Basques feel wronged by Spanish accusations

Labeled as `terrorists,' most want independence but reject ETA violence

March 16, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain - If Bagona Lasa is a terrorist, she is well disguised, with glittering earrings, high-heel shoes and a professed abhorrence of violence of any kind, for any reason.

But much of the rest of the country views her and most anybody who lives here - in the Basque region, in the northwest mountains of Spain - as, at the least, supportive of violence for the cause of creating a Basque state.

"This worries me so much," said Lasa, owner of a small bed and breakfast, and who, indeed, would like to see the Basque region become its own country or at least live by its own laws. "Terrorism was wrong before for moral reasons, and it's even more wrong now because of the politics."

San Sebastian and its surrounding villages are home to supporters of ETA, the violent Basque separatist group that for more than three decades has been bombing targets in Spain in its fight for independence and which was initially blamed for the train bombings in Madrid, which killed at least 200 people.

But with Muslims linked to al-Qaida now emerging as the primary suspects, people here such as Lasa - who advocate a political end to their dispute with the Spanish government - say they have been forever tarred as complicit in the worst peacetime attack in the country's history, no matter who is ultimately held responsible.

Beyond demonstrating that mass violence can strike anywhere at any time, the train bombings showed how the label "terrorist" has complicated already-difficult political situations.

"When the government says `ETA,' it's understood it's talking about all Basques," Lasa said as she took a break from window shopping on a pedestrian-only street. "I'm a reasonable person but I'm considered a terrorist, so the government won't listen to me."

Most Basques have rejected ETA's violent tactics, even as that majority supports the cause of separatism.

In Sunday's national parliamentary elections, for example, the San Sebastian suburb of Astigarraga voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Eusko Alkartasuna party, a group that campaigns on a platform of independence but whose leaders have received death threats for condemning ETA.

"ETA has contaminated our ideas with violence, and that hurts our cause," said Imanol Lizarralde, 40, chief assistant to the suburb's mayor. "What makes it worse is the Spanish play into ETA's hands by rejecting people like me as terrorists, so negotiating our way out of this becomes impossible."

Basque at heart

About 2.2 million people live in the Basque region of Spain and most identify themselves as Basque, not Spanish.

They speak their own ancient language, celebrate their own holidays and teach children in their own schools. The region is among the most prosperous of the country's 17 provinces, with some of the best roads, hospitals and schools. The Basques levy their own taxes, a portion of which is then sent to Madrid for services provided by the central government, and employment is higher than anywhere else in Spain, mostly due to machine factories that pay generous wages and farmland that that is lush and green.

San Sebastian is a stunningly beautiful coastal town with sculpted shrubs, neatly swept streets, and wide boulevards and designer shops that rarely seem empty. Still, people here say they are oppressed, economically and socially - discriminated against by outsiders who are keeping them "Spanish" only for the tax revenues they produce - as authorities in Madrid try to dilute their heritage through such means as closing newspapers in the name of anti-terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

"Deep in my heart I am Basque, and I want the right to have `Basque' on my passport," said Lourdes Lasarte, 77, who stressed that she rejects ETA violence. "We have been made out to be murderers because of a small group, but they don't represent the Basque people. They don't represent me."

But her daughter, Maria Jose Mondieta, said that she understands ETA's tactics and hinted that she was among those who damaged their ballots in Sunday's election as a way of "voting" for Batasuna, the political arm of ETA, which was outlawed after the attacks on the United States in 2001.

Batasuna officials, who still operate unofficially, told supporters to deface their ballots because they would be counted as damaged and the tally could be used as a measure of support for the party.

"I won't say what I really feel because I don't want to be arrested," she said. "But why are people who fight for freedom called `terrorists' but George Bush kills thousands of Iraqis and is called president of the United States?"

Both mother and daughter envision an independent nation known as Eukadia, which would include the neighboring province of Navarra and part of southern France.

"She is more radical than I am," said Lasarte. "I want to change things through elections, but she says no progress is being made."

Oppression and fear

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