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Explaining the Inexplicable

3 minute read
ROD USHER / Madrid

The hardest thing to understand for observers of Spanish elections — including most Spaniards — is how a party that is the political face of one of the bloodiest terrorist groups Europe has known can consistently attract around 15% of the vote in regional elections. A masterful new book by Irish journalist Paddy Woodworth helps to explain this conundrum, why it is that so many presumably sane electors in the northern Basque region have kept putting their X next to the candidates of the extreme nationalist party Euskal Herritarrok or its predecessor Herri Batasuna.

Dirty War, Clean Hands (Cork University Press; 472 pages) is subtitled ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy. The first initials belong to the group that uses violence to try to force the separation of the Basque region from Spain; the second stand for the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (Antiterrorist Liberation Groups), which set out to fight ETA’s fire with fire via shootings, bombings and kidnappings. And Spanish democracy is the victim of both.

The GAL began counter attacking ETA in 1983, killing a total of 27 people, most of them across the border in France, where ETA members frequently lie low after perpetrating their atrocities. The GAL toll is a drop in the ocean of blood shed by ETA — some 800 deaths in a reign of terror that has wracked Spain for more than three decades. The GAL operated about one tenth of that time, but what makes them so sinister is that they were not, as at first it appeared, a bunch of far-right fanatics fed up with the law’s inability to contain terrorists. The inescapable conclusion of Woodworth’s two years of research is that the GAL were primarily the product of Spain’s two main forces of law and order, the National Police and the Guardia Civil. Worse, the highest levels of government either authorized or turned a blind eye to the GAL’s bloody actions.

These last alternatives have been denied consistently by former Socialist leader Felipe González, Prime Minister from 1982 until his defeat by the incumbent José María Aznar in 1996, and various inquiries have not found grounds to charge González with a single offense. Not so his former Interior Minister, José Barrionuevo, or his former State Security Director, Rafael Vera; both were convicted over the first GAL-claimed crime, a 1983 kidnapping.

The jailing of such big fish — both of whom are free pending applications for pardons, along with the conviction of almost a dozen others, members of the Guardia Civil and former Socialist officials in the autonomous Basque region — has been a propaganda gift for ETA. It has also served to convince a significant number of moderate Basques that the central government still wants to crush their cultural identity, just as Franco did. Woodworth writes that not only did the dirty war fail to destroy ETA, but the investigations — or lack thereof — into its members and backers provided “rich material for an ideology which viewed the Basques as victims of a murderous Spanish state apparatus.”

Dirty War, Clean Hands — the latter referring to the peaceful majority and to certain judges — is a balanced, finely documented tale of how easily democratic institutions can run off the rails. Including inteviews with some of the top figures in the GAL scandal, it is also gripping, often more like reading John le Carré than history. It should be translated into Spanish, French and any language spoken where democracy is taken for granted.

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