ETA is formed in opposition to the Franco regime
Oppression led to increasingly radical opposition to the dictatorship in Madrid. There was a Basque government in exile in Paris, which, among other things, had underground contacts in the Basque Country with the workers who organized strikes in the Basque industry. But the young Basques who formed ETA in 1959 felt that the government in exile was too powerless in the fight against Franco.
ETA came to describe itself as a “socialist liberation front” with the aim of creating a Basque independent state. In the early years, the organization devoted itself mostly to disseminating information and propaganda for separatism and to underground education in the Basque language, but as early as the first half of the 1960s, ETA began to become increasingly militant. The leading members were periodically in a safer environment among the French Basques and held important meetings, including around the city of Bayonne. New organizations were also formed on the French side, including the underground Iparretarrak (roughly meaning “ETA in the north”).
In June 1968, ETA committed the first of many murders. It was a policeman who was killed, and the assassin also died. The Franco regime retaliated in 1970 with a trial in a military court in the city of Burgos. Sixteen militant Basques, most of them members of the ETA, were accused of terrorism. Some were sentenced to death but pardoned, probably as a result of the trial receiving international attention and provoking violent reactions.
Support for ETA grew, while criticism from abroad of the Franco regime’s repression increased. ETA continued its attacks, and in 1973, Spanish Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco, who was seen as Franco’s successor, was assassinated. During Franco’s last years, some ETA men were executed, but when the Spanish dictator died in 1975, the regime collapsed.
ETA is growing strongly
When Spain became a democratic constitution in 1978, decentralization took place, which gave the regions autonomy in various matters. Self-government then developed most in the Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia and Andalusia. Political prisoners held in dictator Franco’s prisons were granted amnesty in connection with the democratization process, including hundreds of ETA members and sympathizers.
However, the militant ETA was opposed to both democratic Spain and the Basque self-government enshrined in the constitution. The movement considered that nothing had changed regarding the Spanish (and French) occupation of the Basque Country. ETA called for a boycott of the referendum on the new constitution, and in the Basque provinces only 31 percent of voters voted yes.
ETA’s response to the major political changes was a bloodier assassination attempt than before, and in 1980 alone, when regional self-government was introduced, over a hundred people were murdered. At this time, ETA is considered to have been the strongest with about a thousand active members.
Low popular support for ETA
Meanwhile, ETA and its sympathizers had formed a political branch that became the face of the movement. This party, the Basque Unity ( Herri Batasuna, HB), received 16% of the vote when the Basques went to the polls in 1980 to appoint members to their regional parliament. In all elections until 1998, voter support for the party was between 15 and 20 percent.
The strong popular support for ETA from the Franco era had been lost. The majority of the Basques instead turned to the nationalist party PNV. The party received 40 percent of the vote in the first election, and its share of the vote has since been around 30 percent, while a party that broke away from the PNV, Basque Solidarity (Euskal Alkartasuna, EA), used to get about 10 percent of the vote. This party has nevertheless mostly ruled together with PNV. In the local elections in May 2011, the new separatist alliance Bildu received a surprising 26 percent of the vote.
The major Spanish parties, which are found throughout the country, are also represented in the regional parliament. They are supported by about 40 percent of voters, mainly immigrants from other parts of the country. About four out of ten inhabitants in the region identify themselves linguistically / ethnically as Basques, but the proportion who usually vote for purely Basque parties is thus higher.
Madrid’s fight against terrorism
The Spanish governments, both on the left and the right, have pursued a hard and uncompromising line against ETA. However, its supporter Herri Batasuna (HB) was allowed in 1986 despite not condemning the violence. ETA’s line to continue the “armed struggle” of no negotiations leading to Basque independence was condemned both by Madrid and by the majority of Basques. Felipe González’s Spanish Socialist government tried to start talks with ETA in 1988-1989, but the contacts were unsuccessful.
In the early 1990s, it was revealed that there had been purely illegal elements in the fight against ETA, in addition to the normal police activities. During the years 1983-1987, 27 Basques suspected of belonging to ETA were murdered, which may have been true in most cases. The killings, which in some cases were preceded by interrogations under severe torture, were carried out by the secret “Anti-Terror Liberation Group” (GAL), led by Spanish police.
When the scandal became known, the traces in the investigations led to the ruling Socialist Party, the Civil Guard and the police force. There were also suspicions that the then Prime Minister Felipe González had been aware of these “death patrols”. After lengthy trials over the so-called “dirty war”, a former interior minister, his closest man and the Socialist Party’s security chief were sentenced to long prison terms in 1998.
The Spanish government has often emphasized – and perhaps exaggerated – ETA’s international contacts. The most frequently mentioned was a supposed collaboration between ETA and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland, and between the political parties Batasuna (the party named 1978-1998 Herri Batasuna, in 1998 it was part of an alliance called Euskal Herritarrok , to the 2001 call themselves Batasuna ) and Sinn Féin. ETA members are said to have previously received military training in Libya, Lebanon and Nicaragua and to have had “dormant cells” in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, among others. Information also states that ETA has received support from Venezuela and cooperated with the FARC guerrillas in Colombia.
In early 2010, arrest warrants were issued in Spain for a group of ETA and FARC members suspected of plotting to assassinate Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and his representative Andrés Pastrana, now living in Spain. The Venezuelan government was suspected of being involved, and Spain requested a statement from Venezuela.