It’s going to happen very soon now. An interval more likely measured in weeks rather than months, but you never can tell; a well-planned terrorist attack bides its own good time. Policemen in northern Spain’s troubled Basque Country (“troubled” is journalists’ weasel locution for four decades of separatist terror) are once again routinely checking under their cars for booby traps, and you can play spot the bodyguard whenever somebody — not just politicians any more, but even a professional philosopher, for God’s sake — gets his picture in the paper.
Spanish officials fall fiercely silent if pressed as to what is going to happen next. Yet only a few weeks ago, many of these same officials were clucking assurances that it was going to be a Good Thing. They said the Basque separatist terror group ETA was preparing a “goodwill gesture” in which it would hand over some — some — of the 350 pistols they stole in France last October. For the record, the robbery took place seven months after the terrorists had announced an “indefinite truce” and two months before they blew up a concrete car park at Madrid airport, crushing two Ecuadorian immigrants to death, by way of reminding Spanish Premier Jos√© Luis Rodriguez Zapatero that he has yet to deliver on the promises he swears to high heaven that he has never made to them.
Or if (for whatever reason) they didn’t turn in their arms, then they would solemnly pledge to do so at some future time. That might have come a little late for the 819 people murdered by ETA’s hitmen since 1968, but it would have been welcome nonetheless. Zapatero’s people even claimed to know when it was going to happen. Around or about March 22, they said, the anniversary of the original truce announcement in 2006. Then the day was moved back to Easter Sunday, when Basque nationalists celebrate their national holiday. The latest date for a gesture to get the “peace process” back on track is May 27, when local and regional elections are held across Spain.
ETA’s above-ground political arm (which continually morphs its name to evade proscriptive legislation, but is commonly referred to as Batasuna) would dearly love to take part in those elections, but cannot do so under a 2002 law regulating political parties, until it repudiates violence. This puts Zapatero in a bind, and it is one in which he cannot avail himself of his willingness to oblige with what he terms “confidence building measures”. For ETA has made it clear that if the Batasuna coalition is kept off the ballot just because the law says so, then it’s back to killing as usual.
First, the Spanish premier all but pleaded for Batasuna to say something, to say anything, that could be resold to the public as a “no more violence” pledge. He knew he would have no easy time finding a way of subverting the letter of the law without bringing more toxic fall-out down on his government, which had already enraged many Spaniards by its willingness to be nice to terrorists so they won’t sully his peace process with a new “accident”– the word he tellingly used on two occasions to describe the Madrid airport bombing.
Take ETA charmer I√±aki De Juana Chaos, convicted of 25 murders (including, by the way, the separatists’ only American victim to date, Johnson & Johnson executive Eugene K. Brown, who was jogging in the wrong place at the wrong time). After 115 days on an attenuated hunger strike that got him to the hospital where he was allowed to have sex with his girlfriend, a smirking De Juana was permitted to serve out the remainder of his sentence under cozy house arrest, outings to the mall and gym included.
Then Batasuna bigmouth Arnaldo Otegi was up on charges of apologizing for terrorism. Since the law must take its course, Spanish security forces rushed him to Madrid in a helicopter to have his day in court. There, the Zapatero-compliant prosecutor simply refused to present charges, so Otegi walked, thumb firmly on nose, and leaving behind a lot of clenched teeth.
In the end, though, Batasuna refused to condemn ETA’s violence and it was left to Spain’s politicized judiciary to get Zapatero off the hook. After Batasuna downloaded its candidates into two smaller parties, Zapatero’s house-trained state prosecutor challenged some but not all of their electoral tickets as a way of placating ETA and at the same time claiming to have carried out the letter of the law. The Supreme Court has ruled to ban one of the two front parties, and just over half the tickets from the second, meaning that Zapatero can tell ETA that its flunkies will be able to field candidates in 123 of the original 379 constituencies it considered worth contesting, and hope that will make them happy enough so as not to kill anyone else before the poll date.
So what was Zapatero’s payoff for being Mr Nice Guy? Even in 2006 there were plenty of indications ETA had no plans for going out of business, especially after the weapons heist in October. All during that interval, the militants stepped up the extortion campaign that finances their activities, and there was no let up in street violence by pro-ETA youth gangs. In January, police nabbed a terrorist trainee on his way to Valencia to scout out locations for a big-ticket bomb attack on Spain’s eastern coast while the country hosts the America’s Cup regatta in April.
At the end of March, Civil Guards arrested 10 members of an ETA cell with 170 kg. of explosives, weapons, and a list of targets to be set up for a hit. Those being stalked include a terror victims’ rights activist who is the sister of a murdered member of Zapatero’s own Socialist Party, and philosophy professor Fernando Savater, whose best-selling books on situational ethics, critiques of the lethal and non-lethal strains of Basque nationalism, and colorful personality have made him one of Spain’s most high-profile public intellectuals. “As long as ETA stays active, we’re all of us potential targets,” Savater commented, on hearing the news.
And Zapatero has become ETA’s political hostage. Most analysts at this point agree that one more car bomb or bullet in the back of someone’s neck, and that will be the end of him, politically, forever – his own party will see to that. Adios peace process, adios second term and adios place in the history books. How did he get himself in such a corner? By ignoring the negotiator’s prime directive: to make sure you know who you’re dealing with. In this respect, Zapatero got not one, but two things wrong.
He mistook the part for the whole. There is a sector of ETA to some degree tired of being on the run, made up of older, more politicized militants who think an Ulster-type outcome need not be a defeat. On the immediate horizon, they see a real chance of advancing the nationalists’ shared strategic goal of incorporating the province of Navarra into the Basque regional entity, by having Zapatero’s Socialists form a coalition with the local offshoot of the Basque Nationalist Party in the aftermath of the May 27 vote. If Batasuna is excluded, they get no seat at the table.
But the dominant ETA mentality these days is more nihilistic and wedded to the view that creating a racially-delimited independent Basque state out of northern Spain’s three Basque provinces, plus Navarra and parts of southern France, is a zero-sum proposition. The terror organization’s current leadership has neither the inclination nor the brainpower to think about political outcomes, and so has turned away from the Che Guevara model of “armed struggle” to something closer to the Bader-Meinhoff construct of endless bloodshed and permanent destabilization.
Zapatero’s other error arises from his oft-proclaimed conviction that dialogue and compromise are the appropriate remedies for all conflicts, without distinction. Where it has led him was recently diagnosed by Hermann Tertsch, the journalist who for the past 22 years covered the battlefronts and political upheavals of Central Europe for Spain’s slavishly pro-Socialist daily El Pa√≠s, until his refusal to toe the Zapatero line got him fired a few weeks back.
“Violent or not, Zapatero sees ETA and the Basque nationalist movement as natural allies in his universe of affinities,” says Tertsch. “To an emotional mindset informed by half-baked, sectarian leftist dogma, ETA killers are always going to be misguided revolutionaries, and as such capable of being salvaged for his Popular Front movement. And any victim from the [opposition center-right] Popular Party is always to some extent going to be just another fascist killed in an accident. Not all dead people are created equal, because some are ethically superior to others. Zapatero is politically and morally autistic, a truly hopeless case. People ought to be more afraid of him.”
To that, Zapatero would counter that he has a mandate from the voters that won’t expire until March of 2008, and that as long it lasts he will stand fast by his core beliefs and give peace a chance. And give the terrorists everything they want, in the view of many Spaniards no longer quite so willing to give the man they elected the benefit of the doubt.
Robert Latona is a Madrid-based US journalist based who has written on Spanish politics, culture and the arts scene for print and web venues.