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  • General Secretary of Sortu, Arnaldo Otegi Mondragon.

    General Secretary of Sortu, Arnaldo Otegi Mondragon. | Photo: Denis Rogatyuk

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"We have never shared the policies nor the xenophobic proposals against immigration that have been raised by the right-wing populist movements," Otegi says.

As the battle for the independence of Catalonia rages between the Spanish government in Madrid and the independence-oriented Catalan parliament in Barcelona, major developments have taken place in one of the other most notorious struggles for independence on the Iberian peninsula - the Basque Country.

On April 8th, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (or ETA, “Basque Homeland and Freedom”) a Basque independence movement put a definitive end to its campaign of establishing an independent socialist Basque state through armed struggle. In a statement bearing the organization's seal and initials, the group has declared itself a “disarmed organization”, praising the work that the Basque civil society and existing Basque institutions in supporting the peace process, whilst condemning the Spanish and French authorities for what they perceived to be “stubbornness” in not allowing the group to lay down its weapons.

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ETA was first founded in the late 1960s by members of the youth section of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the traditional political force within the Basque independence movement. Facing severe repression by Franco’s fascist dictatorship, it saw the armed struggle as the most efficient way to destabilize the Spanish state and resist the armed occupation of the Basque lands. Long perceived to be the most dangerous and important internal enemy of the Spanish State, ETA has led an armed campaign of assassinations, bombings and kidnappings of prominent political and military figures of both Franco’s regime and the post-1978 democratically-elected governments of Spain. Over 800 victims, among them politicians, members of the military and the civil guard, as well as innocent bystanders and civilians were killed from 1968 until its final ceasefire in 2010.

The group received popular support and recognition for its armed campaign to bring down Franco’s dictatorship, particularly for the 1973 assassination of Spain’s Prime Minister and Franco’s perceived successor, Luis Carrero Blanco. However, following the dictator’s death and the period of political “Transition” from a military dictatorship to a constitutional monarchy, a number of splits occurred within the organization, revolving around the question of the continuation of the armed campaign.

In the late 1970s, ETA formally separated into two distinct factions - ETA (military) and ETA (political-military). The former maintained the military structure and the vision of an independence movement based on the same methods as used during Franco’s era. The latter, while maintaining support for the armed struggle, saw a greater potential in achieving the goal of a Basque state by legitimate political means, taking part in the elections throughout Euskal Herria (i.e. the traditional Basque regions in Spain and France) and the Spanish parliament, and promoting the ideology of the Abertzale (i.e. patriotic and pro-independence) left within the Basque society and the institutions. [The] ETA continued to apply the same tactics of planting car-bombs and assignations across Spain up until its definitive ceasefire in 2011, with brief ceasefires in 1989, 1996, 1998 and 2006.

The political-military faction of the organization dissolved in 1986 and, together with other Abertzale left organizations in the Basque country, created political and electoral structures, the most prominent of which [have been] were the Herri Batasuna political party which eventually dissolved to form part of the Batasuna political coalition in 2001. They have sought to rival the traditional political force within Basque politics, the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), by simultaneously advocating for national independence and the economic and social policies associated with the Abertzale left project - nationalisation of key industries (particularly energy companies) and banks, higher taxes on the rich, the opposition to nuclear energy, support for refugees and solidarity with other national liberation causes and movements within Spain and around the world (particularly in Catalonia, Galicia, Ireland, Palestine and Kurdistan).

Due to Batasuna’s previous association with ETA, the right-wing Popular Party (PP), together with the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), have consistently pressured the Spanish Constitutional Court to delegitimize and outright ban the party, based on the allegations that the Abertzale left formations did not condemn the violence committed by the armed group. In 2002, the Spanish parliament passed the Law of Parties aimed at facilitating the outlawing of Abertzale left formations on the grounds of their refusal to disown ETA. This was despite the fact that the PP, the perceived successor of the Franco’s political movement, has never had to condemn atrocities committed by the Franco dictatorship, whilst the PSOE actively promoted the use of government-funded death squads and paramilitaries throughout the 1980s (commonly known as GAL or “Anti-terrorist Liberation Groups”) against ETA and Basque citizens within Spain and Basque refugees in France.

One of the other most important outstanding questions remaining after the disarming of ETA is the continued imprisonment of around 350 ETA members and political figures connected with the Abertzale left, currently dispersed around Spain and France as a deliberate method of separation from their families [by the Spanish government].

Arnaldo Otegi Mondragon has been one the most prominent leaders within the Abertzle left movement, serving as the founder and President of Batasuna from 2001 until its dissolution in 2013, and, most recently, as the General Secretary of Sortu, the successor to Batasuna, and the spokesperson for EH Bildu (Basque Country Unite) Abertzale political coalition. A former member of ETA (political-military), he has been imprisoned numerous times by the Spanish State, most prominently from 2009 to 2016, for attempting to organize and lead the Batasuna political organization, found by the Spanish Constitutional Court to be associated with ETA. Despite enduring torture at the hands of Spanish Civil Guard, and witnessing numbers splits and fights within the Abertzale movement itself, Otegi has continued playing a key role in the peace negotiations processes (most prominently in 2006), persuading the military wing to eventually abandon its armed operations.

Denis Rogatyuk: ETA has announced that its definitive disarming will take place on April 8. Does this amount to an admission that ETA’s armed struggle has been counterproductive for the movement for Basque independence?

Arnaldo Otegi: We need to put the dynamics of ETA’s disarming into context. I see it in terms of a cycle of change that has taken place all over the world: in the last decade or so most of the movements that had been carrying out armed struggle have been giving up this sort of strategy in order to become movements of popular resistance, movements for building social majorities and democratic majorities in parliament.

I think we are witnessing the end of a large global cycle with the passing of outstanding figures like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Manuel Marulanda and Martin McGuiness, and that’s the context in which I think the disarming of ETA, a group that has carried out armed struggle for 50 years in our country, has to be seen. We are very pleased that this is the case, we are very convinced—not only in political terms but also in terms of revolutionary morality—that in building the road forward to overcoming our condition as an oppressed people, we have to ensure peaceful and democratic methods. We think that this is the pathway, and I believe that in the end, ETA will rise to the challenge by making a historic contribution to the independence movement with its own disarming.

Obviously, nobody can avoid recognizing the level of suffering that the armed struggle and government repression have brought to our country: that’s the reality and it must be understood. We have brought to the discussion three things we’ve done: the removal of the armed struggle from Basque politics; the recognition of the damage done; and the recognition that we too are in part responsible for the suffering in the country.

In the context of that large cycle of changes in strategy across the world, I think that this has been the contribution of the Basque independence movement up until now.

DR: On the issue of ETA political prisoners, the Spanish state seems to be happy to let them rot in jail, and there is currently no political force within Spanish politics strong enough to change that situation. Where do you feel this struggle is going?

AO: I think we have said quite clearly, adopting as our own the international principles and standards of conflict resolution, that once ETA has disarmed, the issues of the prisoners, the exiles and the demilitarization of the country have to be confronted. In our country, we have one policeman for every 20 inhabitants, the highest in Europe: they are Spanish police and the Civil Guard.

I believe there are two levels on which the conditions of the prisoners should change with disarming. There’s the non-political level, covering prisoners of an advanced age or with severe illnesses: from my point of view they should be released unconditionally, it’s a humanitarian issue beyond politics. I put the issue of the Basque political diaspora on the same level.

Then, once ETA has disarmed we should start discussions among the various progressive political forces about how to start reviewing all state-of-emergency regulations insofar as they affect prison policy. I think that will be the next step and here we can work with sections of the Spanish left—with a lot of patience, discretion and caution so we don’t hurt certain sensibilities. I believe this is the way to make some progress in resolving these issues.

DR: In the Basque region today, there’s a significant left social presence and a political majority that seeks self-determination. What steps do you think Sortu should take to combine these majorities into one?

AO: Within the Basque country, there is large majority in favor of self-determination, with 57 MPs out of 75 [in the parliament of the Basque Autonomous Region in Spain]. And out of these, between our 18 and Podemos’s 11, we have 29 in total, putting us ahead of the 28 of the PNV [Basque Nationalist Party]. So it appears that we have a broad majority for the right to self-determination and a broad progressive majority as well.

However, the question is not one of trying to create a single political and ideological amalgam out of these majorities. What we should be putting on the table are possible common alliances and dynamics so that our policies in national terms move forward towards sovereignty and the exercise of the right to self-determination while policies on day-to-day concerns shift leftwards: this the work that Sortu and EH Bildu have to do.

DR: At the Sortu Refoundation Congress in January, the party defined itself as “ecological”. What meaning does this have for you?

AO: We have always declared ourselves to be ecologists, and always have been, but now I believe that this description has even greater validity and topicality. We are aware that right now capitalism in a very difficult predicament is weakening the conditions supporting human life. For the first time, the human footprint is putting at risk the very biological and material conditions of human life: that’s one of the legacies that savage capitalism has brought us. That’s why we understand that when we talk about economic growth, and about sustainability and all the rest, the emphasis has to be on respect for nature, on how we human beings relate to nature.

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We have a long tradition here of fighting against nuclear power plants and nuclear energy, a long tradition of struggling to keep our natural landscapes intact and that is why Sortu also had to declare itself as socialist, feminist, and ecologist. Because we understand that at a time when capital is putting life at risk and when probably the greatest contradiction in the world is the contradiction between capital and life, then we have to make a clear commitment to relaunching and intensifying our ecological profile. Today environmentalism is one of the most important components of global anti-capitalism.

DR: In January, at the Rosa Luxembourg conference in Berlin and at the Sortu refoundation congress in Bilbao, you outlined your vision for the need to create progressive and revolutionary coalitions and forums against neoliberalism and fascism across Europe and the world. What practical steps need to be taken to achieve that?

AO: For some time now, we—and me in particular--have been asserting the need for something, I don’t know if it’s a new international or a world-wide forum, because we are accused of being nationalists but we always say we are not nationalists, we are supporters of independence. There’s a mountain of problems in the world and the worse ones, the structural ones, can only be confronted on a global scale or at least a European scale. I think that as left-wingers, progressives, people who belong to political parties or unions, we need a functional forum in which to tackle these problems.

I always put forward as an example what happened in Greece. Greece faced the Troika [European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund] and everybody looked away as if it was only a Greek concern, while we, who were in jail at the time, were saying that that fight was everybody’s fight against savage capitalism and that the Greek defeat was a defeat for all of us.

What we missed while in prison and what we still miss now is when is there going to be a Europe-wide general strike against austerity policies. These sorts of demands need to be put to a global-scale, at least European-scale, forum that can start to tackle these issues: not so much a forum for theoretical debate but a practical forum that can develop answers on a global scale. We are going to make the effort to raise this thinking wherever we are—with our small forces and with great humility—but we really think it is necessary to move forward in this area.

DR: Nearly all nationalist movements have their left, right and centre. There are a lot of movements for self-determination in Europe that are led by right-wing forces (e.g. Flanders Union, La Pen in France, Lega Nord in Italy). How does Sortu and the broader abertzale left relate to them?

AO: We do not have any kind of relation with the National Front, nor do we have any sort of relationship with those who those who put forward xenophobic policies or nationalist policies of the right. We have had some relations with the groups from Flanders, but this was based on the historic factors of the exiled Basque communities that have been based in Belgium and maintained relations with Flemish nationalists, but we certainly do not follow the same ideological vision nor do we have the same vision in terms of social goals. For us, the biggest priority is to construct left-national alliances. We have good relations with left-wing movements from around the world, because for us, we do not form part of the nationalist movement but rather of the pro-independence movement. We believe that independence will provide us with the tools for advancing alternative social policies: demanding national and popular sovereignty means a fight over that ground with the oligarchies who have hijacked our democracy.

We have never shared the policies nor the xenophobic proposals against immigration that have been raised by the right-wing populist movements that sometimes remind us of the 1930’s decade and which we consider highly dangerous; among other things because they have stolen some of the banners of the left, because their social messages are similar to those of the left-wing, but who we already know represent the same oligarchy while putting forward simplistic but totally dangerous policies.

Instead, we, the [Catalan] People’s Unity Lists (CUP) and other political groups think that you can only move forward in terms of popular sovereignty if you build instruments of sovereignty in order to carry out different social policies, that can be anti-neoliberal.

We have always claimed that the independence for the Basques or Catalans is in the interests of the great majority of people and workers. This is why, for example, Basque trade unionism in its majority supports Basque independence. It’s also why we are proud to observe processes like those in Scotland and Catalonia, which, when they call for people’s support for the cause of national sovereignty, always accompany that call with a commitment to advanced social programs.

It’s not hard to grasp. If you want the support of the workers of Glasgow or of the Barcelona industrial belt, or of Bilbao, you need to have advanced social programs. Sovereignty processes always look to the left because this is where they can build majorities and for that you need advanced social programs. We know that when we start the Basque independence process the ones who will be heading it will be the trade union majority in this country.

DR: The situation that we see today in the Spanish state is certainly different than the one seven years ago: the People’s Party (PP) is in a minority government, the Spànish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) is in a deep crisis, while Podemos and the alliances in which it participates is constantly pushing the government on various issues. The Spanish state resembles a rotting stake, which, if pulled from different sides could fall. So if the Catalan movement pulls hard from one side, and you pull hard from another, could the stake finally fall and progressive change arrive for the whole country?

AO: I think that the Spanish state is going through a serious structural crisis: the foundations that the post-Francoist regime used to build the country in 1978 are in deep crisis. For various reasons: first, because the global financial and economic crisis has called into question the economic viability of the country. Second, because Catalonia has started a process that will bring them to the national independence, and third, because the abertzale left and the Basque pro-independence left have changed their strategies, leaving Spain without an internal enemy.

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Thus, I think there is a way to make a significant change in terms of democracy: supporting the constituent processes that Catalonia has been heading and which we want to start in our country. We cannot forget that the key to the 1978 regime is the defense of Spanish unity, its domination is built on this idea. For this reason, Catalonia has the importance is has, and this is why we also want to initiate an independence process. If we accompany this with a real dynamic of the Spanish left-wing proposing a multinational state and demanding respect for the right to decide, all this might come together in a change in the regime, a real democratization. But we are not very hopeful about that, since the PP, PSOE and Citizens—the parties of the regime—are still in a majority in the Spanish state. That’s why we say we have to follow our own pathway wherever possible: in Catalonia and the Basque Country.

DR: You have gone through so much in your personal struggle—prison, torture, fights within the movement (political and physical), but you don't seem to have lost your humanity. How do you keep smiling despite all of what has happened?

AO: Because, in the end, I am an anthropological optimistic, as Zapatero [former PSOE prime minister of Spain] would say. I consider that we cannot falter; the road forward is still the road forward, the goals are still the goals, the objectives remain what they are. I think that a left-wing project must be founded on profound human values, right? I think that’s something the left lost some time ago, but that it is something we need to recover. That’s why I am optimistic and I am convinced that most people in this country will commit; and we will overcome obstacles, prison and torture. Overall I am an advocate of always maintaining the smile; we have to fight and win without losing our smile, since ultimately what we are doing is proposing a better society for everyone.

We don’t fight for ourselves, we fight for the people. And I think the best compensation is when people stop you in the street and thank you for your effort and work. The left has a treasure—setting the example and being coherent: if we lose example and coherence, we lose everything.

I usually say in my meetings that we don’t go on to boards of management when we finish in politics, but that we have a much greater compensation that that: popular affection, the affection of the people, and it’s the affection of the people that keeps us smiling.

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