Truce or Consequences

The collapse of the phoney peace process with ETA spells more than just political and personal humiliation for Spanish Premier Rodriguez Zapatero. In the end, it was the hard men who got their way. The bomb that killed two people at Madrid airport the weekend before last came exactly one day after Spanish Premier José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero grandly claimed credit for there having been no "tragic fatal accidents" - meaning car bombs and bullets in the back of somebody's neck -- during the nine months since the Basque terror group ETA announced a permanent cease-fire to pave the way for talks with the Spanish government on "superseding the conflict" in Spain's northern Basque Country.

Preening before the press at a Friday year-ender, Zapatero proclaimed himself more optimistic than ever concerning what he insists on calling a peace process. "We're doing better than we were a year ago, but not as good as it will get a year from now," he said in a flight of self-congratulatory fatuity that would be hurled back in his face just 24 hours later. 

A week earlier, Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba refused to comment on reports that senior members of the government held face-to-face talks with ETA in an unnamed European country shortly before the Christmas holidays. He all but acknowledged, however, that the terrorists had promised to continue observing the truce.

Not everyone was so sure. The government's elusive negotiating partners had never let up on the extortion that keeps them in funds nor on street violence by pro-ETA youth gangs (a traffic policeman narrowly escaped being burnt alive). One prisoner with 25 of ETA's 817 murders on his CV went on a Bobby Sands-style hunger strike while his colleagues kept busy reorganising, training their reserves and rearming. A kidnap-robbery in France netted the gang 350 pistols and 9,000 rounds of ammo in October, but for weeks Zapatero weakly insisted he couldn't be sure it was ETA.

Indeed, the Spanish premier went all out to be obliging, apparently in the belief that that you're not really doing terrorists favours as long as you call them confidence-building measures. State prosecutors demanded token sentences for ETA killers coming up for trial and the group's front organisations were allegedly tipped off in advance when court-ordered raids and arrests were imminent.      

At the same time, spokesmen for these same organisations were issuing threats just a hair short of explicit enough to put them in jail. What was holding up the political payoff for the self-styled Basque national liberation movement? What about the 27 alleged ETA members arrested (mostly in France) since the truce went into effect on March 22? The unhooded public faces of terror made it clear a price would be exacted from Zapatero for not living up to his undertakings and guarantees.

Oh, and what exactly might those be, Spaniards wondered, particularly the opposition Popular Party, which started off dubious and is now openly suspicious of Zapatero's road map. But they are not the only ones convinced he has exceeded his parliamentary remit to negotiate no more than the terms under which ETA was supposed to disarm and disband. Many believe -  and some think it the lesser of two evils -- that Zapatero is prepared to make political concessions that would further ETA's goal of creating a racially-delimited independent state from Spain's three Basque provinces that also annexes neighbouring Navarra and three provinces in southern France.

Successful blackmailers know it's best to start off gently before twisting the screws down good and tight. Navarra, along with other regional governments, is set to hold elections in May. One scenario being bandied about by pundits until the bomb went off had Zapatero ordering his Socialist Party to support a coalition government for Navarra that includes an offshoot of the Basque Nationalist Party, its various splinter groups and eco-communist opportunists. By combining all their votes, say analysts, a good chance exists for unseating Navarra's ruling UPN party, which vehemently opposes a Basque anschluss.

If that was the idea, then why would ETA decide to give Zapatero a New Year's reality check by kidnapping the owner of a minivan, packing it with 800 kg of explosives to bring down a five-storey concrete carpark attached to the Richard Rodgers-showpiece terminal at Madrid's international airport, killing two Ecuadorean immigrants who were asleep in their vehicles, and wounding 18 others? Because they wanted to send a message - obviously.

And Zapatero's answer became a defining moment.  He could have said, "Okay, that's it, see you in court. And soon." But he didn't. He said the terrorists had made a "mistake," done something "futile" and "inappropriate". As a result, he added sternly, dialogue was "suspended" -- not broken off, not ended, but suspended. But it won't easily be resumed, at least under terms the government would ever dare acknowledge in public, especially if, as now seems likely, the Socialists get trounced in the May polls and conceivably forced to call snap elections for autumn. ETA's leaders can put their agenda on the table, cross their arms, sit back and wait, knowing Zapatero will be desperate to salvage any twisted  thing he can pass off as peace from under the 40,000 tons of concrete rubble at Madrid airport.

Robert Latona is a Madrid-based journalist.
The collapse of the phoney peace process with ETA spells more than just political and personal humiliation for Spanish Premier Rodriguez Zapatero. In the end, it was the hard men who got their way. The bomb that killed two people at Madrid airport the weekend before last came exactly one day after Spanish Premier José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero grandly claimed credit for there having been no "tragic fatal accidents" - meaning car bombs and bullets in the back of somebody's neck -- during the nine months since the Basque terror group ETA announced a permanent cease-fire to pave the way for talks with the Spanish government on "superseding the conflict" in Spain's northern Basque Country.

Preening before the press at a Friday year-ender, Zapatero proclaimed himself more optimistic than ever concerning what he insists on calling a peace process. "We're doing better than we were a year ago, but not as good as it will get a year from now," he said in a flight of self-congratulatory fatuity that would be hurled back in his face just 24 hours later. 

A week earlier, Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba refused to comment on reports that senior members of the government held face-to-face talks with ETA in an unnamed European country shortly before the Christmas holidays. He all but acknowledged, however, that the terrorists had promised to continue observing the truce.

Not everyone was so sure. The government's elusive negotiating partners had never let up on the extortion that keeps them in funds nor on street violence by pro-ETA youth gangs (a traffic policeman narrowly escaped being burnt alive). One prisoner with 25 of ETA's 817 murders on his CV went on a Bobby Sands-style hunger strike while his colleagues kept busy reorganising, training their reserves and rearming. A kidnap-robbery in France netted the gang 350 pistols and 9,000 rounds of ammo in October, but for weeks Zapatero weakly insisted he couldn't be sure it was ETA.

Indeed, the Spanish premier went all out to be obliging, apparently in the belief that that you're not really doing terrorists favours as long as you call them confidence-building measures. State prosecutors demanded token sentences for ETA killers coming up for trial and the group's front organisations were allegedly tipped off in advance when court-ordered raids and arrests were imminent.      

At the same time, spokesmen for these same organisations were issuing threats just a hair short of explicit enough to put them in jail. What was holding up the political payoff for the self-styled Basque national liberation movement? What about the 27 alleged ETA members arrested (mostly in France) since the truce went into effect on March 22? The unhooded public faces of terror made it clear a price would be exacted from Zapatero for not living up to his undertakings and guarantees.

Oh, and what exactly might those be, Spaniards wondered, particularly the opposition Popular Party, which started off dubious and is now openly suspicious of Zapatero's road map. But they are not the only ones convinced he has exceeded his parliamentary remit to negotiate no more than the terms under which ETA was supposed to disarm and disband. Many believe -  and some think it the lesser of two evils -- that Zapatero is prepared to make political concessions that would further ETA's goal of creating a racially-delimited independent state from Spain's three Basque provinces that also annexes neighbouring Navarra and three provinces in southern France.

Successful blackmailers know it's best to start off gently before twisting the screws down good and tight. Navarra, along with other regional governments, is set to hold elections in May. One scenario being bandied about by pundits until the bomb went off had Zapatero ordering his Socialist Party to support a coalition government for Navarra that includes an offshoot of the Basque Nationalist Party, its various splinter groups and eco-communist opportunists. By combining all their votes, say analysts, a good chance exists for unseating Navarra's ruling UPN party, which vehemently opposes a Basque anschluss.

If that was the idea, then why would ETA decide to give Zapatero a New Year's reality check by kidnapping the owner of a minivan, packing it with 800 kg of explosives to bring down a five-storey concrete carpark attached to the Richard Rodgers-showpiece terminal at Madrid's international airport, killing two Ecuadorean immigrants who were asleep in their vehicles, and wounding 18 others? Because they wanted to send a message - obviously.

And Zapatero's answer became a defining moment.  He could have said, "Okay, that's it, see you in court. And soon." But he didn't. He said the terrorists had made a "mistake," done something "futile" and "inappropriate". As a result, he added sternly, dialogue was "suspended" -- not broken off, not ended, but suspended. But it won't easily be resumed, at least under terms the government would ever dare acknowledge in public, especially if, as now seems likely, the Socialists get trounced in the May polls and conceivably forced to call snap elections for autumn. ETA's leaders can put their agenda on the table, cross their arms, sit back and wait, knowing Zapatero will be desperate to salvage any twisted  thing he can pass off as peace from under the 40,000 tons of concrete rubble at Madrid airport.

Robert Latona is a Madrid-based journalist.