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Basque question: Spain's pressing problem

Car bombs are a frequent weapon in ETA's fight for Basque independence
Car bombs are a frequent weapon in ETA's fight for Basque independence  

By CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain (CNN) -- For Spaniards, hardly a day goes by when they are not confronted with the issue of Basque separatist violence.

Several world leaders and human rights organizations have called on ETA, blamed for some 800 deaths since 1968, to stop the killing. But the bombs and violence have continued.

Polls have shown that about three-quarters of Spaniards believe Basque terrorism to be Spain's biggest problem.

"We are not going to allow them to impose terror on our country," Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar has said. "We will fight them with all the moral and material force of the state of law."

Basque conflict: Violence in Spain 
CNN's Al Goodman looks at efforts to contain the violence one year after ETA ended its cease-fire

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The Basque conflict is seen as Spain's biggest problem, as CNN's Al Goodman reports

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An interview with Carlos Iturgaiz of the Popular Party

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An interview with Loren Arkotxa of the Basque nationalist party Herri Batasuna

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From bombs to peace marches, the problem of Basque violence is ever-present in Spanish society.

Key issues

There are two key issues in the Basque separatist dispute: Who is a Basque, and what constitutes Basque territory?

"If you don't go to the roots of the problem, this problem is never going to be solved. And there's going to be more killings," says Loren Arkotxa, board member of the radical left Basque nationalist party Herri Batasuna.

Spain officially recognizes three provinces as "the Basque country." Separatists, however, want another Spanish province, Navarra, to be included, as well as part of southern France to create a homeland for 3 million Basques.

"Prime Minister Anzar denies there's a political problem," says Xabier Arzalluz, leader of the moderate Basque Nationalist Party, "which is notable in a country where, depending on who does the poll, 30 or 40 percent say they want an independent Basque country."

The conservative government in Madrid, however, is betting on the police crushing ETA's violent campaign, aided by widespread public outrage over terrorism.

"The government has said, and our party has said, that we are not to give anything to these terrorists," says Carlos Iturgaiz of the ruling Popular Party.

Basque identity

The Basques are an ancient people wedded to both the land and the sea. Their hilly country has traditionally isolated them from the rest of Europe, although in the Middles Ages they did embrace Roman Catholicism. Entire museums have been dedicated to defining their particular identity.

 San Sebastian
Capital of the Basque province of Guipuzcoa  
Population 180,000  
Famous resort city on Spain's Atlantic coast  
Became popular holiday destination with the Spanish aristocracy in late 19th century  
Regarded as culinary capital of Basque country and Spain, with high concentration of tapas bars and Michelin stars  
Hosts international film festival every September  

"I think that the most important thing for us is our language, because we are living here through the years," says Amaia Basterretxea, director of the Basque History Museum.

Modern Basque nationalism sprang up a century ago as immigrants came into the region in search of factory jobs. The violent faction, ETA, started killing during the regime of Gen. Francisco Franco, which ruthlessly suppressed the Basques and their language.

Much has changed since Franco's death in 1975. In modern, democratic Spain, many schools in the Basque region teach almost exclusively in Basque.

"Some students speak Spanish because their parents don't know Basque," says Ane Irurzun, who teaches second grade at Orixe Primary School in San Sebastian. "But the majority prefer to speak Basque because it's easier for them."

The Basque region now enjoys a broad degree of autonomy. As well as Basque-run schools there is a Basque parliament and a Basque police force.

The region has even attracted a famous museum, The Guggenheim in Bilbao, whose modern, dynamic image is precisely the image the Basque people want to project of themselves. None of this, however, is enough for ETA and the other Basque nationalist political parties, with the result that the region's streets continue to simmer with tension, fear and a lot of anger.

Basque grievances

Hopes for peace grew during a cease-fire called by ETA in September 1998.

ETA arose during Franco's dictatorship
ETA arose during Franco's dictatorship  

They were shattered more than a year later, however, by a car bomb in Madrid, with both the government and ETA blaming each other for wrecking the cease-fire. Now, hundreds of local officials who oppose ETA must go everywhere with bodyguards.

"The worst for me is the weekend, when I stop being a politician and I'm just a mother," says Maria San Gil, deputy mayor of San Sebastian. "I think it's terrible for my kids to grow up, as my son says, always with 'Mommy's friends.'"

Basque activists arrested by police are imprisoned in jails across Spain to prevent them collaborating behind bars. Some 400 ETA members are in Spanish prisons, and their relatives and at least one human rights organization say the dispersal is inhumane.

"Every prisoner has the right, according to international law, to be close to the families," says Esteban Beltran of Amnesty International Spain.

There is continued so-called low-level violence throughout the region, with pro-independence Basque youths attacking businesses, city buses, even homes on both sides of the border.

Many leaders in the region accuse the Herri Batasuna radical left party of being the political wing of the armed separatists. Party board member Arkotxa denies this, but adds there is a war on:

"I am born somehow in this war. My sons and daughters are still in the same war, and I have two grandchildren, (and) I don't want them to be involved in this war."

For some, however, the struggle is already over. At one cemetery in San Sebastian, people killed by ETA are buried not far from a member of ETA itself. In life, they stood at opposite poles. Now they are simply Basques.




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