Is the Basque Peace for Real?

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Contrary to July weather tradition, San Sebastian awoke last Thursday to a cloudy sky. Still, many Basques — and Spaniards — may have greeted the day as one of bright hope, as leaders of the Basque Socialist Party, the local branch of Spain's ruling Socialist Party, and Batasuna, an illegal party traditionally considered the political wing of the violent separatist group ETA, met at a local hotel to discuss a scenario for ending more than 30 years of conflict that had cost almost 1,000 lives. For most people in this resort town on the Bay of Biscay, these talks represent a breakthrough moment in modern Spanish history, which could mark the beginning of a long-awaited peace process

Basques of my generation have never known peace. Despite the region's industrial prowess and rich entrepreneurial spirit, this proud region of less than 2 million people saddled on the western slopes of the Pyrenees has since the 1960s trudged a destructive path of terrorism, extortion, government dirty wars and the social numbness that often accompanies deep fear and unspoken pain. ETA's goal of Basque independence from Spain and France was pursued, from the outset, through selective attacks against police and military forces but became more and more indiscriminate — a bomb in a Barcelona supermarket in 1987 caused 18 deaths. Eventually, the violence threatened a wide swath of Basque society, including businessmen, journalists, judges, professors and artists, among others.

A majority of Basques once viewed ETA's objectives with some sympathy — their struggle was portrayed as a rebel region's fight against Franco's dictatorship. But since the advent of democracy in 1978, ETA's support has steadily dwindled to the point where today it is almost unanimously rejected by Basque society. Indeed, despite Basques' desire for self-rule— some still seek independence from Spain— tolerance for political violence has disappeared. It was the desire to heal the traumas of 40 years of low-intensity civil conflict that saw the brief 1998 cease-fire called by ETA greeted with so much hope, but it was soon broken in a new wave of killing that appeared to return the conflict to square one.

But the times they are a-changing, as Bob Dylan — who will perform at a free Concert for Peace on San Sebastian's beach next Tuesday —once sang. "I think this time it's for real," says Javier Elzo, a Sociology Professor at the University of Deusto, in Bilbao. Elzo, who has been under threat from ETA for more than 10 years and dropped his bodyguards the day after the group announced its current truce, believes ETA has finally recognized that it cannot achieve its objectives through violence. "The [harsh] reaction of Basque society after breaking [the 1998 cease-fire], the police and judicial pressure, and the March 11 train attacks in Madrid [by a radical Islamist cell] have made ETA understand that there is no room for armed activity."

The latest polls suggest Elzo's optimism is shared by 90% of Basque society, which supports peace negotiations between the Spanish Government and ETA. Their enthusiasm and high expectations of the talks don't address the question of why this time might be different. One answer may be that the 1998 truce was agreed in secret political negotiation between ETA and more moderate Basque nationalists, without consulting the Spanish Government. This time, Prime Minister Zapatero himself is leading the process, with the support of a majority in the Spanish parliament — although without the backing of the opposition Popular Party (PP). "I think this time the process is more transparent and more open to everybody, to all the political sensibilities in the country," says Mikel Serrano, a Socialist councilman in the small town of Zumarraga who has who has faced social rejection — even among his family and friends — for running with the Socialist Party and having to carry two bodyguards in the face of threats from the ETA. "I am betting on this process to reach a [positive] outcome. I hope it is now. I hope we don't have to wait 30 or 40 years for another chance."

There are others, however, who don't share that optimism and want to see more evidence of ETA's commitment to stop the violence. "We won't have a real peace process until ETA puts down the weapons for good," says Maite Pagazaurtundua, a Socialist councilwoman whose brother was killed by ETA in 2003. "Society cannot renounce justice and dignity" in the pursuit of peace, she says. That sentiment is also shared by a wide spectrum of ETA victims who fear the government may be tempted to show excessive leniency and give in to ETA's political demands in exchange for an end to violence. "What are we going to negotiate with ETA?" says Pilar Elias, a PP councilwoman in the town of Azkoitia, whose husband was killed in 1980 by a neighbor belonging to ETA (and whose life he had saved 18 years earlier). "First they have to turn over all the weapons and ask for forgiveness. After that, we will see."

But while accepting the pain of the victims, the majority of the people here see this as the moment to make a last sacrifice for the sake of a permanent and just peace, one that would ensure that there are no more victims. And it is on that outcome that Zapatero is clearly betting. He has offered to talk to ETA at a time when the organization is at its weakest after 10 years of relentless pressure from the Spanish and French police and judiciary, which has not ceased — the group's extortion operation was dismantled two weeks ago. But ETA has not killed in the past three years, and Basques and Spaniards alike are, for the first time in a generation, seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. "The road will be long, hard and difficult," said Zapatero, stressing that "the democracy will not pay a political price" to ETA in exchange for peace. At least the hands now on the negotiating table and not on the trigger. And that is exactly where most of us hope they remain, forever.