After Disarmament

Arnaldo Otegi

The leftist Basque group ETA has laid down its arms. What's next for the independence movement?

Basque flags at a celebration in 2015. EAJ-PNV / Flickr

Interview by
Denis Rogatyuk

On April 8, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (or ETA, “Basque Homeland and Freedom”) a Basque independence movement put a definitive end to its campaign of establishing an independent Basque state through armed struggle. In a statement bearing the organization’s seal and initials, the group declared itself a “disarmed organization.” It praised the work of Basque civil society and institutions in supporting the peace process and condemned the Spanish and French authorities for what they perceived to be “stubbornness” in delaying the group laying down its weapons. Work has begun on locating the numerous caches of arms and explosives in southwestern France that the Basque group has used in its nearly fifty-five-year-long campaign against the Spanish and French states.

ETA was founded in the late 1960s by members of the youth section of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the traditional political force of the Basque independence movement. Facing severe repression by Franco’s dictatorship, it saw the armed struggle as the most efficient way to destabilize the Spanish state and resist the occupation of Basque lands. Long perceived to be the most dangerous and important internal enemy of the Spanish State, ETA has led an armed campaign of assassinations, bombings, and kidnappings of prominent political and military figures of both Franco’s regime and the post-1978 democratically elected governments of Spain. Over eight hundred victims, among them politicians, members of the military and the civil guard, as well as innocent bystanders and civilians were killed from 1968 until its final ceasefire in 2010.

In the late 1970s ETA formally separated into two distinct factions — military and political. The former maintained the military structure and vision of an independence movement based on the same methods as used during Franco’s era. The latter, while maintaining support for the armed struggle, saw a greater potential in achieving the goal of a Basque state by legitimate political means, taking part in elections throughout Euskal Herria (the traditional Basque regions in Spain and France) and promoting the ideology of the “Abertzal (i.e. patriotic and pro-independence) left within Basque society and its institutions.

The military faction of the organization dissolved in 1986 and, together with other Abertzale left organizations in the Basque country, created political and electoral structures. The most prominent of these was the Herri Batasuna political party, which eventually dissolved to form part of the Batasuna political coalition in 2001.

They have sought to rival the traditional political force within Basque politics, the center-right Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), by simultaneously advocating for national independence and the economic and social policies associated with the Abertzale left project — nationalization of key industries (particularly energy companies) and banks, higher taxes on the rich, opposition to nuclear energy, support for refugees, and solidarity with other national liberation causes and movements around the world (particularly in Catalonia, Galicia, Ireland, Palestine, and Kurdistan).

Due to Batasuna’s previous association with ETA, the right-wing Popular Party (PP), together with the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), have consistently pressured the Spanish Constitutional Court to ban the party. In 2002, the Spanish parliament passed the Law of Parties aimed at outlawing Abertzale left formations, citing a refusal to disown ETA. There remains around 350 ETA members and political figures connected with the Abertzale left imprisoned, dispersed around Spain and France as a method of separation from their families.

Arnaldo Otegi Mondragon has been one of the most prominent leaders of the Abertzale left, serving as the founder and president of Batasuna from 2001 until its dissolution in 2013, and, most recently, as the general secretary of Sortu, the successor to Batasuna. He is also the spokesperson for EH Bildu (Basque Country Unite), an Abertzale political coalition.

A former member of ETA, he has been imprisoned numerous times by the Spanish state, most prominently from 2009 to 2016. Despite enduring torture at the hands of Spanish Civil Guard, and witnessing numerous splits within the Abertzale movement, Otegi played a key role in peace negotiations (most prominently in 2006), persuading the military wing to abandon its armed operations. Here he is interviewed by Green Left Weekly’s Denis Rogatyuk.

Denis Rogatyuk

ETA has announced its disarmament. Does this amount to an admission that the armed struggle has been counterproductive for the movement for Basque independence?

Arnaldo Otegi

We need to put the dynamics of ETA’s disarmament into context. I see it in terms of a cycle of change that has taken place all over the world: in the last decade or so most of the movements that had been carrying out armed struggle have given up this sort of strategy in order to become movements of popular resistance, building social majorities and democratic majorities in parliament.

I think we are witnessing the end of a large global cycle with the passing of outstanding figures like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Manuel Marulanda, and Martin McGuiness, and that’s the context in which I think the disarming of ETA, a group that has carried out armed struggle for fifty years in our country, has to be seen. We are very pleased that this is the case, we are convinced — not only in political terms but also in terms of revolutionary morality — that in building the road forward to overcoming our condition as an oppressed people, we have to ensure peaceful and democratic methods. We think that this is the pathway, and I believe that in the end ETA will rise to the challenge by making an historic contribution to the independence movement with its own disarmament.

Obviously, nobody can avoid recognizing the level of suffering that the armed struggle and government repression have brought to our country: that’s the reality and it must be understood. We have brought to the discussion three things: the removal of armed struggle from Basque politics; a recognition of damage done; and a recognition that we too are in part responsible for the suffering in the country. In the context of that large cycle of changes in strategy across the world I think that this has been the contribution of the Basque independence movement up until now.

Denis Rogatyuk

On the issue of ETA political prisoners, the Spanish state seems to be happy to leave them in jail, and there is currently no political force within Spanish politics strong enough to change that situation. Where do you feel this struggle is going?

Arnaldo Otegi

We have said quite clearly, adopting as our own the international principles and standards of conflict resolution, that once ETA has disarmed, the issues of the prisoners, the exiles, and the demilitarization of the country have to be confronted. In our country, we have one policeman for every twenty inhabitants, the highest in Europe: they are Spanish police and the Civil Guard.

I believe there are two levels on which the conditions of prisoners should change with disarmament. There’s the non-political level, covering prisoners of an advanced age or with severe illnesses: from my point of view they should be released unconditionally, it’s a humanitarian issue beyond politics. I put the issue of the Basque political diaspora on the same level.

Then, we should start discussions among the various progressive political forces about how to start reviewing all state-of-emergency regulations insofar as they affect prison policy. I think that will be the next step and here we can work with sections of the Spanish left — with a lot of patience, discretion, and caution so we don’t hurt certain sensibilities. I believe this is the way to make some progress in resolving these issues.

Denis Rogatyuk

In the Basque region today, there’s a significant left social presence and a political majority that seeks self-determination. What steps do you think Sortu should take to combine these majorities into one?

Arnaldo Otegi

Within the Basque country, there is large majority in favor of self-determination, with fifty-seven MPs out of seventy-five [in the parliament of the Basque Autonomous Region in Spain]. And out of these, between our eighteen and Podemos’s eleven, we have twenty-nine in total, putting us ahead of the twenty-eight of the PNV [center-right Basque nationalists]. So it appears that we have a broad majority for the right to self-determination and a broad progressive majority as well.

However, the question is not one of trying to create a single political and ideological amalgam out of these majorities. What we should be putting on the table are possible common alliances and dynamics so that our policies in national terms move towards sovereignty and the exercise of the right to self-determination, and our policies on day-to-day concerns shift leftwards: this the work that Sortu and EH Bildu have to do.

Denis Rogatyuk

At the Sortu Refoundation Congress in January, the party defined itself as “ecological.” What meaning does this have for you?

Arnaldo Otegi

We have always declared ourselves to be ecologists, and always have been, but now I believe that this description has even greater validity and topicality. We are aware that right now capitalism is weakening the conditions supporting human life. For the first time the human footprint is putting at risk the very biological and material conditions of human life: that’s one of the savage legacies that capitalism has brought us. That’s why we understand that when we talk about economic growth, and about sustainability and all the rest, the emphasis has to be on respect for nature, on how we human beings relate to nature.

We have a long tradition of fighting against nuclear power plants and nuclear energy, a tradition of struggling to keep our natural landscapes intact. We understand that at a time when capital is putting life at risk and when probably the greatest contradiction in the world is the contradiction between capital and life, then we have to make a clear commitment to re-launching and intensifying our ecological profile. Today environmentalism is one of the most important components of global anticapitalism.

Denis Rogatyuk

In January, at the Rosa Luxemburg conference in Berlin and at the Sortu refoundation congress in Bilbao, you outlined your vision for the need to create progressive and revolutionary coalitions and forums against neoliberalism and fascism across Europe and the world. What practical steps need to be taken to achieve that?

Arnaldo Otegi

For some time now, we have been asserting the need for something — a new international or a worldwide forum. We are accused of being nationalists but we always say we are not nationalists, we are supporters of independence. There’s a mountain of problems in the world and the worst ones, the structural ones, can only be confronted on a global scale or at least a European scale. I think that as left-wingers, progressives, people who belong to political parties or unions, we need a functional forum in which to tackle these problems.

I always put forward as an example what happened in Greece. Greece faced the troika [European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund] and everybody looked away as if it was only a Greek concern, while we, who were in jail at the time, were saying that that fight was everybody’s fight against capitalism and that the Greek defeat was a defeat for all of us.

When is there going to be a Europe-wide general strike against austerity policies? These sorts of demands need to be put to a global scale, or at least European scale, forum that can start to tackle these issues. Not so much a forum for theoretical debate but a practical forum that can develop answers on a global scale. We are going to make the effort to raise this thinking wherever we are — with our small forces and with great humility — but we really think it is necessary to move forward in this area.

Denis Rogatyuk

Nearly all nationalist movements have a left, right, and center. There are a lot of movements for self-determination in Europe that are led by right-wing forces. Examples include the Flanders Union, Lega Nord in Italy — and even the National Front in France to some degree. How does Sortu and the broader Abertzale left relate to them?

Arnaldo Otegi

We do not have any kind of relation with the National Front, nor do we have any sort of relationship with those who those who put forward xenophobic policies or nationalist policies of the Right. We have had some relations with the groups from Flanders, but this was based on the historic factors of the exiled Basque communities that have been based in Belgium and maintained relations with Flemish nationalists, but we certainly do not follow the same ideological vision nor do we have the same vision in terms of social goals. For us, the biggest priority is to construct left-national alliances.

We have good relations with left-wing movements from around the world, because for us, we do not form part of the nationalist movement but rather of the pro-independence movement. We believe that independence will provide us with the tools for advancing alternative social policies: demanding national and popular sovereignty means a fight over that ground with the oligarchies who have hijacked our democracy.

We have never shared the policies nor the xenophobic proposals against immigration that have been raised by the right-wing populist movements. Sometimes these remind us of the 1930s, we consider them highly dangerous. They have stolen some of the banners of the Left, because their social messages are similar to those of the left-wing, but we know they represent the same oligarchy with simplistic but dangerous messages.

Instead, we, the Catalan People’s Unity lists (CUP) and other political groups think that you can only move forward in terms of popular sovereignty if you build instruments of sovereignty in order to carry out different social policies, ones that are anti-neoliberal.

We have always claimed that independence for the Basques or Catalans is in the interests of the great majority of people and workers. This is why, for example, Basque trade unionism in its majority supports Basque independence. It’s also why we are proud to observe processes like those in Scotland and Catalonia which, when they call for people’s support for the cause of national sovereignty, always accompany it with a commitment to advanced social programs.

It’s not hard to grasp. If you want the support of the workers of Glasgow or of the Barcelona industrial belt, or of Bilbao, you need to have advanced social programs. Sovereignty processes always look to the left because this is where they can build majorities and for that you need advanced social programs. We know that when we start the Basque independence process the ones who will be heading it will be the trade unions in this country.

Denis Rogatyuk

The situation that we see today in the Spanish state is certainly different than the one seven years ago: the People’s Party (PP) is in a minority government, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) is in a deep crisis, while Podemos and the alliances in which it participates is pushing the government on various issues. So, if the Catalan movement pulls from one side, and you pull from another, could it fall?

Arnaldo Otegi

The Spanish state is going through a serious structural crisis. The foundations that the post-Francoist regime used to build the country in 1978 are in deep crisis, for various reasons. First, because the global financial and economic crisis has called into question the economic viability of the country. Second, because Catalonia has started a process that will bring them to national independence, and third, because the Abertzale left has changed its strategies, leaving Spain without an internal enemy.

I think there is a way to make a significant change in terms of democracy by supporting the constituent processes that Catalonia has been heading and which we want to start in our country. We cannot forget that the key to the 1978 regime is the defense of Spanish unity, its domination is built on this idea. For this reason, Catalonia has the importance it has, and this is why we also want to initiate an independence process.

If we accompany this with a real dynamic of the Spanish left-wing proposing a multinational state and demanding respect for the right to decide, all this might come together in a change in the regime, a real democratization. But we are not very hopeful about that, since the PP, PSOE, and Ciudadanos — the parties of the regime — are still in a majority in the Spanish state. That’s why we say we have to follow our own pathway wherever possible: in Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Denis Rogatyuk

You have gone through so much in your personal struggle — prison, torture, fights within the movement — without becoming discouraged or embittered. How have you managed to keep smiling through it all?

Arnaldo Otegi

Because, in the end, I am an anthropological optimistic, as Zapatero [former PSOE prime minister of Spain] would say. I consider that we cannot falter; the road forward is still the road forward, the goals are still the goals, the objectives remain what they are. A left-wing project must be founded on profound human values, right? I think that is something the Left lost some time ago, but that it is something we need to recover.

I am convinced that most people in this country will commit. If so, we will overcome obstacles, prison, and torture. I am an advocate of always maintaining the smile. We have to fight and win without losing our smile, since ultimately what we are doing is proposing a better society for everyone. We don’t fight for ourselves, we fight for the people. And I think the best compensation is when people stop you in the street and thank you for your effort and work. The Left has a treasure — setting the example and being coherent: if we lose example and coherence, we lose everything.

I usually say in my meetings that we don’t go on to boards of management when we finish in politics, but that we have a much greater compensation than that: popular affection, the affection of the people, and it’s the affection of the people that keeps us smiling.