Wounds linger in Spain’s Basque Country a decade after ETA ended armed struggle

A decade after Basque separatist group ETA renounced the use of arms, the northern Spanish region is still trying to turn the page on decades of bloodshed.

People hold a banner reading in Basque
People hold a banner reading in Basque "Come back home" during a demonstration to demand the transfer of ETA prisoners to jails near their homes in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao. Photo: Ander Guillenea/AFP

In a video released on October 20, 2011, three masked ETA leaders announced that the group classified as a terrorist organisation by the European Union “has decided the definitive cessation of its armed activity”.

“It is time to look at the future with hope. It is also time to act with responsibility and courage,” they added, raising their fists in the air at the end of the video.

The announcement put an end to western Europe’s last armed insurgency.

“After ten years, we have advanced…but there are still wounds that have not healed,” regional leader Inigo Urkullo of the moderate Basque nationalist PNV party wrote in an opinion column published Sunday.

Created in 1959 at the height of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship which repressed Basque culture and language, ETA is accused of killing more than 850 people in its fight for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwest France.

Its decision to lay down its arms was a “major turning point” for the Basque separatist movement, said political scientist Rafael Leonisio Calvo, the author of a book about ETA.

“It was a surprise, particularly since it was a unilateral announcement without any trade-offs…but in reality it was the result of a long process,” he told AFP.

File photo from 1997 shows demonstrators with their hands painted white, during a protest in Ermua against Popular Party (PP) councillor Miguel Angel Blanco's murder at the hands of ETA. Photo: Rafa RIVAS/AFP
File photo from 1997 shows demonstrators with their hands painted white, during a protest in Ermua against Popular Party (PP) councillor Miguel Angel Blanco’s murder at the hands of ETA. Photo: Rafa RIVAS/AFP

Weakened by arrests

Several weeks before the announcement, secret negotiations were held between ETA leaders and the Spanish government via intermediaries.

The framework for the talks was agreed with the Socialist prime minister of Spain at the time, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, one of ETA’s historic leaders, Josu Urrutikoetxea, told AFP in a recent interview.

The talks resulted in an international peace conference held in October 2011 in the seaside Basque city of San Sebastian where ETA was urged to end its armed struggle to “promote reconciliation”.

At the time ETA was severely weakened by arrests of its top leaders and seizures of its weapons.

The group was also being pushed by its political wing — under pressure from Basque public opinion — to “change its strategy” and drop violence, said Eguzki Urteaga, a sociologist with the University of the Basque Country.

“During the Franco era, ETA benefited from a sort of aura among part of the population that was opposed to the regime,” he told AFP.

“But then rejection of the armed struggle did not stop growing, especially after 1995 when ETA decided to expand its targets to include members of civil society.”

Photo taken on December 20, 1973 shows how policemen search among the damages caused by an ETA bomb in which Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco has been killed. (Photo by STAFF / EUROPA PRESS / AFP)

‘Dead end’

This view is shared by Calvo, who said ETA was at a “dead end” at the time.

“Polls showed that even among separatist voters, support for ETA had dropped considerably and become a minority,” he added.

ETA continued its pacification after it announced it had dropped violence.

In April 2017 the group handed in its weapons and the following year it apologised to its victims, just days before it formally declared its dissolution.

Still, resentments persist.

Victims’ groups denounce jubilant ceremonies held for ETA members on their release from prison and complain that some 300 ETA killings have not been resolved.

Meanwhile, family members of ETA prisoners complain that many are still being held in jails far from the Basque Country.

A protest planned for September to demand the release from jail of ETA member Henri Parot, who is serving a lengthy sentence for his role in 39 killings was called off after it sparked counter demonstrations.

Arnaldo Otegi, leader of far-left Basque pro-independence party EH Bildu which is seen the heir of ETA’s former political wing, on Monday apologised for the “suffering endured” by ETA victims.

“It never should have happened,” he added in what was seen as an attempt to foster further rapprochement in the region.

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‘A long way to go’: Spain’s domestics fight to end discrimination

For years, Aracely Sánchez went to work without counting her hours, always fearful she could lose her job from one day to the next.

'A long way to go': Spain's domestics fight to end discrimination

“They would always ask me to do more and more and more, as if I were a machine,” she told AFP of her employers at a house in Madrid.

Within a collective of domestic workers, this 39-year-old Mexican has been trying to assert her basic rights to have time off every week, to be paid for working overtime and to have unemployment cover.

But given the precarious nature of this type of work in Spain, it is a challenge.

“There are employers who are very humane and who respect us, but there are many who try to take advantage of the situation,” she explained.

“They say: if the job doesn’t suit you, there are plenty more where you came from.”

According to the Workers Commission union (CCOO), nearly 600,000 women serve as domestic staff in Spain where taking them on for housework, cooking or childcare is widespread.

Of that number, nearly 200,000 are undeclared, working in the black economy without an employment contract.

“Many of them come from Latin America and they don’t have papers and find themselves in a very vulnerable situation,” said Mari Cruz Vicente, the CCOO’s head of activism and employment.

‘Exposing violations’

Following a ruling by the EU’s Court of Justice (CJEU) and pressure from the unions, the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez adopted a reform this month aiming at ending the “discrimination” suffered by these workers.

READ ALSO: The new rules for hiring a domestic worker in Spain

Under the changes, dubbed by the government as “settling a historic debt”, domestic workers are now entitled to claim unemployment benefits and cannot be dismissed without justification.

They will also be covered by healthcare “protection” and be able to access training to improve their “professional opportunities” and job conditions.

“This is a very important step forward,” said Vicente, while stressing the need to step up efforts to register those who are working without a contract and don’t benefit from the reform.

“This reform was very necessary,” said Constanza Cisneros of the Jeanneth Beltrán observatory which specialises in domestic workers’ rights.

“Spain was very behind. Every day we have people coming to us whose rights have been violated. We have to end such practices now,” she said.

“Such situations have to be exposed.”


Around 200,000 domestic workers who are working in the black economy without an employment contract will not benefit from Spain’s new labour reform. (Photo by Ezequiel BECERRA / AFP)

‘Not seen as people’

Mexican home help Sánchez has often experienced such abuses in more than two decades of employment.

In 2001, she arrived in Madrid to take up full-time employment caring for an elderly person for €350 a month.

She then spent the next 15 years working in short-term jobs, almost always without a contract, despite the fact she had a valid residency permit.

“When I said I wanted a contract, they never called me back. They didn’t want to pay contributions,” she said, describing her work as “undervalued” with domestic staff seen as “labourers” and not “as people”.

Amalia Caballero, a domestic worker from Ecuador, has had a very similar experience.

“We often finish very late, or they change our hours at the last minute assuming we’ll just fall in line. But we also have a life that we need to sort out,” said Caballero, 60.

She also talks about the “humiliations” often endured by those who live with their employers.

“One time, one of my bosses asked me why I showered every day. It was clear he thought (the hot water) was costing him too much money,” she told AFP.

But will such attitudes change with the reform?

“There’s still a long way to go,” she sighed, saying many domestic staff “have completed their studies” back home and even hold a degree.

“People need to recognise that,” she said.

Cisneros agreed.

“Our work needs to command greater respect, not least because it’s so necessary. Without staff to pick up the children, run the household and look after elderly people, what would families do?”