Spain: ETA ceasefire receives tepid response


MADRID, Spain — After four decades of violence, outsiders might have expected more than a tepid response to the separatist group ETA's announcement on Monday of “a permanent and general ceasefire."

It seems the terrorist group still needs to persuade Spaniards it has committed itself to peaceful protest.

The statement, read by one of three masked ETA members sitting at a table and broadcast on a video distributed by the group, also said the truce will be “verifiable by the international community.” Rumors had been circulating for several weeks that ETA, which wants independence for Basque Country, would make a ceasefire announcement, offering a glimmer of hope to those desperate for an end to the organization’s campaign of violence, which has claimed more than 800 lives.

But there was little celebration on Monday in the Basque region, which is situated in northern Spain and includes part of southwest France. Nor was there jubilation in the Spanish capital, Madrid.

“This isn’t bad news, but nor is it the news we wanted,” said Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba. “We are looking at an ETA with the same pretensions as before, the same arrogance and the same scenery.”

He added: “If you ask me today if I feel calmer, I would honestly say yes; if you ask me if this is the end, I would say no; if you ask me if this statement is what Spanish society was waiting for, I would say absolutely not.”

The Socialist government’s skepticism is due in large part to previous truces the group has announced before resuming its bombings, kidnappings and shootings. Most notoriously, ETA declared a “permanent” ceasefire in 2006 before breaking it by bombing Madrid’s Barajas airport and killing two people. Last September, ETA said it had ceased “offensive armed actions” in a communique that was widely rejected by the political mainstream for being too vague.

There is a suspicion that ETA’s recent moves away from violence are merely a ploy, following pressure from the political groups that support it and that want to be allowed to participate in Basque municipal elections in May.

Any statement by the group is therefore carefully examined for an indication of a change in its stance. For many observers, ETA’s mention of a “verifiable” ceasefire is encouraging, indicating a possible surrender of weapons in an echo of the Irish peace process, which Basque nationalists followed closely.

“It’s progress. But it’s slow, limited, insufficient progress,” said Kepa Aulestia, an expert on Basque issues for the Vocento media group, of the latest ceasefire. He sees it as a compromise move which seeks to avoid alienating the different factions within ETA, without offering a powerful statement of intent.

“This will come as a relief to those people who are under threat from ETA but it doesn’t satisfy people’s expectations,” he said.

After being badly burned by the collapse of the 2006 peace process, the government is in no mood to negotiate. Following a long string of arrests of its members and leaders in Spain and France in recent years and with its political support banned from taking part in elections, ETA is in a weak position and has not killed in Spain since the summer of 2009.

“ETA’s influence has waned over the last few years, and this is in great part due to its lack of political representation,” said Jesus Casquete of the University of the Basque Country, in Bilbao. “At a grassroots level it’s clear that its ability to get people out onto the streets to demonstrate in support of it has also dropped.”

Spaniards and politicians alike want to see a more convincing statement from the organization, one in which it effectively declares it has ceased to exist. If that does happen, the authorities will have a whole new challenge.

“As soon as the violence is brought to a formal end the political map in the region will change enormously,” said Casquete, who sees the government having to face not a terrorist threat, but the demands of the estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of Basques who want independence.

ETA formed in 1959 and started its campaign of violence a decade later, during the final years of the regime of dictator Francisco Franco, who repressed the languages and cultures of the Basques and their Catalan neighbors in the north.

When Spain introduced democracy in the late 1970s it granted its regions varying degrees of autonomy. With its own language, police force and education system, the prosperous Basque Country enjoys more autonomy than any other region, although its nationalists believe only full independence can do justice to their distinctive heritage.