Spain turns in disgust from 'Basque Gerry Adams'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Arnaldo Otegi, the public face of Basque separatism, once seen as a Gerry Adams figure who could bring ETA gunmen to the negotiating table, is today the most reviled and isolated politician in Spain.

Arnaldo Otegi, the public face of Basque separatism, once seen as a Gerry Adams figure who could bring ETA gunmen to the negotiating table, is today the most reviled and isolated politician in Spain.

Leader of the pro-ETA Herri Batasuna party - whose relationship with the armed group is roughly comparable to that of Sinn Fein with the IRA - Otegi has throughout this bloody week of bomb blasts and shootings hailed ETA hitmen as "comrades and patriots".

He insists that Jose Maria Aznar's conservative government has brought upon itself the latest wave of terrorist attacks by its "foolish strategy... of genocide". His assertions struckhorror throughout Spain, where thousands repeatedly took to the streets in silent protest against assaults that claimed two lives this week, totalling nine this year.

Far from being cowed by the revulsion of millions, Otegi led a pro-ETA counter-offensive, a patchily observed day of action on Thursday, and a show of strength in Bilbao yesterday evening. Street violence and vandalism has for months been a constant feature of Basque nightlife.

Has the man gone mad? Is he trying to provoke what he alleges already exists - a massive clampdown that would polarise Spanish society? Or is he, as one Basque moderate speculated on Friday, "no longer a leader, just a frightened man trying to appease an organisation that holds him captive"?

The regional prosecutor in Bilbao is suing Otegi for his provocative statements honouring four ETA activists who were blown up on Monday while handling their own explosives. The prosecutor said his words amounted to an apology for terrorism, but Otegi doesn't care. "No one in this country doubts that ETA militants are Basque patriots. They fought with arms in their hands because they believed this was their best contribution to their country," he said.

When Basque nationalists say their "country" they mean the Basque country. Spain is merely a "state". Otegi said jailing him would change nothing, but he would go willingly.

His intransigence seems out of step in a democracy where Basques enjoy more autonomy than any comparable region in Europe. But if Spain has transformed in the last 25 years, ETA's rhetoric has barely changed. Otegi is a former ETA hard man, veteran of assassination attempts, kidnappings, hijackings, thefts of arms and dynamite, and of French and Spanish jails.

His record gives him clout within the movement. But it also gave him credibility when, more than 18 months ago, he emerged as leader of a possible peace process. Inspired by the Irish example and by Gerry Adams, for whom Otegi expressed admiration, ETA's political wing extended feelers to moderate Basque nationalists and labour organisations in a process that produced a 14-month truce, that ended in December. Otegi, 42, a philosphy graduate and razor-sharp debater, was the man most associated with the ceasefire. It was clear he was walking a perilous tightrope, playing off rampant divisions within his armed backers. The truce was Spain's best chance for Basque peace in decades. But it was wasted, partly through government ineptitude. Madrid could have moved more Basque prisoners home, and should not have detained the ETA spokesman to whom it was secretly talking.

With rapprochement now discredited on both sides, Otegi is riding the tiger and defying overwhelmingly hostile public opinion. ETA combatants, clandestine on pain of decades-long jail terms, never show their faces or utter a word. So Otegi, a Basque regional MP, is left alone to fly the separatist flag.

Comments