This is the first in a series of posts tentatively titled "A history of this ETA ceasefire, 1976-2011." Over the next few weeks I will work my way up to the present.
I was in the Basque region of Goierri, Guipuzcoa—in the heart of radical Basque nationalism—on the eve of ETA’s September 10, 2010 ceasefire announcement. My mom’s “cousin” (a catchall term for any number of peasant relations) and I entered into a bar frequented by local Basque leftists. Immediately, we heard the news: ETA was calling a ceasefire. It had been expected for months, years in fact. The media was not yet reporting it, but we took the patrons at their word. If anyone had inside knowledge of what ETA was up to, it was the people in this bar.
We would have to wait for the news the next day for official confirmation. Watching Spanish TV that September morning, I learned a new word.
Part One: ETA and negotiations up to 1992
Negotiating an end to violence is not a new idea within ETA. In fact, ETA’s military strategy since the late seventies has been one of basically “bomb to talks.” Prior to this, the group operated according to the insurrectional theory of violence: individual acts of violence could produce the conditions for a popular uprising, with state repression linking the two phases. ETA theorists called this the “action-repression-action spiral”—though the strategy has roots in anarchist thought and in Carlos Marighella’s influential Minimanual for the Urban Guerrilla.
The problem is that revolutions are not so easily produced. People generally do not rise, but remain “spectators” to the conflict. States also turn out to be less than helpful. Though security forces may initially react blindly, they eventually get smarter and target their efforts against insurgents and their immediate supporters. This leads to what revolutionaries fear most: social marginalization. The further they’re removed from their social base, the more apt the “terrorist” label becomes—and the harder it gets for them to get out of the conflict.
ETA’s realization of these conditions happened during the mid 1970s. With Franco dead and his regime crumbling, Spanish democracy was a fait accompli. State factions and clandestine parties struggled over the how of democratization, while ETA was divided over how best to violently respond. Some of the group’s leaders, inspired by a Leninist model of insurrection, advocated for a single vanguard party directing both military strategy and the mobilization of the masses. From this organized core, a revolutionary army would be created.
This view was seen by most ETA militarists—i.e. those specialized in the used violence—as far too optimistic. This group—known at the time as “ETA Military”—argued for a more modest approach: ETA would engage in a war of attrition until the Spanish state was forced to negotiate Basque independence.
Negotiations, not independence, were the actual aim of ETA’s violence. Naturally, the state would negotiate with ETA, an elitist viewpoint that would negatively affect the course of actual negotiations to come.
Talks between ETA and the Spanish state began in late 1976. With democracy looming, the Spanish proposed a simple deal: if ETA’s campaign ended, the state would offer amnesty for imprisoned members of the group and the legalization of its political wing. One faction of ETA—the Leninist leaders of “ETA Politico-Military”—took the deal and, by 1982, had transitioned into a legal political party. ETA Military refused, arguing that amnesty and party legalization were minimal conditions of a democracy, not subject to bargaining. ETA’s negotiations with the state would concern only the political status of the Basque Country.
Another aspect of negotiations that quickly emerged—and remains—a barrier to compromise is the timing of the end of violence. The state insisted that violence end a precondition of talks, while ETA viewed ending violence as the object of negotiation. With little else in the way of leverage, ETA’s violence is what puts them at the table. Giving it up hurts their ability to bargain.
Talks with the state continued throughout the eighties as part of a larger counterterrorism strategy. The Socialist government of Felipe Gonzales developed a three-pronged approach. First, the state began a “dirty war” against ETA in the French Basque provinces where the group was based. Twenty-seven were killed between 1983 and 1987 by a network of Spanish police officers and rightwing French mercenaries.
Second, the state began marginalizing the “political wing” of ETA, the radical nationalist party Herri Batasuna, through a series of “anti-terrorist pacts.” The idea, first proposed by the socialist in 1982, was to create an accord among political parties condemning terrorism and establishing a basic counterterrorism stance. In 1987 Spanish political parties went further. The pacts of this period prohibited dealings with parties that “support terrorism”—i.e. Herri Batasuna—and precluded any negotiations with ETA over the political status of the Basque Country. Constitutional matters were the purview of democratically-elected parliaments, not terrorists.
Finally, the state engaged in direct talks with ETA—limited to “technical” issues such as the decommissioning of weapons, the status of prisoners, and the “social reintegration” of ETA militants. The limited “technical” purview of these talks became law in 1987 as part of the Madrid Antiterrorism Pact.
In 1989, a ceasefire was called by ETA and the two sides engaged in concerted negotiations in Algeria. There was little consensus, however, over the matters to be negotiated: ETA wanted to bargain over political reforms, while state representatives would only discuss ETA’s disbandment. Constitutional matters—such as the national integrity of Spain—were not to be included. The ceasefire was over by the end of March 1989.
In 1992, a renewed attempt at talks was effectively thwarted by the arrests of ETA’s leadership by French police in the Basque coastal town Bidart. At this point, the Spanish government had little need to negotiate: now that French counterterrorism was on board, security forces were confident they could dismantle the group. ETA itself shelved the idea of talks, choosing instead to reorganize and recalibrate its military strategy. The idea was still violence-for-talks, just not yet.
The experience of negotiations between 1976 and 1992 produced key barriers to reaching a settlement, particularly with regard to the design of the talks. The “two-track” model—ETA and the state discussing technical issue, while the parties talk political reforms—relegated ETA to a secondary position at the table. Despite the group’s violence having produced the talks themselves, ETA would have no say in matters relating to the Basque Country’s political status. These matters would be left to its “political wing” in Herri Batasuna. This considerably limited the agency of ETA in talks.
In addition, the timing of the end of violence was significantly. For ETA, an end to violence was the object of the talks. Spain, however, viewed the end of violence as a precondition for talks. For ETA—politically marginal by design the two-track model of peace talks—violence was an attractive tactic in negotiating. Unilaterally breaking ceasefires became a hallmark of their participation in the Basque peace process.
For a background on ETA ceasefires, check here.