Table of Nations: Spain/Pais Vasco
In a move that sparked international discussion and internal controversy within Spain, members of the Basque regional parliament approved a referendum for the fall elections that would grant the region more autonomy from Spain. The referendum would be composed of two questions and would ask Basques to vote whether they would like to see the regional government seek peace talks with Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna (ETA), the militant faction in the drive for Basque independence, as well as whether there should be a political debate over the future autonomy of the Basque region. The Spanish government vowed to block these measures, and Ambassador Rupérez projected that the referendum will not take place because it is “clearly unconstitutional.” In fact, since the Table of Nations discussion with Ambassador Rupérez, Spain has indeed halted preparations for the referendum while the country’s Constitutional Court deliberates the legality of the vote.
For members of my generation (so-called ‘Generation Y’), it is easy to forget that Spain’s transition to democracy lies in the not-so-distant past. This transition is traditionally noted as beginning just after Franco’s death in 1975. After Franco’s death, Juan Carlos I became king. At this moment, Hallett noted, King Carlos had a decision to make about which direction to take the country forward. Ambassador Rupérez affirmed that this was a moment of uncertainty and great tension, for it was not necessarily clear that the King would lead the country towards democracy. Heightening the tension involved in this transition, Ambassador Rupérez noted that many drew a parallel to another great period of transition in Spain’s history: the Spanish Civil War. However, as Ambassador Rupérez observed, whatever anyone might have thought about the civil war, “one thing [was clear] in all of our minds: never, never again back to [what it was like during] the civil war.” Hallett reflects that “[the notion of] having a king, which seems so antiquated to Americans, has been a really critical element for Spain as it transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy.”
Spain eventually made —with some U.S. help, as the Ambassador noted—the transition to a democratic government. As for Pais Vasco, the region was granted considerable autonomy after the 1978 Spanish Constitution. However, many in the region were not satisfied with this partial operational autonomy and began to push for complete independence. It is important distinguish, as Hallett did at the beginning of the program, the separate movements for independence: the non-violent faction (which is pushing for the referendum) and the violent faction, ETA.
As an entity, ETA has sparked much controversy and heated debate over their violent tactics in pushing for independence. According to the BBC, ETA’s tactics have “led to more than 800 deaths over the last 30 years.” This passion was present in the discussion, as when one audience member thanked the Ambassador for referring to ETA as a terrorist organization, rather than a separatist movement. The Ambassador commented that this rhetorical distinction was a part of a “long fight I’ve had with the American press. No matter that [ETA] is considered [to be] terrorists by the U.S. government, the European Union, and the Spanish government.” (For the record, The New York Times has referred to ETA as both an “armed separatist group” as well as a “Basque militant group.”)
For the Spanish government, handling the Basque region and its complexities has been a challenge. Ambassador Rupérez described the region as quite unique, noting that it was very conservative and steeped in its Catholic faith. Although the analogy is not perfect, he noted that the Basques were very much like the Republican Party of the United States, to give a cultural and political comparison. The Ambassador acknowledged the persistent problems in the Basque region, explaining that, “In Basque country, [there is] no freedom of expression, teaching, thought…not even religion really. This is something to keep in mind…The realization that part of our country is not free worries us extremely.” However, in dealing with the region, there is no ignoring ETA’s significant presence and violent methods. Reflecting on this, the Ambassador noted that, “Terrorism terrorizes, but it corrupts as well. It tries to make you use methods it uses. You become a terrorist [yourself]…We learned not how to live without terrorism, but how to live without terrorism affecting our policies.”
Ambassador Rupérez has experienced the ramifications of such terrorism first hand. He was kidnapped by ETA in 1979 and held hostage for 31 days. The Ambassador said that he had the “rare privilege of being able to tell this story,” for many others who have been kidnapped were “killed or lost their minds as a result of the kidnapping.”
“It is an experience not to be repeated, I can tell you that,” the Ambassador remarked, noting that it was a purely political kidnapping with no ransom.
Thus, as Spain continues to encounter the growing pains of a democratic nation, it is important to consider the questions raised in these current debates. As Mark Hallett reflected after the discussion, the domestic terrorism in Spain “can not only leave hundreds dead, but can really stifle free speech.” Thus, at what price does an independence movement come? Furthermore, when are independence or separatist movements legitimate (if ever)? And subsequently, how do these movements rectify a constitution that may prevent independence movements and the obvious moral repugnancy of violent independence measures? These are important questions that not only apply to Spain, but hold resonance in countries worldwide.