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Ethnic Violence and the making of Pluralist Spain

Last June, while visiting the Basque Provinces, I asked Agurtzane Juanena, head bibliographer of the regional library of al Diputación de Gipuzkoa, and an old friend, about the library's holdings on the issue of the pluralism in the Basque Provinces. I immediately realized that the question was a dead end. "Pluralism," Agurtzane repeated aloud with a pensive and puzzled voice, "there is no such subject heading; what do you mean by it?" Words like pluralism are not frequently used in everyday speech in Spain. When the word pluralism appears in public discourse, it is chiefly used to emphasize the democratic character of the country that now accommodates different political parties in contrast to the lengthy (36 years) one party rule of the former regime of General Francisco Franco. My friend Agurtzane was quite rightly puzzled by my question because in Spain the World pluralism is not so much a descriptive category of cultural or ethnic diversity as it is metaphor of political change.

In the last 20 years Spain has gone through enormous change. Once a highly centralized, totalitarian country, it has become a democratic pluralist society, fully integrated in the European community. In Spain, however, the meanings of pluralism are complex, and the dilemmas posed by ethnic difference far from clear.


During the Middle Ages, Spain consisted of a plurality of kingdoms. It did not become a unified polity until the late fifteenth century and even then, it was a very disjointed one. Perhaps the most remarkable experience of cultural pluralism took place with the coming of Muslims to the Iberian peninsula in 711. AlAndalus, or Muslim Spain, provided social space in which Jewish, Christian and Muslim cultures flourished and coexisted peacefully. This long period of cultural pluralism ended on the eve of the sixteenth century, with the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. The monarchs also unified the peninsula, divided then into five major kingdoms: Portugal, León, Castile, Navarre-Basque Provinces and Aragon-Catalonia. After unification the kingdoms retained ample administrative, fiscal and legislative autonomy.

The pluralistic composition of this polity generated strong conflicts between centripetal and centrifugal forces during the modern era that led to armed revolts in different regions and civil wars. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the semi-autonomous kingdoms suffered successive los of political and economic liberties. By the end of the nineteenth century, the progressive centralization of Spain was completed (only the Basque Provinces and Navarre retained diminished administrative autonomy until 1876). Centralization did not eliminate regional differences; rather it exacerbated ethnic identity, and provoked a surge of nationalist aspirations exemplified in the explosion of demands for regional autonomy accompanying the establishment of the Second Republic in 1931.


There is no clear continuity between medieval and contemporary Spain, yet nationlists often resort to that history to gain political legitimacy. There are today five major regions or cultural areas: Galicia, Basque Provinces-Navarre, Catalonia, Castile and Andalusia; four languages: Galician, Basque, Catalán, Castilian (Spanish); and several dialects.

Anybody who has traveled through Spain has noticed the dramatic change of landscape, architecture and even ethos that accompanies passing from one region to another. Spanish regions differ also in their socioeconomic structures: Euskadi (Basque Provinces) and Catalonia are the great industrial regions; Andalusia, Galicia and Castile are predomintnly rural. The structure of land tenure varies strongly by region. In Galicia small proprietors maintaining a subsistence economy predominate over great rural properties (51.3% against 17% of great properties (mostly communal land). In Castile great landowners control more than 40% of the land while small proprietors control only 20%. In Andalusia the land is in the hands of a few latifundistas, private landonwers who control 72% of the territory, while small proprietors have barely 5.7%. In Castile the great properties constitute uncultivate land (forests and grazing lands), while in Andalusia the great properties are cultivate by poor landless laborers, who are the majority of the population and subject to perennial seasonal unemployment. Such critical differences have influenced political tides in each region.

The current orchestration of ethnic difference is, however, far more complex. The five major regions have been further divided into 17 comunidades autónomas (autonomous regions), the negotiated solution to the post-Franco tensions of ethnic diversity. The demarcation of these regions, like the definition of ethnic diversity. The demaraction of these regions, like the definition of ethnic identity, has been a much contested process, the complexity of which must be found no in the distant past but in the recent transition from Francoism to democracy.

After the death of Franco in 1975 there was an explosion of ethnic nationalism. The northern regions of Catalonia and the Basque Provinces led the demands for self-government. With a highly developed consciousness of ethnic identity, these regions, by the end of the eighteenth century, had developed powerful nationalist movements that led to autonomous governments during the Spanish Second Republic: Catalonia in 1932, and Euskadi in 1936 at the eve of the Civil War. These autonomous governments suppressed by the monolithic regime of General Franco at the end of the Civil War in 1939. Along with nascent Basque and Catallan political organizations, Franco also suppressed the Catalan and Basque language, culture, history and all else reminiscent of ethnic difference from a hardening Spanish identity.

The dictatorship, with its centralized totalitarian policy of suppressing ethnic difference, had made the articulation of a form of self-government, at least for Euskadi and Catalonia, and inescapable task of the transition to democracy. This was perhaps the major challenge facing the architects of the emerging democracy. The issue of ethnic nationalism was a very sensitive one for the army, accustomed to ruling in the name of an absolutist idea of a Spanish nation. In the Basque Provinces and Catalonia, nationalist unrest grew during the last decade of the dictatorship and exploded after the death of Franco. Massive demonstrations demanding the return of lost nationlist rights filled the streets of Catalonia and the Basque Provinces. It was quite clear that the new Spanish constitution that began to be negotiated in 1976 had a provide for some degree of self-government. The major problem was that the transition to a pluralistic democracy was being carried out within the framework of a state apparatus that was still fundamentally authoritarian. As in Argentina and Chile, the spectre of the army presided over the transformation of the country. Ethnic violence represented an added fear to the military threat.


The violence of the Basque nationlist group ETA, (Euskadi, Ta Askatasuna or Basque Land and Freedom), increased considerably after the death of Franco. ETA was a product of the dictatorship. It was formed in 1958 by a group of students deeply preoccupied with the angonizing situation of Basque culture. ETA did not resort to violence until 1968, gaining-international notoriety in 1973 by assassinating Admiral Luís Carrero Blanco, the righthand and man then- only possible successor to General Franco. During the transition, Basque terrorism had a double effect. On the one hand ETA increased the discomfort of the army with the growing ethnic nationalisms spreading throughout Spanish territory. On the other hand it provided the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) with a wild card in their negotiations for autonomy.

Inspired by the popularity of ETA, nationalist violence also spread from the Basque Provinces to other regions. In the late 1970s appeared El Movimientr por la Autodeterminación Independencia del Archipiélago Canario, MPAIAC (Movement for Self-Determination and Independence of the Canary Island); Terra Lliure (Free Land) in Catalonia, and Exercito Guerrilleiro do Poobo Ceibe (Guerrillan Army of the Free People) in Galicia. These movements carried out dozens of terrorist actions, although they never achieved the popularity and professionalism of ETA. Nationalist violence posed a difficult dilemma for the transitional government in charge of shaping the new democracy. To end the violence required a rapid insitutionalization of forms of self-government for these regions, but this process ran the risk of deepening the existing discontent among recalcitrant members of the army. Indeed, on 23 February 1981, a group of disaffected military officers led by Colonel Antonio Tejero attempted a coup d'état that failed after several hours of agonizing uncertainty. The coup had the side effect of tightening the collaboration among different political parties to shore up Spain's fragile democracy. As the different regions of the country gained their autonomy, nationalist violence slowly disappeared, except in the Basque provinces.

In the last five years ETA has lost much of its popularity. In the 1970s and early 1980s it organized massive demonstrations of supporters from a wide social spectrum, although the majority were working class. Nowadays, peace organizers from moderate parties and workers union can mobilize thousands to march against ETA, something which would have been unimaginable ten years earlier. The last European elections, of 12 June 1994, are a dramatic example of this shift. ETA's political party, Herri Batasuna (Popular Front), lost one third of the votes obtained in the elections of 1989, and lost their seat in the European Parliament. The existence of a Basque Government, Basque Parliament and even a Basque police force has made ETA obsolete. ETA today is a weakened, divided, and erratic organization, with its most experienced leaders either killed or incarcerated.

If the violence of ETA seems an anomaly in a pluralistic democratic state, it is important to note that it has frequently been fed and legitimized by the terrorist tactics of the state. The recent sentence against police chief José Amedo and Inspector Michel Dominguez that condemned both to 108 years of jail closed a sordid episode that implicated the Spanish government in the assassination of more than 20 Basque refugees in southern France. The killings were carried out under the unconvincing yet longstanding cover of a supposed rightwing group: Gal (Grupos Antiterrorists de Liberación or Antiterroristas de Liberación or Antiterrorist Liberation Groups). In the guise of rightist terrorist groups, the Spanish security forces have in fact waged a dirty war on Basque nationalists since 1978. The sentence against Amedo and Domínguez, the first police officers from a long list to ever be sentenced for breaking the law, seems to indicate theat there is no room in a democratic country for the kind of state terrorism that distinguished the former regime. However, torture continues to be a welldocumented method of interrogation in police stations, and one that the new Basque police have had no qualms about adopting.

The continuation of state terrorism and the increasingly erratic violence of ETA have led to a great deal of uncertainty among the Basque population, no longer able to identify who is doing what. In June, shortly before the European elections, a young woman was killed on the crowded seaside promenade o San Sebastián (Basque Provinces) by a bomb planted in a briefcase left on the ground. The killing was attributed to ETA by the government and main newspapers, yet ETA, which has tradition of taking responsibility for its actions, denied responsibility. When I arrived in Euskadi later that June, he kiling was still the object of intense discussion. Herri Batasuna, a party sympathetic to ETA, has plastered the city with posters featuring the photograph of the killed woman framed by the slogan: "Terrorismo de Estado" (State Terrorism). The fact that the killing occurred just before the elections, jeopardizing potential votes fro ETA, pointed the finger of suspicion in the direction of the state. However, the uncertainty was lingering and pervasive. The lasting sense was of tremendous skepticism not only about ETA but also about a state that could use indiscriminated terrorism to influence an election.


"The Basque Problem" is not only ethnic problem facing pluralist Spain. The development of 17 autonomous regions has lessensed the significance of the more threatening nationalisms of Catalonia and the Basque Provinces, but it has also brought on new forms of ethnic difference and new rivalries among the autonomous regions. On 13 July, the leader of the Communist Party of Andalusia, Felípe Alcaraz, accused the socialist president of the government, Felípe González, of "political racism" for aditing Catalan industries while disfavoring Andalusian ones. González has negotiated deals with moderate Catalan and Basque nationlists in exchange for political support. These negotiations have occurred at a moment when prominent Catalan leaders have been voicing their desire for independent political representation in Europe. In the midst of an acute economic crisis the idea that a wealthy region like Catalonia might be profiting at the expense of others has created tensions i some of the poorest regions like Andalusia. Prominent politicians like José María Aznar of the rightist Popular Party and Julio Anguita of the leftist Izquierda Unida have accused the president of "pacting with the worst of Spain," referring to the alliance with Catalans and Basques. If the economic disparities among regions are not evened out, and for that to happened agrarian reform in Andalusia is indispensable, it is likely that tensions and hostility among different ethnicities in the country may rise.

To these tensions one will have to add the growing xenophobia towards immigrants. Although spain has a long history of internal migration, including the exodus from the countryside to the great industrialized regions of Euskadi, Catalonia, and Madrid, the country has little experience with foreign immigration. On the contrary, Spain was until the 1960s a country of emigrants. According to government estimates published recently in the newspaper El País, the immigrant population in Spain has grown in the last decade at a faster pace than in any other country in Europe. Immigrants come predominantly from Africa and Central america. Most of them are illegal, and living in dreadful conditions. The phenomenon is so recent that there is very little information about them.

Despite their relative public silence, immigrants are becoming the targets of racist attacks. The killing of Lucrecia Prez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, by a civil guard and his friends while she was sleeping on 13 November 1992, shocked public opinion and generated a sobering discussion about racist violence. The judge condemned the group to 126 years in jail and ordered $130,000 compensation. The sentence was the first to be filed in Spain for racism, and seems to send a firm message that racist violence will not be tolerated. It remains to be seen whether in the current climate of economic towards immigrants in Europe, the commitment to pluralism shown in the case of Lucrecia Perez will be maintained. Meanwhile it is not clear whether Spain's internal ethnic diversity and the corresponding tensions between regions will keep or hinder the acceptance of the new immigrants.


The last European elections increased the uncertainty dominating the current political climate in Spain. The result gave a clear victory to the rightest Partido Popular, some of whose prominent members had been connected with the former regime of Franco. Manuel Fraga Iribarne for example, former president of the party and now leader of the autonomous Galicia region, was minister of culture during the last years of Francosim. The victory of the Partido Popular represented the first turn to the right since the death of Franco in 1975, which in itself was a shocking surprise in a country that so recently had come out of the hands of an authoritarian regime. Even more surprising was the distribution of votes which, agaissnt all predictions, reversed well established political patterns and loyalties. Thus the Popular Party won in Andalusia, traditional stronghold of the Socialist party of Felipe Gonzalez, and in the Basque and Catalan capital cities where nationlist parties have traditionally led. This scenario has opened up many questions. The victory of the Popular Party can be largely attributed to the wide frustration and discontent provoked by a high level of unemployment - almost 20% - and the chain of financial scandals involving known members of the socialist administration. In the autonomous Basque and Catalan regions where the Popular Party had practically no constitutency, the rightest rise may point to a weariness among the important group of the population with the prevalent discourse of nationalism. The Popular Party has been openly hostile of ethnic nationalisms and the constant demands fore greater autonomy made by Basque and Catalan leaders; it speaks instead of the Spanish nation, in a discourse reminiscent of former times. If the Popular Party also wins the general elections of 1996 the situation could become explosive. In the Basque region there is still an important minority of very radical nationalists and the fading but ongoing violence of ETA that might serve to polarize nationalist and anti-nationalist positions as well as to deepen the existing conflict between different nationalist strands.

The situation is quite different in the Galician and Andualusian regions. Nationalists in Galicia, after a short experiment with armed struggle, remain an intellectual minority confined mainly to the university. In Andalusia nationlist aspirations, strong during the seventies, have been undermined by massive unemployment. The discrediting of the socialist party in this region has split people between the rightest Popular Party and the leftist Izquierda Unida. Whether this schism is resolved or deepened may well depend on the economic policy of the future government.

The uncertain situation of ethnic pluralism in Spain is also complicated by the impasse in the construction of pluralist Europe. The rhetoric of a Europe of Peoples, so strongly invoked by ethnic nationalist parties in Spain and elsewhere in Europe during the late 1980s, is rapidly fading in favor of a conservative re-emphasis on existing nation-states. How the current European backlash against ethnic minorities is going to affect the volatile ethnic pluralism of Spain remains to be seen.

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