Almost unnoticed in the American press, what is potentially the greatest geo-political shift in Western Europe since the Second World War is set to be voted on tommorow.
When Americans think of Spain, they most often associate the country with the white hill villages of Andalucia, but unknown to most Americans is the tremendous diversity within the Spanish nation. What we call Spanish is commonly called castellano in its homeland, and while it is understood by almost all native Spanish, 3 other languages (Basque, Catalan, and Galician) are also official languages in their regions, and their resurgence has been part of a larger reawakening of non-Castillian identities in Spain. Tomorrow, the common indentity and territorial intergrity of Spain will be tested by the regional elections in Spain’s Basque country.
Spain has yet to deal with the terrible legacy of the Civil War, and while those who knew it first hand are begining to pass, the country still suffers deep psychic wounds. It’s easy to distill human conflict to Manichean simplicity, that good and evil are duking it out. In reality, things are rarely this clear. One of the books about those imprisoned by the Franco I brought home from Spain stated it more clearly than I can.
This isn’t a history of heroes. This is a story of normal people. Of people who knew the prisons. Who were detained and tortured. People who one day made the decision because it was what they had to do, because they couldn’t do anything else, because they wanted this country to change
Franco’s ghost hangs heavy over Spain, and still there are some who look fondly upon what they see as a simpler, more pure time. The reaction to the removal of the last statue of Franco in Madrid last month replete as is was with fascist salutes, reveals that some still believe that Franco was a hero, not a monster. Franco’s supporters would argue that his greatest achievement was the preservation of Spanish territorial integrity against Basque and Catalan nationalists.
Tommorow, the Basque Country will vote for a new parliament. Late last year the president of the Basque country, Juan Jose Ibbaratxe, was finally able to pass his autonomy (other’s would say independence) proposal, commonly called the Ibarratxe Plan through the Basque parliament with the assistance of Batasuna, a basque nationalist party that shares a relationship to the terrorist group ETA that is similar to that between Sinn Fein and the IRA. ETA is undoubtedly a terrorist organization, it has killed over 800 people since 1968, but the broader allegation made that the wider resurgence of Basque identity with the desire for greater autonomy or outright independence is by association support for ETA’s terrorist activities is more dubious.
Anti-nationalists go so far as to say that the millenia old Basque cross (which looks a swastika on acid) is evidence that the Basques are secretly Nazis. While the writings of Sabino, one of the earliet proponents of Basque nationalism and I believe a founding member of PNV (The Basque nationalist party, currently in power in the Basque country), are laced with racist elements, it’s important to remember that Franco depended on the Hitler’s Condor Legion to bomb Guernica, an act of state terrorism intent on destroying the Basques traditional capital. Basque nationalists along with Catalans, Communists, and all of Franco’s other enemies suffered tremendously. Why Basque nationalism has developed a pathological variant in ETA, while the Catalans have not adopted terrorism is widely debated. The previous PM of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar, first depended on nationalists to get elected, then turned on the Basques. Aznar was able to get a lot of play out of capitalizing on fears of ETA, and largely untold in the history of last years March 11th attacks is the mad panic in which Aznar called the editors of Spain’s largest dailies blaiming ETA for the attacks. Ultimately the discovery of the bombers van in Alcala de Henares, provided proof the Aznar was full of shit, but this only became clear when the time for campaigning had ended. Aznar’s myth that ETA was resposnible for Atocha ending up costing the father of an imprisoned ETA member his life, and sparked off several days of riots.
I can’t do the full story of the Basques and Spain justice here, but I want to talk about one more piece that I don’t think is commonly known. Batasuna, the party associated with ETA, was banned several years ago by the Baltazar Garzon, the Spanish magistrate who wanted to try Pinochet. In 2003, people previously associated with ETA, formed a new party called AuB, that was subsequently banned. At that same time, a paper called Egunkaria, that had published statements from ETA was banned by the Spanish gov’t, and the editors were arrested. The editors alledge that they were tortured during their imprisonment. While the Spanish gov’t vehemently denies this, in the early 90’s the Spanish gov’t led by the Socialist PM Felipe Gonzales did operate death squads that murdered prominent Basque Nationalist. From a distance this pissing match between the Spanish gov’t and the Basques is mildly entertaininf, like whe Aznar told the Basque president he’d be thrown in jail if the Basque parliament passed the Ibarratxe plan. Like the Greeks say though, perspective is the difference between comedy and tragedy. The passions of nationalism Basque and Spanish alike spawn myriad beasts.
After the Basque parliament passed the plan, talk of political crisis began. The Ibarretxe plan doesn’t call for independence because that would place the Basque country outside of the EU, but it does call for a state of “free association”. One of the most significant elements of the Spanish transition to democracy was the acceptance of a limited state of autonomy for the Basque country and other “historical regions”. Over time this spread so that Spain has 17 autonomous communities with varying degrees of autonomy. Spain now is essentially a country with federalism as a form of governance, and where the Basques led the Catalans et al followed. Modifications to this system require the approval of Madrid, and outside of the Basque’s move for greater autonomy the Catalans want to rewrite the constitution so they can have greater autonomy. So to move forward with the Ibbaratxe plan, the Basque PM had to go to Madrid to make his plan.
And in February, Ibbaretxe went to Madrid to make his case. Although there was intense debate, the plan was voted down 313 to 29, with other regional parties supporting Ibbaretxe plan, resumably in the hope that where the Basque lead they might follow. Shortly thereafter, Ibbarretxe announced that he would call early elections in the Basque country as a vot of confidence. If his party takes an absolute majority in voting tommorrow, Ibbaretxe will put out a referendum asking the people of the Basque country whether or not they wish to adopt the a state of “free association” with Spain. It is in essence an indpendence vote, and the pulls show it likley that Ibbaretxe will get his absoulute majority, and the vote on the referendum would be extraordinarily close.
This situation has wider implications for the rest of Spain. Civil war seems higly unlikely, but significant civil unrest is a distinct possiblity. Polls taken that sample all of Spain show that majority of Spaniards favor the military occupation of the Basque country were Ibarratxe to call a referendum. The prospect of military occupation of a civilian population in the heart of Western Europe offers all kinds of very bad possibilities. Will Zapatero follow through with the threat of his defense minister Jose Bono to occupy the Basque country if there is to be a referendum? Would inaction by Zapatero lead to private action (remember as recently as 1981 generals took the parliament and told MPs to “Sit the fuck down” in a failed coup attempt, the spanish military has been downsized and the guardias civiles tranferred from military to civilian command since then) by the fascist element in Spain?
What about self determination? Do the Basques and the Catalans have the right to their own countries should they so choose in a democratic vote (intmidation of voters is a problem in the Basque country)? In the event of serious unrest, how would the US gov’t and the EU respond? The US maintains a significant presence in Spain at Zaragoza, Madrid, and in Andalucia. Only time will tell, but I just hope however this comes out it ends peacefully.