Counter-Terrorism: The Basque Misconnection

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April 10, 2010:  Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is an enthusiastic leftist, and has proved it by providing sanctuary and other support for many radical groups. This often causes problems because some radical groups, even on the left, hate each other more than whatever government they are trying to overthrow. Thus Chavez has managed to antagonize many Spanish leftists by supporting ETA (a Basque separatist group in Spain). Recently, Spanish police uncovered ETA operations in Venezuela, and cooperation with Colombian leftist rebel group FARC. Chavez supports both FARC and ETA, and that has caused a sense of rising outrage among Spanish leftists. 

So enraged are the Spanish leftists, that some have asserted that Cuba has also been supporting ETA. That's very unlikely. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has always been careful to maintain polite ties with Spain, even under Franco, who was a fellow Gallego (both their families are from the Spanish province of Galicia), and it hardly seems possible that his brother and successor, Raul Castro, would change that policy.

The strangest aspect of this is that ETA is supposed to be out of business, at least the terrorism business. But ETA's money making operations are still active, and most of them are illegal. This led to a recent incident in France, where a policeman was shot dead when he tried to apprehend an ETA member driving a stolen car. For decades, ETA has used France as a sanctuary, which they got away with by keeping a low profile, and avoiding the police. But the support from Venezuela has encouraged some diehard ETA members to think about a comeback. That is not likely to go well.

Four years ago, ETA threw in the towel and declared a permanent cease fire. Spain has been fighting ETA terrorists since the 1960s. There have been eight ETA ceasefires in the past, none of which held. But this time, ETA is in bad shape. After more than four decades of efforts, ETA, is a victim of the global war on terror. This time, the police kept after ETA, and last year, there was a resurgence in violence. But at the same time, the police rounded up an unprecedented number of ETA leaders. France, enraged by an ETA man killing one of their policemen, rounded up many known ETA men who spent most of their time in France. Even before the policeman was killed, France was cracking down, but now the pressure on ETA in France is unprecedented.

ETA was founded to obtain autonomy for the Basque people in northeastern Spain (and southwestern France.) The Basques are the last of the original Europeans (people who were there before the Indo-Aryan tribes moved in from the Eurasian plains 4,000 years ago). The Basques have managed to maintain their language and cultural identity by taking refuge in mountains along the Atlantic coast, and fiercely resisting numerous attempts to move or absorb them.

There were never more than a few hundred active members of the ETA, but their terrorist attacks could not be ignored. The peak year was 1980, when 85 people died (mostly police). But civilians died as well, and a combination of more autonomy for the Basque provinces, and increased counter-terrorism effort, has reduced the number of active ETA members to a few dozen. In the last four years, especially since September 11, 2001, more vigorous counter terrorism operations have led to the arrests of 650 ETA members.

Currently, nearly a thousand ETA members are in prison, including several hundred arrested in France. The only way a lot of these captives can get out early, is if ETA negotiates a final peace. Meanwhile, the loss of the French sanctuary is a major blow. September 11, 2001 played a role in convincing France to abandon this policy, and crack down on ETA operations in France. This has led to the arrest of most ETA leaders in the last few years. All of this pressure has resulted in a large reduction in ETA attacks and, more importantly, dead victims. There have been only a few victims of ETA attacks in the last four years. Spanish counter-terrorism considered ETA basically dead, with the few remaining members fighting among themselves over what should be done. Concern over ETA terrorism has, since the Islamic terrorist attacks six years ago, declined. The Islamic terrorism was seen as a much more dangerous threat. But with Venezuela apparently offering a refuge for surviving ETA members, Spanish leftists, who would normally support the leftist government in Venezuela, are instead enraged.

However, the demise of ETA is real, and partly due to age. The young men and women who were with ETA at the beginning are pretty old now. Moreover, many of the older ETA members have given up on the use of violence and are more willing to negotiate, and take advantage of the greater autonomy in the Basque territories. This change of heart, and factionalism, plus all the arrests, are what has reduced ETA to its current tiny size. The few ETA members who were still in the mood for terrorism, apparently were convinced to hang it up, until the prospect of sanctuary and support in Venezuela came along.

 

 


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