Endgame for the Spanish ETA

Meanwhile, around 90 percent of the 732 prisoners currently serving time for ETA-related crimes signed a statement urging their colleagues on the outside to seriously consider pursuing “by exclusively political means” their goal of an independent homeland made up of northern Spain’s three Basque provinces to which adjoining Navarra and a chunk of southern France would shortly be annexed.

That is, providing that certain demands were met, including the unconditional release of jailed terrorists whose cases have not yet come to trial, and other prisoners being transferred to holding facilities  “in the Basque people’s homeland, as the first step towards an amnesty." The Spanish government said it was a statement that “deserves to be taken seriously.”

Because there are so many of them, and the fact that they are serving jail terms of up to 30 years for the sake of the cause, ETA prisoners do have the influence, the clout needed to impose their views on the hold-outs. Apart from being direct beneficiaries of a near-future amnesty, they know, just as does every other political actor in Spain, that ETA’s terrorism has not just been forced into a corner, it has become an irrelevancy and an annoyance to the people whose support it depends  on.

The fact is that the radical Basque independence movement has been doing quite well for itself since its newest political arm, a coalition of small parties known as Bildu, was legalized with the not altogether passive consent of the Zapatero government. The decision was narrowly upheld by the Constitutional Court just in time for the radicals to field candidates in the municipal and regional elections held last May 22.

The radicals won big -- they came in second, took control of 72 municipalities, and gained a foothold in 22 others. The mayor of San Sebastian, the northern resort city, is now one of these not quite post-ETA pro-independence surrogates  -- a little more than a fellow traveler, a little less than an accessory to crimes of terrorism. So is the chief government representative in Guipúzcoa province. They do not, at least in public, justify or excuse terrorist activities -- that is a crime in Spain -- but they also refuse to condemn them.

Those elections were the game changer. Bildu, the pro-independence coalition that includes but does not consist exclusively of ETA’s hardcore supporters, wants to be dealt into the game because its leaders see an excellent chance of displacing the non-violent Basque Nationalist Party from the political space it has occupied for decades and ending their institutional hegemony. A few years in rhetoric rehab, some public relations work, a couple of lost elections, and the Bildu boys are set to take over the autonomous regional government of the Basque provinces -- the only place they are interested in -- without firing a shot.

So why does the government assume that if even if the deal can be closed, the terrorists will keep their word, turn in their arms, disband, and go home? Recall The Godfather, when the Al Pacino character says, “Kay, my father's way of doing things is over, it's finished. Even he knows it. I mean, in five years, the Corleone family is going to be completely legitimate!”

Going legitimate is every killer’s secret dream.