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Basque Country

The homeland of the Basques, known by Basque nationalists as Euzkadi, occupies the littoral of the Bay of Biscay as it curves north into France. The region extends inland some 150 kilometers, through the juncture of the Pyrenees and the Cordillera Cantabrica, and thence south to the Rio Ebro. The region covers nearly 21,000 square kilometers, of which about 3,000 lie on the French side of the international frontier. The 18,000 square kilometers on the Spanish side constitute about 3.6 percent of Spain's total land area.

About 3 million people lived in this area in the late 1980s. Approximately 300,000 people were on the French side of the border, while the remaining 2.7 million people were concentrated primarily in the two Spanish coastal provinces of Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya and, less densely, in the two inland provinces of #Alava and Navarre. This population lived under two distinct autonomous communities: Basque Country, which incorporated the three smaller provinces, and Navarre, which by itself constituted a "uniprovincial" regional government.

The Basques are among the oldest peoples of Europe. Despite their having been visited by numerous waves of invaders, the Basques reached the tenth century still fairly isolated from the flow of West European history. In the tenth and the eleventh centuries, the rising kingdom of Navarre absorbed most of the rest of the Basque peoples, and it created for the first time a more or less unified Basque political entity. With the kingdom's decline, however, the region fell into disorder, and by the sixteenth century, the Basque provinces had been integrated into the kingdom of Castile. From this time until the nineteenth century, relations between Castile and the Basque provinces were governed by the fueros, local privileges and exemptions by which the Spanish king recognized the special nature of the Basque provinces and even a number of Basque towns. As a result of the centralization of the Spanish state and the Carlist Wars, the fueros had been abolished by the end of the nineteenth century. The Second Republic in the 1930s offered the chance to create a new autonomous Basque regime, but all such efforts were doomed by the Spanish Civil War. After the war, the Franco dictatorship sought--unsuccessfully--to suppress all signs of Basque distinctiveness, especially the use of the language.

Through most of the twentieth century, the thriving Basque economy, centered on the steel and the shipbuilding industries of Vizcaya and the metal-processing shops in Guipuzcoa, attracted thousands of Spaniards who migrated there in search of jobs and a better way of life. Between 1900 and 1980, the number of people moving into the region exceeded those who left by nearly 450,000, the heaviest flow occurring during the decade of the 1960s. In the 1970s, the flow began to reverse itself because of political upheaval and economic decline. Between 1977 and 1984, the net outflow was nearly 51,000. The consequence of this heavy in-migration was a population in the late 1980s that was only marginally ethnic Basque and that in many urban areas was clearly non-Basque in both language and identity. One authoritative study found that only 52 percent of the population had been born in the Basque region of parents also born there, 11 percent had been born in the region of parents born elsewhere, and 35.5 percent had been born outside the region.

The Basque region has been for decades the arena for a clash between an encroaching modern culture and its values (speaking Spanish, identifying with Spain, working in industry, living in a large city) and a native, traditional culture and its values (speaking Euskera, identifying with one's village or province, working on a small farm or in the fishing sector, living on a farm or in a small village). The former population was found concentrated in the larger cities such as Bilbao, while the latter lived in the small fishing villages along the Bay of Biscay or in mountain farmsteads, called caserios, located in the mountains of Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya, and Navarre. These centers of Basque traditional culture have been in constant decline since the introduction of heavy industry to the region in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and they could well disappear by the end of the twentieth century.

The use of the Basque language has also been in steady decline for centuries, but the erosion has accelerated since the 1950s with the rise in non-Basque migration to the region. A 1984 language census confirmed what unofficial estimates had already observed: that Basque was a weakened minority language, although not yet moribund. Of the 2.1 million people in the Basque Country autonomous region, 23 percent could understand Euskera, 21 percent could speak it, but only 13 percent could read the language and only 10 percent could write it. These data indicate that the Basque language has survived principally as an oral language without much of a written tradition, and that it is conserved not by formal teaching in schools but by informal teaching in the home. Officials in the Basque Country launched a number of important programs, especially in television and education, to restore the language to a level of parity with Castilian Spanish, but the success of these efforts will not be confirmed for at least a generation. Officially, the objective was to make the Basque population bilingual in Spanish and in Basque; but that goal seemed quite remote in the late 1980s.

On 05 May 2009 Socialist Patxi Lopez was sworn in as the first-ever, lehendakari, or regional governor of the Basque Region, who is not a Basque nationalist, an historic milestone for the troubled region. His inauguration followed the March 1 regional election, in which the Socialists won enough votes in the Basque Country to form a minority government supported by the conservative Partido Popular. Outgoing lehendakari (1999-2009) Juan Jose Ibarretxe, whose Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) had ruled the region for the past 29 years and has struggled to accept being ousted from power, bitterly announced his retirement from politics on the day of Lopez's inauguration. Lopez's inauguration - which the Basque terrorist group ETA had plotted to attack shortly before its latest military chief was arrested - presents a poisoned chalice to Spanish President Zapatero in national politics. The PNV has withdrawn its support in the Spanish Parliament, where it had been a frequent ally to Zapatero's minority government, which is viewed as increasingly weak and lacking in parliamentary allies.

In regional elections held 01 March 2009, the incumbent PNV won the most seats and the most votes but failed to secure the backing of one or more parties to give it a working majority. The vote represented the first serious challenge to the Basque nationalists' hold on power since the first post-Franco regional elections were held in 1980. The PNV also had held the lehendakari post since it was created in 1936, although the lehendakaris spent roughly 40 years in exile during the Franco regime. Ibarretxe and the PNV had until now relied on the support of radical separatist parties to form a parliamentary majority. In this year's election, however, the radical parties banned by the Spanish Supreme Court for their ties to the Basque terrorist group ETA were barred from running. An estimated 9.2% of votes cast were blank ballots in protest. The Basque Socialists (PSE) won enough seats to form a working majority with the conservative Partido Popular (PP).

Basque final election results confirmed non-nationalist voters (50.45%) outnumbered nationalist voters (48.29%) for the first time, meaning a majority in the regional parliament will have the votes to counteract any nationalist or separatist measures. The conservative PP, though it lost two seats, did better than had been predicted. Lower voter participation relative to 2005, combined with the banning of any ETA-linked parties, hurt the PNV.

There was an atmosphere of optimism and goodwill within Spain and the Basque Region that change was imminent that will help make the Basque Region "normal." ETA announced that it would not recognize the authority of the new PSE-led government and on 12 April 2009 publicly identified incoming senior officials of the government as priority targets. ETA publicly declared that Lopez would be the "primary objective" of their upcoming activities as they "continued striking out against enemies of the Basque Country and its interests." These plans were derailed on April 18 when the terrorist group, already dramatically weakened, suffered yet another blow by Spanish and French security services, who arrested ETA's latest top military leader, Jurdan Martitegi.

ETA declared a unilateral cease-fire in January 2011, but it was rejected by Spain's government because the separatist group made no pledge to lay down its arms. In October 2011 ETA declared an end to its bloody campaign for an independent homeland in Europe. They urged Spain and France to open talks with the aim of resolving the conflict. ETA had killed over 800 people in its bid to establish an independent homeland in the Basque regions of northern Spain and southwestern France.

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Page last modified: 25-11-2012 19:39:01 ZULU