By Hwaa Irfan
If one is still under the illusion that there is more freedom today than there was say, 20 years ago, then one would only have to take a look at the Basque people, a people whose ongoing struggle used to appear frequently in mainstream news. Their struggle first hit the news through the Basque separatist group Eta, through their campaign of bombings in the 60s onwards, until Eta was and still is categorized as a terrorist group by Spain, the EU, and the US of course. Despite their ceasefire in 2009, their struggle continues as it was only in 2011, Arnaldo Otegi Basque activist and leader of the Basque separatist group Batasuna was jailed.
What are they Fighting For?
They are fighting for Euskal Herria, (País Vasco/Vasconia in Spanish) – Basque which stretches from Bilbao in the north of Spain to Bayonne in southwest France. Simply put they, the Basque people want independence from the rest of Spain, but why?
They are a people who are documented by Greek historians such as Pliny, and Ptolemy. They are a people who did not engage themselves in the quarrels of ancient Europe, accept when it was a matter of defense as in the case against the Barbarians of 3rd and 5th century A.D. After several attempts were made to encroach on their territory, the Basque people became more consolidated politically, and as such boundaries were formed in 1016 between Navarre and the County of Castile. However, like today, that did not stop outsiders from trying to invade. Navarre was to be invaded by Castile, Pope Julius II, Henry VIII of England, Maximilian of Austria, Ferdinand the Catholic. By the early 16th century, a treaty was to consolidate Basque territory further in the Cortes of Burgos which states:
“united on an equal basis, each retaining (Castile and Navarre) its ancient character in laws, territory, and government.”
And so the Basque statute system was born to include the areas: Alava, Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya. With each new King, the agreements were ratified. They were governed by Biltzar in French Basque country, and by the General Assemblies in those areas with Spanish Administration. However in the 1839 Carlist War did not honor these agreements starting with compulsory national service in the Spanish Army and the payment of taxes. With the establishment of the Spanish republic on 14th April 1931, the issue of Basque self determination has been on the table ever since being divided into three political and legal entities that runs along the Bay of Biscay or Cantabria Sea as it is known in Basque:
- The Autonomous Community of Euskadi/Basque Country/Basque Autonomous Community: Alava-Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa.
- The Autonomous Community of Navarre/Comunidad Foral de Navarra
- Iparralde/the French Basque Country/Euskal Herria, including Lapurdi/Labourd, Zuberoa/Soule, and Behenafarroa/Lower Navarre.
Who are They?
For 7,000 years they were able to maintain their own culture because they were pretty much isolated from mainstream Europe. Protected from the incursions of Christendom by mountains and valleys until their geography could protect them no more, they are people with a distinct identity, faith, and all the offspring of culture. They have their own flag: green, red, and white in the style of the English Union Jack, and their own cuisine. They also have their own language known as Euskera/Eskuera/Üskera which today is spoken by over 3 million people with varying dialects. Their language was spoken in Acquitaine, and in Catalonia. Although against their self determination, the U.S. used their language in WWII, as the secret language that was used in transmissions to throw off the Japanese. Euskera/Eskuera/Üskera is a language that shares no known roots with any other linguistic branch, and is the only living language prior to Roman conquest.
However those in the French part of Basque, have been ‘ethnically cleansed’ in the sense that France did everything to suffocate Basque expression, the same manner that France has been suffocating Franco-Muslim expression.
Society was patriarchal, whereby the wife-mother worked inside the home, and much of the responsibility of the home fell on her shoulders. The farmhouse was the center of daily life, and it was common to have several generations living under one roof, usually the firstborn inherited the farm to prevent the property from being divided.
However, politics and Catholicism has taken the place of their original faith and with the struggle for autonomy leisure has become a part of their lifestyle. As family remains the most important institution, faithfulness and respect are valued as important pillars of marriage between husband and wife, and love, respect, and sacrifice between children and parents. However, very few traditional communities are impervious to external influences, so divorce, abortion, and single mothers have become accepted practices in Basque society. Equality between men and women is ensured by the 2005 Gender Equality Act which was passed by the Basque Parliament.
A Peoples’ Democracy in Action
Their sense of community remains strong despite the transformation from a traditionally rural society, to an increasingly urbanized with the trappings of modern living. The people of Basque have not become a total fatality of capitalism in that the family remains the most important institution followed by a strong work ethic to sustain their families as opposed to work for the sake of work. This is probably the main reason why social participation is an essential part of Basque life whereby any reason to come together is only natural.
Their traditional biltzar system continues to this day, whereby the people from a group of homes come together to make joint decisions: they come together to decide who will run for local elections, or neighbours work together for community projects, from repairing roads to re-roofing a neighbour’s house, forming a cooperative, improving the local economy, rotating responsibilities, and even expecting representatives to live in the areas they represent so they can be kept an eye (that’s a thought for the youth of the Lotus Revolution)! In general they have a fundamental belief in human rights, and the right to not be mistreated, what a good example of how to run a people’s democracy! Representatives are therefore accessible, and are expected to be respectful and committed. Politics is viewed as a right for citizen participation, along with the right to express one’s opinion, a dwindling factor in the exemplar Western democracy, along with the right to assembly and the right to protest in a political system that has 7 not 2 major political parties that range from nationalists to non-nationalists. As a modern society though, Basque shares the problem of youth unemployment and housing with the rest of the world. They also struggle with the concept of identity in a changing world. This is partly supported by their unique language, and also their education system. They have a unique aspect to their education system known as ikastolas. The ikastolas was a popular response to the banning of their language under Franco, and they are privately run schools managed by parents, where learning takes place in the language of the Basque people Euskera/Eskuera/Üskera, but with 8 regional dialects and 24 subdialects there is a need for standardization when it comes to education and official documents. However, the forms of expression through their artistes, filmmakers, writers, and architects have all helped to keep Basque culture a buoyant reality.
De Egald, M. “A Short History of the Basque Country.” http://www.buber.net/Basque/History/shorthist.html
Gomeze, I. “The Secret Language.” http://www.buber.net/Basque/Euskara/secret-language.php
“Spanish Basque activist Arnaldo Otegi Jailed.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14950650
Zallo, R., Ayuso, M. “The Basque Country.” http://www.kultura.ejgv.euskadi.net/r46-714/es/contenidos/informacion/ezagutu_eh/es_eza_eh/adjuntos/eza_en.pdf