A controversial proposal that would establish a Basque nation is the latest hindrance to peace in the region. Madrid says it will battle the plan in Spain’s highest court.
"Dark times are coming, the struggle continues:" grafitti bearing the symbol of the Basque separatist group ETA.
The Basque name for Mondragón, a small town in the heart of the Basque country, is Arrasate. The sign beside the road leading into the town is covered in graffiti. It is a stronghold of radical Basque separatists. Until it was banned last year, their party, Batasuna, held power in the town.
Ignacio Lakunza is the new mayor of Mondragón. He’s a Basque nationalist but not a separatist, a fact that worried him after his election.
"I think the decisive factor that helped keep the peace here in Arrasate was the plan proposed by Ibarretxe," he said.
These days, the town is split over a proposal by the Basque regional premier and leader of the Basque Nationalist Party, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, to enter the Basque region's 2.1 million inhabitants into "free association" with Spain -- a move that would require Madrid to accept the notion of a Basque nation. This would mean Spaniards would become "foreigners" in the Basque region -- a move many people here in Mondragón would welcome.
The plan would also give the mostly autonomous region more control over taxes, education and justice and permit Basque leaders to establish ties with the neighboring Navarre and Basque regions of France.
A persistent threat
A number of terrorists from ETA were born and raised here. Though many are now imprisoned, their photos still hang in the city center -- a sight that is uncomfortable for many opposition politicians, who live in constant fear of being attacked. In fact, some have even had molotov cocktails thrown at their homes or cars. The ETA terrorist organization has been responsible for the killings of at least 850 people since 1968 in its fight for independence.
Ibarretxe has found few friends in the opposition with his plan -- and many have outright shunned it, especially in a region where 60 percent of the population are not even Basques.
"It divides society into so-called ‘nationalists’ and ‘non-nationalists’," warned Francisco Garcia Raya, a member of the opposition Basque Socialist Party. "Each group is roughly the same size. This will only lead to a head on confrontation. It will polarize opinion and harden positions on both sides, which is not a good thing."
Few know the dangers of polarization in the Basque region better than Gorka Landabura, the editor in chief of the weekly magazine Aldaketa. He has been the victim of the never-ending terror campaign against him. Eighteen months ago his right hand was seriously damaged when he opened a letter bomb. He says the Ibarretxe plan won't solve anything.
"Anyone can put forward a proposal, there's no harm in that, but this plan is premature," Landabura said. "First we have to clean the house from the inside before we can decide which color to paint it on the outside."
A citizens' initiative
Terrorists attacks blamed on ETA remain the biggest problem. A new civic initiative called Basta Ya (translated roughly as "Enough is Enough") says it has had enough of this violence. Many of its members have lost relatives in terrorist attacks and some are afraid to leave their homes without a bodyguard. Basta Ya's main aim is to inform people.
"What is the aim of a Basque state? To continue the hatred of Spain? Xenophobia dressed in ideology! Basta Ya and other groups have proven that ideological persecution exists," said organizer Carlos Martinez Goriran. "You pay a high price -- a very high price if you're not a so-called ‘nationalist.’"
Opinions about the plan among locals is divided.
"I'm sorry, but it's totally ridiculous," said one resident. "We're already more prosperous than other Spanish regions."
Another responded: "Ibarretxe just wants to discuss the political prerequisites with Spain, that's all."
The Basque regional economy is one of the strongest in Spain, though it's focus is predominantly domestic. But there are problems underlying the solid economic output. Recent figures indicate that foreign companies prefer investing in other parts of Spain.
The Basque trade association has spoken out against the Ibarretxe plan, saying it could pose a threat to the region’s economic future.
"It could mean an escalation of the row between the Spanish government in Madrid and the Basque government in Vitoria," cautioned Enrique Portocarrero of the Basque Industry Association. "That would lead to political instability and result in economic problems -- and that's never a good thing."
A legal challenge
Meanwhile, Madrid would like to stop the train before it gets out of the station. Earlier this month, it filed suit with the Constitutional Court, Spain's highest tribunal, to stop the latest push for Basque independence. The government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar described the plan as a "totalitarian" violation of Spain’s constitution.
The Basque parliament, however, has said it will likely vote on Ibarretxe's plan in September. But any voter referendum would be delayed until at least 2005.
"The initiative by Mr. Ibarretxe implies a totalitarian plan in the way it is being carried out, in its content and by the people who are promoting it," Justice Minister Jose Maria Michavila said. "It is a confusing maneuver that says it wants to reform the statute but in reality seeks to reform -- mutilate -- the constitution," Michavila said.
With neither side showing any willingness to budge, the debate over the future of Mondragón, or Arrasate as the Basques call it, is likely to simmer for years.