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ETA and the Basque Peoples’ Struggle for Justice and National Liberation

February 10, 2008


The fascist dictator Francisco Franco ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. He was one of the leaders of the failed coup d’etat against the democratically elected Popular Front made up of Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists. This failed coup d’etat evolved into the Spanish Civil War which began in 1936 and ended in 1939. The repression the Basque people endured under Franco was brutal and it is no coincidence that during Franco’s dictatorship, we see the emergence of ETA and the beginning of its many actions throughout the years. But what is ETA? Why was ETA formed? Why does ETA still exist today? I will look at these issues in this essay. I also want to focus on the situation of the Basque Country after the death of Franco with the emergence of a so-called “democracy” in Spain. How has this “democracy” affected the Basque peoples’ struggle for national liberation.

The Basque Country is made up of 7 provinces, 4 are on the Spanish side: Nafaroa, Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, Araba. 3 are on the French side: Lapurdi, Benafaroa, Zuberoa. As an old Basque graffiti states: “4+3=1”. The Basque people are an ancient people who speak Euskera. It is said to be one of the oldest languages in Europe, possibly pre-dating the Indo-European languages. No one has ever found a linguistic relative to Euskera. Some say it may be linked to Finnish or Hungarian, but there is no conclusive evidence to connect these languages. There are numerous reports that when early explorers arrived in North America, they encountered First Nations people who spoke Basque. In other accounts Indigenous People of North America and Basques learned and intermingled each other’s languages. The Basques were renowned sailors, fishers of cod and whale, so it is quite possible that they had reached North America on these expeditions. The question that is still not known is when had this taken place.

The Basque Country, Euskadi or Euskal Herria in Basque, is a country accustomed to fighting against occupation forces and is a people used to defending their land and their culture against invaders. Throughout history many, from the Visigoths to the Romans, have tried unsuccessfully to invade the mountains of the Basqueland, for it is a very strategic point that connects Spain with the rest of Europe. The Basques have for centuries, resisted militarily and culturally, so what we see today, is unfortunately nothing new to the Basque people.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Franco had said that the only solution to the Basque “problem” was the complete annihilation of Basque nationalists. So an assault on Bilbo was urged and German Nazi commanders advised the Spanish Fascists that aircraft could destroy the morale of the enemy, and it was also agreed that no attempt was to be made to spare civilians. The Germans sent bomber and fighter planes, tanks, and motorized artillery and 12,000 troops to help Franco’s fascist army. The tactical decision to attack Gernika a town in the province of Bizkaia in the Basque Country on April 26, 1937 was most probably jointly made by Franco, the Italians and the Germans. The attack was deliberately chosen on a market day and at the time of day in which the market was at its busiest. Modern bombers dropped huge amounts of splinter and incendiary bombs, for maximum destruction to buildings. And as people fled, the airplanes flew in low and killed them with heavy caliber machine guns.

This year also marked the fall of the Basque rebels in Bilbo, and the Basque government, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) was forced into exile or went underground. Two years later in 1939, Franco won the civil war, and this period marked the beginning of a dark, tragic period for the people of the Basque Country as well as for many people in Spain.

Once World War II had ended, and with the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, there was a strong belief within the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) that western powers would defeat Franco’s fascist regime. However, after 1951 Franco and the US made an alliance and the United Nations ended its international embargo on Spain. Many people were frustrated with the PNV’s passivity in dealing with Franco.

Under Franco, not only was there political repression, but also a cultural and linguistic one: the Basque language was banned, as was any sign of Basque nationalism such as the Basque flag, the ikurrina. Franco would decree numerous states of exceptions (suspension of constitutional guarantees) and martial law would be imposed sometimes even lasting up to two years at one time. In 1975, just months before Franco’s death, he decreed a state of exception for the provinces of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, some two to three thousand Basques were detained during another one of these decrees, large numbers of them were tortured and held incomunicado for weeks.

In response to the violent repression from Franco’s government and to the PNV’s passivity, a group of young Basque nationalists formed the organization called Euskadi ta Askatasuna or ETA (Euskadi and Freedom) on July 31, 1959. For many, ETA came to symbolize the only alternative to confront a fascist regime. By the end of 1959, ETA had about 200 to 250 members. The members began studying about armed liberation movements, in particular those in Tunisia and Palestine.
In 1962 ETA’s Executive Committee issued their first declaration of purpose: “ETA is a clandestine organization whose only objective is to obtain as rapidly as possible and using all means necessary – including violence- the independence of Euskadi.”

By 1967, there were around 450 members, and according to a publication called “The Official Ideology of ETA”, ETA was at that point a Basque socialist national liberation movement defining its nationalism as “revolutionary nationalism” that would fuse the Basque people and their struggle for national liberation with the working class for “social liberation”. State violence was an every day occurrence in the Basque Country; the environment was one of extreme violence and repression. During the 1960’s and 1970’s,with the number of political prisoners in the thousands in a country as small as Euskadi, meant that the repression was a generalized personalized experience. For many this came to mean a rejection of state violence, and therefore a complete rejection of the Spanish state.

What is interesting about the actions of ETA, although they could not inflict the same amount of violence that the Spanish state could inflict, the symbolism of ETA’s violence set ripple waves all through the country. An example of this was in ETA’s first action causing death: the assassination of the police commissioner Meliton Manzanas in August 1968. Manzanas had acquired a reputation as a brutal and sadistic prison official who especially enjoyed beating and torturing Basques. In response to this action, the Spanish government made more than six hundred arrests. And in 1969 nearly two thousand Basques were arrested, and about half of these were retained in custody, tortured and eventually tried and convicted of a variety of crimes against the state, none had anything to do with the with the death of Manzanas.

Throughout the years, ETA would expropriate banks, kidnap business people for ransom, place car bombs, assassinate politicians, policemen, soldiers, and judges. One of the most noteworthy actions carried out by ETA commandos, was in December 20, 1973. The target was Luis Carrero Blanco, due to be Franco’s successor and who, everyone knew, would make sure Francoism would continue even after Franco’s death. That morning of 1973, sixty-five pounds of dynamite stopped this, the explosion under Blanco’s car was so intense, that it sent his car several stories high over the top of a building. A popular comment after that was “Un bache más, un cabrón menos” one more pothole, one less asshole. A year after Franco’s death in November 1975, the transition to a so-called democracy began. But the post-Franco administration was composed largely of former Francoists, which continued to use many of the same methods. Manuel Fraga for example, a minister under Franco was one of the writers of the new Spanish constitution in 1978. He also founded the right wing political party, later re-named the People’s Party, and was the president of the region of Galicia for the next 15 years.

In 1976, ETA created the Basque Revolutionary Party (EIA) and in 1978 they became a legal political party and a new more radical electoral coalition appeared in the Basque Left as Herri Batasuna (HB). In 1978 Herri Batasuna and their coalition parties said no to the Spanish Constitution, which denied the right of Basques for self-determination and placed the Spanish monarchy as head of state. In the first election, Herri Batasuna won over 170,000 votes.

For Basques, the republican movement in Ireland is a sister struggle, and ETA and the Irish Republican Army have historic links going back to the 1970’s. Also, some similarities in operations of both ETA and the Provisional IRA suggest that the groups have swapped techniques and maybe even arms and explosives. Herri Batasuna and Sinn Fein have also maintained relations for years.

From 1982 to 1996, a socialist government of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) ruled Spain. The prime minister of the PSOE, Felipe Gonzalez authorized a secret vigilante death squad called GAL (Anti-Terrorist Liberation Groups). This paramilitary group was set up in the early years of his administration, and they carried out kidnappings, bombings, and the torture and assassination of suspected ETA members. During 1983 and 1987 GAL agents killed 28 people. The GAL were later uncovered, and many people rejected the PSOE and refused to vote for them in the next general election.

As a result, the conservative right wing People’s Party won the elections in 1996. From 1996 to 2004, prime minister Jose Maria Aznar set out to destroy ETA. His government introduced new anti-terror laws that were used to ban Herri Batasuna. The repression in the Basque Country also took the form of shutting down of media, banning of social organizations and other political parties, voiding tens of thousands of votes, jailing citizens for taking part in legal demonstrations, and banning marches and other similar events. All this was very similar to Franco’s “state of exception”. In 2003, the Spanish government judicially declared Herri Batasuna illegal by court ruling. Although Herri Batasuna remains legal in France, it is included in the European Union’s list of terrorist persons and organizations.

These new laws and regulations for the “struggle against terrorism” has come to signify that people arrested under these new anti-terror laws can be held incomunicado for up to five days, with absolutely no contact with their families or a lawyer. The use of torture is widespread and people have reported being beaten, being suffocated with plastic bags, being suffocated in bath tubs, electric shocks to the body and to the genital area, being threatened with the torture of family members and loved ones.

Also, there is a strong element of sexual torture in the case of women detainees. To maximize the humiliation and degradation of women, they are almost always made to strip naked and remain naked throughout the entire session of interrogation, while being fondled by the interrogators. Rape is also a common occurrence; one woman was even raped with a loaded gun. Confessions extracted under torture are then used in a court of law, and when the detainees have informed the judge about their torture, this is met with no response and no investigations have been opened against the torturers. There have been five reported deaths; one of them was a woman, as a consequence of the torture in these police detention centers. There are currently 639 Basque political prisoners being held in Spanish and French jails, and it is not a coincidence that the Basque Country is the territory in Europe with the highest density of police: there is the Guardia Civil, National Police, the Basque Regional police, and military police.

The Spanish State has also imposed the policy of dispersal of Basque political prisoners. The prisoners are sent to jails far away from the Basque Country and are prevented from having contact with one another. The families and friends of those imprisoned have to travel hundreds of miles to visit with them. These travels also impose a great economic burden on the families that have to spend on gas, car rentals, etc. The number of road accidents caused by these long journeys is also a frightening figure. On February 28, 2004, Juan Carlos Balerdi’s mother and brother died, and his father was seriously injured on their way to visit him 500 miles away from their hometown. Since the imposition of this dispersal policy, 16 people have died in car accidents on the way to visit their loved ones.

Isolation is also applied disproportionately to Basque political prisoners. According to the Spanish penitentiary law, the maximum time a person can be held in isolation is 42 days. Some Basque prisoners however, are kept for years: Satur Lopez de Paria spent nearly 13 years of his 22 incarcerated in isolation.

Every year for over 30 years now, there is a demonstration held on Sept. 9th to honor detained relatives and friends. In 2007, a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, banned the demonstration. Despite this ban thousands took to the streets to take part. They were repressed violently by the police and many were injured and arrested. One month after the demonstration, two representatives of Batasuna were arrested and charged with attending the demonstration. On October 4, the rest of the Batasuna leadership, 23 people were arrested. The next day their houses were searched, all electronic and written material was confiscated. Six of those have been released after they had to pay millions of euros in bail. The other 17 people have been given unconditional prison terms.

By banning the demonstration the Spanish state is showing that they do not accept the freedom of attending demonstrations; repressing it, they are showing that they are able to charge on defenseless people with sticks, rubber bullets, kicks and punches; these last arrests show that they do not accept that people organize themselves within political parties or organizations supporting Basque political prisoners.

Even today, under the guise of democracy and under the guise of fighting terrorism, the Spanish state is violently attacking the people of the Basque Country. They do so, clinging to the fascist ideal of united, homogeneous, “great” and submissive Spain. The conflict of the Basque Country and Spain in one of imperialism. It is the imperialists who want to destroy a language, a culture, a people and their struggle for self-determination. Resistance to this imperialism has taken many forms: that of electoral politics, a cultural-linguistic revival, armed resistance. It is for the people of Euskadi to decide in which forms they will struggle to achieve their freedom, and for us to stand by them in solidarity with those choices.

ETA still exists today as a military-political organization, and it will continue to exist until the Basques have complete independence. In a communiqué from ETA on September 8, 2007 they state, “until we reach the democratic conditions that allow the defense of political projects of the Basque Country, ETA will continue striking the structures of the Spanish state on all its fronts.”

For more information on Basque Political Prisoners visit,, or

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