The Basque Country


I used to live in San Sebastian in the Basque Country during the late 1990’s when the Basque separatist movement ETA were still committing acts of terrorism. Being an outsider and at first unable to tell who was Basque and who was Spanish I didn’t give much thought to whose side I should be on. At that time I was totally apolitical and thought that politics was for other, more serious people. I just liked football, tapas and girls.

As far as I could tell, being a part of Spain was not a particularly onerous state of affairs for most Basque people. The Basque government, like all other regional governments in Spain, had to send its revenue to Madrid where it was divvied up and redistributed around Spain. Poor regions like Extremadura benefited from this pooling while richer regions like Catalonia lost out. However, this sharing out of resources is common to most countries and it is extremely rare that one region doesn’t economically outperform another.

Unlike under Francisco Franco where Basque culture and language were suppressed, by the later 1990’s Basques were allowed to teach their own language, promote their culture and were autonomous in all areas that mattered.

One evening I was watching a documentary about ETA in which people on both sides of the political divide were interviewed. The sympathizers were often young and drew comparisons to the Palestinian struggle in Israel. I thought these comparisons ludicrous. I could see with my own eyes that Basques lived pretty much as they pleased. Only those who wished to plant bombs, raise money for ETA through protection rackets, murder politicians or throw Molotov Cocktails at the police were restricted in their actions.

One of the interviews was with the widow and daughter of a local politician who, while walking down the street, had been shot in the head by two local ETA sympathizers. What upset the wife most was that most people in the small town had a pretty good idea of who the two killers were yet the two hadn’t been arrested and continued to stroll around the town.

What upset me most was the idea that two young men thought it was okay to murder a middle-aged family man, whose job was merely to organise the affairs of a small town, simply because the region merely had near complete control over its finances rather than absolute control. There was no sense of proportion.

Being autonomous rather than completely independent probably inconvenienced these killers less than having a noisy neighbour, or having to walk 20 minutes to the nearest supermarket each day, or having to sit next to a smelly person picking their nose on the bus. These are annoyances and just because something is a political annoyance doesn’t make it any more important.


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