ETA Bows to Changed Political Landscape with Cease-fire

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The Basque separatist group ETA bows to a changing political landscape in Spain — where political solutions have become more effective than violent solutions — and announces a permanent cease-fire. The announcement apparently ends a decades-long campaign of violence against the government in Madrid. Renee Montagne talks to reporter Jerome Socolovsky.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

One of Western Europe's last armed movements could be at an end, with the announcement by the Basque separatist group ETA that it's calling a permanent cease-fire. The truce is set to begin hours from now. The Spanish government is heading into negotiations with ETA on the future of the northern Basque region. ETA has been fighting for years to make it independent. Over the past four decades, ETA guerillas have taken the lives of more than 800 people, among them judges, politicians and journalists.

Reporter Jerome Socolovsky is traveling in the Basque region, and he joins me now. Hello.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, is this the beginning of the end of the violence there?

SOCOLOVSKY: Well, we have to keep in mind that ETA has been using violence as a means to its end for nearly 40 years. They've also declared cease-fires before, and cancelled them after negotiations with the government broke down. So, a lot of people here are mistrustful not only of ETA's intentions, but they're not sure that this will actually lead to a permanent ceasefire. But there is a lot of optimism, because this is the first time ETA uses the term permanent.

And ETA is a hierarchical structure. It's not like Islamic terrorist groups, where the leaders often don't have control of the people beneath them. When I've been in the Basque country before, talking to young people who may sympathize with ETA, they all seem to trust what the leadership of the group says they should be doing.

MONTAGNE: Take a step back just for a moment here, Jerome, and give us a small history of the campaign for self-rule in the Basque region or independence.

SOCOLOVSKY: Well, the actual campaign for self-rule goes back more than 100 years to the beginnings of Basque nationalism as a movement. ETA actually started as a group in the 1950s, during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco in Spain. And, at first, they were seen as a resistance group. Even after they resorted to violence. They actually killed the prime minister under Franco, who was supposed to be his successor as leader of Spain. And some people even believe that ETA helped move Spain forward to democracy.

But after the return to democracy, ETA continued with its attacks, and some of them became very bloody, and the group fell out of favor with many Spaniards, and with many Basques as well.

MONTAGNE: And two years ago, the attacks on Madrid's commuter train that killed 200 people were initially linked by the government to ETA. Did, in the end, ETA have anything to do with those attacks?

SOCOLOVSKY: Well, indeed, the prime minister at the time, José María Aznar, in the first few days after the attacks, was squarely blaming ETA. And now, some people on the far right still suggest that ETA had some sort of role, but the investigations don't seem to point in that direction. What many commentators here are saying is that the attacks do have some sort of link to this, in that it created an even greater wave of revulsion against terrorism here in Spain, that ETA is now recoiling from using those methods.

But I think what's interesting here is that, at the time, you had a very hard-lined government clamping down on ETA through every possible means. And now there's a government that's more open to dialogue. So, it's almost like a bad cop, good cop situation that has led to this.

MONTAGNE: And does this have any implications for other places in Spain, like Catalonia, that have been seeking autonomy?

SOCOLOVSKY: Well, it's all one package deal, it seems. A lot of people are saying it's not a coincidence that ETA announced ceasefire a day after an agreement was reached on a self-rule statute for another region, Catalonia, which is where Barcelona is. And in that statute, the government agreed to call Catalonia a nationality. This is something the Basques have wanted for a long time. They also want a new statute that gives them even more self-rule than the considerable self-rule they have now. They have their own police force, their own parliament. They even have their own president.

MONTAGNE: And finally, the reaction among the people of Spain?

SOCOLOVSKY: Well, in Spain, there's a mixture of euphoria and skepticism or mistrust. A lot of people have been waiting for years, if not decades to hear this news. But, at the same time, they hope it doesn't fail like in previous times.

MONTAGNE: Reporter Jerome Socolovsky on the road in Spain's northern Basque region. Thanks very much.

SOCOLOVSKY: You're welcome, Renee.

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