“Sojourn in Spain (5): Basque Country: Bilbao, San Sebastian, Guernica – Af Ron ridenour (eng)

En rejseberetning af Ron Ridenour: “Sojurn in Spain” – Med Collager af Jette Salling – 5. afsnit

KPnetBlogs bringer en spændende rejseberetning som sommerføljeton  i 7 dele skrevet af  Ron Ridenour med collager af Jette Salling. De to har besøgt Spanien og videregiver her tanker og indtryk fra landet – om politikken, historien, naturen og menneskene de har mødt. Teksten er på engelsk. Afsnit 6 udgives onsdag d. 9. august

Her følger afsnit 5. Se link til de tidligere afsnit nederst


We flew to Bilbao, the largest city in Basque Country, 300,000 population; one million in urban area. It is also the richest city, having once provided England with two-thirds its iron ore and possessing 20% of the world’s steel.

Bilbao grew rapidly in the industrial age. The 160-meter long, high suspension Vizcaya Bridge is a towering sign of that. Modern public transportation is also a highlight. We were pleasantly surprised by how helpful and understanding train and bus personnel are. On two occasions we were allowed to travel without having tickets.

Jette with Basque beret. Depending upon how one places the beret it signals different identities: peasants and workers, soldiers, artist Pablo Picasso, revolutionary Che Guevara or Beatles John Lennon.

At Bilbao’s Euskal Museum, we saw some of the Basque people’s history, including Gernika’s (Basque spelling) beginnings 2800 years ago. There was evidence that Basques are descendants of indigenous groups in the Pyrenees and Cantabrian mountains dating back 9000 years ago. They are the oldest permanent residents in Western Europe with the oldest original language (Euskara), which is also the only surviving non-Indo-European language. Basque land covers about 20,700 square kilometers spread over four provinces in Spain (now three) and three in France.

Bilbao has also been the center for nationalism, for Basque independence, for sovereignty. Most political parties have stood for independence regardless of ideology. The opinion of the two Euskal Museum workers we spoke with seems to be typical. “One day we will have our sovereignty again; not just yet but the day will come.”

The ETA was in the process of surrendering the last of their arms. I spoke about this with a bartender and two customers, one of whom had been a member. Ana is a small, actually frail person in her 30s. She spent four years clandestine and 30 months imprisoned. She didn’t go into details but didn’t regret her struggle. She was optimistic that one day “we’ll be sovereign”. Ana had hope for humanity. Maybe there would be less war with Donald Trump in the White House.

Our jolly bartender, Carlos, was also optimistic. He, too, desired a socialist sovereign state. We conversed while I drank wine and ate delicious fish and shell-fish pintxos, which is Basque for tapas. These Basque Country snacks are spiked (which is what pintxo means) with skewers or tooth picks into a piece of bread. Carlos appreciated our talk so much he invited me to a tall drink of 7-year old Havana Club.

It was in Bilbao that the ETA was founded July 31, 1959 at the Jesuit Deusto University. Students first made propaganda and events aimed at preserving their culture and language with a vision for sovereignty. They were Marxist and third-Worldists, that is, thinking that liberation from oppression and capitalism would come from underdeveloped countries rather than from the West.

Throughout the 1960s and until Franco’s death hundreds of thousands of brave Basques went to the streets for independence and support of ETA. Met with repression, ETA evolved into armed struggle. Their first sabotage attempt, in 1961, failed to derail a train filled with Franco supporters. One hundred members were arrested and tortured. ETA’s first killing took place in 1968 when a Guardia Civil policeman tried to stop one of their vehicles at a road block.

ETA was at the height of popularity December 20, 1973 when members blew up a government car, killing Prime Minister and Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, who was also head of the torturous secret service. Franco had 5000 people arrested, many at random, and he unleashed wanton paramilitary violence. This prompted the exiled king, Juan Carlos, to reclaim the throne and propose a shift to constitutional monarchy, which led the way after Franco’s death.

ETA stepped up its attacks after Franco’s death. In all, they made upwards to 3000 attacks between 1961 and 2011. According to government figures as reported by media, the ETA killed between 829 and 850 people, including 343 civilians. Over 200 civil guardsmen police were killed, 146 national police, 24 local police, about 100 military. Their worst attack occurred on June 19, 1987 when a Barcelona shopping center was bombed killing 21 civilians, injuring 45, including many small children. The bombers claimed they warned the Hipercor firm management 30 minutes before the explosion. Authorities say a search was conducted but nothing was found. Regardless, people could not condone such a terrorist attack.

Government estimates that ETA has had 10,000 members over the years, about half have been arrested and over 3000 imprisoned for years to life. In response to torture, abominable prison conditions, and being so far removed from relatives that visitations are few and far between, prisoners have conducted many hunger strikes, some for months on end.

In 2003, the once popular political party backing ETA, Batasuna, was banned allegedly because it financially aided the “terrorist” group so defined by Spain, the EU and the USA. The party denied the charge. Batasuna, or its kin by another name, had received 15% of the vote in Basque Country in the first general elections, in 1979. Its greatest backing came in 1990 with 18%. But as ETA became more casual in whom they killed, the party also lost backing. It officially disbanded in 2013, in France.

Previous supporters told me that ETA should have stopped their guerrilla warfare when people could see that its dedication and tenacity had played a role in gaining some self-government measures that Basques have enjoyed after Franco. In a popular San Sebastian bar-restaurant, Platjro, are photos of local men and women imprisoned for ETA activities. Waiters and customers spoke of their support for them or, at least, for better conditions for those imprisoned far away from families.

“It took a long time and great internal debate for ETA to finally decide to end the armed struggle,” one waiter told me. “The majority wants to end that part of the struggle for our independence, but the government s really opposes peace with ETA, because they can use them as an excuse to make police state measures advantageous for greater state power and less democracy. The governments hope brutality will make Basques stop wishing and struggling for sovereignty. They are wrong.”

A pro-ETA placard in Biscay

The ETA unilaterally called a cease-fire on January 10, 2011. It made no attacks since then but two members killed a French policeman three months later (April 9) when he tried to stop a car they drove. This was their last killing.

They tried to turn over their arms but were not allowed to do so without being imprisoned. So a French civil society group, Artisans for Peace, headed by Jean Noel Etcheverry, an ecologist and activist in Demo and Bizi activist organizations, took over as mediator. On April 8, 2017, they handed over to French authorities 118 pistols, rifles and automatic weapons, 2,875 kilograms of explosives, and 25,700 detonating devices and ammunition that had been hidden in eight caches. The locations were passed on by an International Verification Committee, which oversaw the disarming process although it was not recognized by either France or Spain.

The IVC said it “believes that this step constitutes the disarmament of ETA”.

Some 172 observers accredited by the ETA mediators oversaw the process, with teams of around 20 standing watch at the eight locations. The Spanish government refused to take part in the process, saying it will not negotiate with terrorists.

It is believed only a couple handfuls of ETA members are on the loose. Around 300 are in Spanish prisons, 84 in France prisons and two elsewhere. Some members live in exile in Latin America.

Despite some terrorist actions—the killing of innocent civilians—ETA played a positive role in changing Spain’s political structure. Not only did the assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s heir apparent, effectively end the dictatorship and open the way for bourgeois democracy, but the guerrillas ongoing presence influenced other events.
According to William Douglass, a founder and emeritus director of the Center for Basque Studies at University of Nevada, “There wouldn’t be a Spain of the autonomies without ETA. During the negotiations [over the post-Franco transition], ETA was the teeth of the barking dog…They turned Spain into a federal republic.” https://thebluereview.org/rise-fall-eta/

“The difficult thing to understand is why ETA wasn’t satisfied with that, and why it continued fighting long past the point of diminishing practical returns. There were likely many reasons, but one crucial aspect was the ties of an ‘unconscious brotherhood,’ as professor Joseba Zulaika described it. ‘When you have family that was killed or tortured there is a sense of shared suffering, and the power of suffering is something you can’t change easily. You feel beholden to a struggle and a way of thinking. You’d rather be wrong than feel a traitor to those you love.’ To abandon that ideal, Zulaika said, ‘is a difficult conversion. It’s a step that requires deep reflection and deep change. You’re giving up the passion for sacrifice,’” reported Mark Bieter.

The objective of ETA’s guerrilla war for Basque sovereignty is still desired by the majority of this people, albeit their violence is unpopular. A sociological survey conducted in 2004 by the University of Basque Country found that only 2% of those surveyed supported the ETA, although 94% either supported autonomy, independence or federalism (about one-third for each option). Only 2% supported centralism and 2% were undecided.

While in Bilbao, I joined in a picket calling for better prison conditions for the political prisoners, and transfers to prisons closer to their homes. Such actions occur elsewhere as well. On January 14, 2017 many thousands marched through Bilbao calling for the same. AP wrote:

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated Saturday in the Basque city of Bilbao, calling for some 350 imprisoned members and sympathizers of the armed pro-Basque independence group ETA to be allowed to serve their sentences closer to home in northern Spain.

In addition to prisoners’ families and pro-independence politicians, some relatives of ETA victims took part for the first time in the annual demonstration. Protesters marched through the city holding placards that read ‘I Denounce’ the Spanish government’s policy of dispersing ETA prisoners in 40 prisons across Spain to restrict contacts between them.

Rosa Rodero, widow of a police sergeant assassinated by the ETA in 1993, marched behind a banner reading ‘Basque prisoners to the Basque Country.’ “’All people here in the Basque country, we have fought a lot, we had to suffer a lot. The only thing we want is that peace comes and that peace is also given to these people,’ she said, referring to the prisoners.”

I couldn’t find information about how many ETA members have been killed in combat but government torture has been systematic and some have died from it. Torture and even some outright murders have been exposed. At least 27 non-combat murders, with 26 injured took place between 1983 and 1987. The Felipe Gonzales-led PSOE government created and financed through the Interior Ministry a mercenary death squad called GAL (Grupos Anti-Terroristas de Liberación). Policemen and government officials directly aided Gal murders in this self-styled “dirty war”. It was so blatant that trials were held and some assassins imprisoned.

The government, though, had the audacity to present one police torturer, Captain José María de Las Cuevas Carretero, as its judicial representative, in 2001, to the United Nations Committee for the Prevention of Torture. (7)

No doubt, Basques want an end to the torture, to the violence on both sides, an end to ETA. “People are hateful of either the ETA or the Spanish governments or both,” the San Sebastian waiter told me. “We are tired and we are at a crossroads. We must use dialogue and find political means rather than armed ones now. But we will continue until we get our sovereignty regardless! Then, we can continue our cause for justice, for socialism.”

Sixteen thousand people live in Gernika today. They neither wish to forget their origins nor how the high and mighty have brutally attempted to make them heel. They, too, want sovereignty although perhaps not socialism.

We rode with a cozy train to Gernika. Basques respect their hygiene and general environment. We saw how houses and garden plots integrate holistically with green grass, clear streams and rivers, rolling hills dotted with grazing sheep, goats and an occasional burro. Basque cities and towns, gardens and fields are well-maintained. Market places, eating and drinking establishments are clean and attractive. Cities are brightened with violet flowers and Garibaldi Tulip trees.

Gernika felt reposeful, pristine, guileless. Everywhere we walked we saw beauty and simplicity. Surely our knowledge of the genocidal bombings influenced our hearts and eyes yet the reality is that the Basque people truly respect their milieu, their traditions, and their responsibilities.

The old Gernika Oak Tree before the Assembly House where citizens once met to collectively make rules and laws. In the center of town is an iron sculpture of guitarist José María Iparragirre (1821-81) who wrote the anthem, “Gernikas Arbol” (Gernika Tree).

The peace museum portrays the bombing, and the Culture of Peace and Human Rights exhibition. Images of well known activists for peace fill the walls. A famous quotation by a former president of the American Humanist Association, Russian-American author Isaac Asimov rams through:
“Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.”

I bent over a clear glass floor covering ruins from 721 houses the bombs destroyed. Hundreds killed. I wondered how human beings can be so cruel, how rich Basque kinsmen could bring themselves to point out human targets for the fascist monsters to murder and destroy? I saw and heard an audio-visual interview with one survivor. She concluded: “The most important thing is not to lose faith and hope in life.”

Up a hill from the museum of peace is the traditional Assembly House with the Oak Tree of Gernika before it. Its child and grandchild are planted nearby to continue the centuries-old tradition.
The universal symbol of Basque history can be seen through a large window in the Assembly House. Part of its roof is magnificently color-flowered glass. Inside the house one travels through cultural and ethnic traditions that bind the Basque people.

Beside the Oak Tree and Assembly House is the Museum of Euskal Herria (Basque Nation). Here the evolution of this unique people is traced. The museum was built where the Palace of Alegría had once been. The palace was burned down during a Basque rebellion in 1718, the “Matxinda” revolt so named for the iron workers who led it. Spain’s King Philippe V attempted to move Basque custom posts, which would have increased tariffs, but his orders were overlooked in 1721 due to the ferocity of the rebels.

Behind the museum is the Park of the European Nations. Here are two sculpture tributes to the victims of the bombings. Eduardo Chillida’s work is entitled “Our Father’s House”, and Henri Moore’s is “Great Figure in a Shelter”. This was made in 1985-6, one of Moore’s last.

Henri Moore’s “The Great Figure in a Shelter”.

Se de tidligere afsnit:

Afsnit 1 med intro (oversat til dansk)

Afsnit 2: Art, War and Peace

Afsnit 3: Almeria and Podemos

Afsnit 4: Barcelona, Catalonia sovereignty and civil war



(1) See Randy’s piece: http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/07/20/when-i-started-hating-america/
Regarding American Exceptionalism, John Pilger referred to President Barak Obama’s exclamation: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being”. This is what Pilger meant when he wrote, “American political life is a cultish extremism that approaches fascism.” See his piece, “The Issue is not Trump, it is us” https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/01/17/the-issue-is-not-trump-it-is-us/

(2) “How many Muslim countries has the U.S. bombed or occupied since 1980?” wrote Glenn Greenwald, November 6, 2014.Greenwald cited former army colonel Andrew Bacevich, who wrote that Syria had become at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that US forces had invaded, occupied and/or bombed, and in which US forces killed and/or were killed. And that was just since 1980. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/even-if-we-defeat-the-islamic-state-well-still-lose-the-bigger-war/2014/10/03/e8c0585e-4353-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html?utm_term=.b8ff8d252546

Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria.)

Nobel peace prize winner President Barak Obama, the hope of black and “progressive” Americans whom Colonel Bacevich supported in his first election, bombed seven Muslim countries plus Muslim areas of Philippines. Obama was the fourth consecutive US president to bomb Iraq. Look up on the internet for a “list of wars involving Spain.” It should not be surprising that “chickens come home to roost”.

(3) Fuengirola is said to have acquired its name after the Arabs were overthrown by Spanish Christians. Moors had called the town Sohail. The river flowing through the town, which empties into the Mediterranean, was once navigable and used especially by fishers. The hub of a boat is called a nave, as is the central passage of churches. The Spanish word for nave is “girola”. The Christians were mainly farmers and fishers and they went to church a lot. It became common to say that one went to fish on the river. The past tense of “to go” in Spanish is “fue”. So, one could say, “fue a girola”—I navigated the river or: gone fishing.

(4) In April municipal elections pro- monarchists received 25.6% of the vote; the rest were for a republic. In general elections, 70% of those eligible voted, considered high. At that time, however, women were denied the vote, although ironically they could run for office. The republican constitution of December 1931 granted the right to vote, and many other equal rights. Of the 34 political parties that won over 1% of the vote and thereby a seat in the 473-seat parliament, outright monarchist parties only received 10 seats; and rightist parties won 20 seats. The republican and socialist coalition won a huge victory with 34% of votes (193 seats), while the social democratic PSOE took 14% (80 seats).

(5) Germany provided Franco forces with 600 war planes, 200 tanks, and 16,000 soldiers. Italy added 660 warplanes, 150 tanks, 800 artillery pieces, 10,000 machine guns, 140,000 rifles, and 50,000 soldiers. Portugal sent 20,000 “volunteer” soldiers.

(6) The Soviet Union provided military assistance at the cost of all the Republic’s gold reserves. It sent old equipment no match for the more modern axis weapons: 1000-2000 artillery pieces, out-dated rifles, 350 tanks and 600-800 planes. Their 2000-3000 soldiers were mostly volunteers, advisors and secret service personnel. Mexico was the only other country to help the Republic. It provided about $2 million in aid, which included 20,000 rifles. It was also offered sanctuary for about 50,000 refugees after the Republic fell. But the European democracies and the US declared neutrality and didn’t even offer returning internationalists safety. Some were imprisoned in their home countries.

(7) See the Basque GARA newspaper, March 20, 2017, www.naiz.eus.

(8) See: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/989, and one of the best books on the subject “Illustrated Guide to Atapuerca”, written by a team of experts, Atapuerca Research Team, EIA. More material can be bought at the Burgos Museum of Human Evolution and the Atapuerca Foundation and Reception Centre. See Scientific Report, 7 for study on cannibalism: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep44707

(9) As I edit this work for the last time, scientists just discovered that Homo sapiens are 100,000 older than believed until June 2017, around 315,000 years old. One skull, one complete mandible with teeth, and many other bones of five individuals who died about the same time were uncovered in Morocco (Jebel Irhoud) far from the other earliest evidence of modern man. “We did not evolve from a single ‘cradle of mankind’ somewhere in East Africa,” declared Philipp Gunz, one of the discoverers. They looked like us; they made complex tools, including wooden handled spears and cooked their food. With this find, Homo sapiens are older than Neanderthals—for the moment. See Nature international journal of science, and major newspaper articles, June 7.

(10) DNA=deoxyribonucleic acid, which is the hereditary material in cells, which is our basic building blocks.

(11) UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) reported that there are more people fleeing their home lands (including refugee and asylum seekers) today than since World War II: 65.3 million. Only six percent attempt to come to Europe. Europe received 1.1 million asylum applications in 2016. In 2014, 57 people drowned on their way to Europe; in 2015, 1,855; in 2016, over 5,000 drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. In one week in May 2016, 880 drowned en route. Most European nations and the EU commission seek to stop anyone from aiding them. Greece, Denmark and Hungry fine or imprison people for doing so.

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