-active or conservative Basques therefore, Tuesday’s police operations were clearly the last straw. Apart from the united call and action of the Basque trade unions, smaller political groupings of the Basque Left such as Izquierda Unida, AE and ARALAR all joined in the calls and in the demonstration on Saturday. The conservative Basque nationalist party PNV, which holds the majority of seats in the Basque Autonomous Parliament of three of the four provinces under Spanish rule, declared on Friday that they would be sending their entire executive council to support the demonstration and did so; however they declined from making any statement whatsoever, even to explain why they were attending. Many people famous in Basque society in the arenas of sport, culture, media and performing arts were also seen on the demonstration and many were willing to be interviewed, expressing their abhorrence at the lack of democracy in the Basque Country under Spanish rule.
Messages of solidarity came in and were posted on LAB’s web page from the World Federation of Trade Unions, from trade unions and union socialist currents from Latin America, various parts of Europe and even Madrid, also of course from trade unions in Asturias (northern Spain, next to the Basque Country), Galicia and Catalonia (each of these also have their own trade unions), Canaries etc. Conspicuous in their absence were the two main Spain-wide unions Comisiones Obreras and UGT, who have been losing ground to more militant and also separatist trade unions in the Spanish state.
The Irish Basque Solidarity Committees also sent messages of solidarity and on Sunday a protest took place in O’Connell Street in which Basque and Irish flags were flown and large placards were displayed carrying messages such as:
“Franco lives on in the Spanish Government!” “Spanish Government represses Basque’s Freedom of Speech! Freedom of Assembly! Freedom of Press and Media!” “Hands off Basque Trade Unions!”
Other placards opposed the extradition requests for two Basques living in Belfast (Arturo Villanueva and Inaki de Juana), and asked what had happened to Jon Anza (an ETA militant who disappeared in France in April, believed by many to have been kidnapped, tortured and killed by Spanish undercover squads with French state collusion. The protest was organised jointly by Dublin Committee and Ógra Shinn Féin. The demonstrators met with expressions of support from passing pedestrian and motorised traffic but the reaction of tourists from the Spanish state were more mixed. Some were enthusiastic in their support, such as a group of Catalans and another of Asturians, but another group accused the Basques of being “terroristas” and condemned the protestors for supporting them. They were answered with cries of “Viva la libertad para todos!” (long live freedom for all!).
REPERCUSSIONS IN THE BASQUE COUNTRY AND FURTHER IN THE SPANISH STATE
According to Izquirda Abertzale spokespersons in Batasuna (banned in the Spanish state but not in France), Askapena (international expression of Basque anti-repression) and LAB, also commentators in GARA (Basque daily newspaper), the police attacks have boomeranged on the Spanish Government and also made collusion with them (i.e. by the PNV) more difficult. Indeed, the press on Monday reported the Spanish Labour Party in the Basque Country asking the PNV to make up their mind on which side they stand.
The project of the pro-Independence Left to forge a pan-Basque alliance under its leadership (or at least substantially influenced by it) and thereby to challenge Spanish hegemony, would seem to have taken a significant step forward.
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