Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Table of Nations: Spain/Pais Vasco

By kgpatia
On Wednesday, July 9, a sizable crowd gathered at Emilio’s Tapas Restaurant for a discussion on the Pais Vasco region of Spain. The event was the sixth event in the McCormick Freedom Museum’s Table of Nations series. In the tapas tradition, guests sampled a delectable range of traditional Spanish fare, ranging from Pincho de Solomillo (according to the menu, grilled beef brochette rolled in cracked pepper and served with caramelized onions and horseradish cream sauce) to grilled marinated chicken with a cumin garlic sauce (a personal favorite). Still nibbling on flan served with caramel sauce, the Table of Nations guests listened attentively to a discussion of the Pais Vasco region of Spain and an upcoming referendum (which has since been brought under review by Spain’s Constitutional Court) that may eventually lead to complete regional autonomy. The discussion featured Ambassador Javier Rupérez of the Consul General of Spain’s Office in Chicago and was moderated by Mark Hallett, senior program officer for the McCormick Foundation’s Journalism Program.

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.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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