ETA Cease-Fire: Is Basque Terrorism Finally Finished?

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Gara / Handout / Reuters

A frame grab from a video released on Jan. 10, 2011, in which three members of ETA declare a permanent cease-fire

It took longer than expected, but at noon on Monday, ETA, the organization that has killed more than 800 people in its 40-year struggle for a Basque homeland independent from Spain, announced that it was declaring a "permanent and general cease-fire." Although the group, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union, has made similar statements before, this is the first time it has committed itself to a process that would lead to the end of violence.

In the declaration, ETA recognizes that the solution to the Basque conflict will come "though a democratic process that takes the will of the Basque people as its maximum point of reference, and dialogue and negotiation as its tools." And by noting that the cease-fire will be verifiable, it seems to be opening the door for outside observers to confirm that it is no longer making or purchasing weapons or engaging in the extortion it has used in the past to raise funds. "This is what we've been waiting for," says Brian Currin, the international mediator who, in addition to helping achieve piece in Northern Ireland and South Africa, has been working with Batasuna, the political wing of ETA, to bring an end to the Basque conflict. "The fact that they have agreed to verification by the international community has huge implications."

The government, however, doesn't view it that way. Spain's leaders want to see a complete dissolution of ETA. "If you ask me whether I'm more tranquil today than yesterday, the answer is yes," said Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba at a press conference on Monday afternoon. "This is not bad news, but it is not the news."

The declaration comes at a time when ETA is perhaps at its weakest — more than 30 of its members, including many of its top leaders, have been arrested in the past year, and it has not killed in 18 months. But there's more behind the group's change of ideology. In March, a number of international advisers, including Desmond Tutu and former Irish Prime Minister Mary Robinson, signed the Brussels Declaration, which called for just such a permanent, verifiable cease-fire. Perhaps even more significant, Batasuna has in recent months publicly declared itself opposed to violence, and in a historic change, urged ETA to commit to democratic ends. In September, Batasuna and other pro-independence parties signed a declaration at the Basque town of Guernica, calling on ETA to bring its armed struggle to a definitive end.

That was part of Batasuna's campaign to once again become a legal political party; in 2003, the entity was banned under Spanish law for supporting terrorism. With regional elections slated for May 22, Batasuna had been hinting heavily in recent weeks that an announcement like Monday's was forthcoming. "As a consequence of this statement, the leadership of a pro-independence left party should be able to do the things that would entitle them to legalization," says Currin.

Within the Basque country, the announcement is being hailed by many as the beginning of the end. "It's clear that ETA accepts that the armed fight is over," says Gorka Landaburu, the San Sebastian–based editor of the newsmagazine Cambio 16, who was himself a victim of one of the group's attacks in 2001, when he received a mail bomb that blew up in his hands. "It allows us to see the first glimmer of peace in the Basque country."

But the question now is whether the statement will be sufficient to bring the central government in Madrid to the table. In 2006, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's government began negotiations with ETA after the organization declared a "permanent" cease-fire. That truce came to an abrupt end when ETA set off a bomb in the parking garage of Madrid's Barajas Airport nine months later, killing two.

Politically wounded by those events, Zapatero's government has this time taken a much harder line, stating that it would not engage in a new peace process until ETA turned over its weapons or announced its dissolution. And with general elections coming up in 2012 — and Zapatero's Socialists doing poorly in polls, thanks to the country's economic problems — it is unclear whether the government is willing to take new risks. "Given Zapatero's situation right now, this may not be enough for him to launch another adventure whose outcome is uncertain," says Landaburu.

Certainly on Monday, Rubalcaba left no room for doubt about the government's response: "The only communication that the government wants from ETA is about its end." He also dismissed the importance of international verification, saying the only verifying body that mattered was the Spanish authorities. And he rejected claims that the declaration would open the door to Batasuna's legalization. "If Batasuna wants to become legal, it has two options: either ETA abandons violence and turns in its weapons, or Batasuna firmly rejects ETA. It hasn't done either of those things."

Still, Igor Ahedo, a political science professor at the University of the Basque Country, suggests that there may be wiggle room. "You have to differentiate what the government says in public and what it really thinks," he says. "It doesn't want to open itself to more attacks from the [opposition] Popular Party. But it must be happy about this turn of events." Indeed, on Monday the general secretary of the Socialist Party, Marcelino Iglesias, told the press, "It's important news that has to be confirmed with facts and without conditions."

For the moment, there is debate over whether ETA's declaration is conditional — some see the part about how "the democratic process has to overcome all situations of denial and violations of rights" as a demand, others as a statement of hope. But mediator Currin reads good news in ETA's lines. He points to one part of the statement, in which the group says it "calls on the Spanish and French governments to end all repressive measures." "[ETA] didn't say 'requires,' " Currin notes. "They're requesting Madrid's assistance to play a constructive role in enabling a successful peace process."