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Jesús Eguiguren, the vasque who negotiated peace, gives the keys in Benalmádena about the end of ETA

A decade has passed since the end of ETA. The former president of the basque socialists, Jesús  Eguiguren, was a keyfigure in achieving the permanent ceasefire  of the terrorist gang that brought peace to Spain. Eguiguren explains in this interview the intrahistory of those first encounters with Arnaldo Otegi in a lost hamlet, in which both sat down to “talk seriously” about the method to follow to achieve peace through dialogue. After the conversations held by Ole Benalmádena with Eguiguren, highlight three key factors that triggered the long-awaited outcome and that, at times, tiptoe over what is being said about the peace process.

First of all, highlight the figure of Jesús Eguiguren as negotiator, because until then, ETAwas used to dealing with another type of interlocutor, less close, and on this occasion, they came face to face, with a Basque politician of those who speak loud and clear, an ordinary man who that was to the point.Another vital point was the real wear -both social and economic- of ETA  at that time, and the will of a large part of the leaders of the terrorist organization to seek a path in accordance with the sights set on entering politics again through legal channels, and finally and perhaps the most important: the method devised for negotiations. ETAwanted the self-determination of the Basque Country and in a democratic framework that was and is impossible, so no one was betting that a firm agreement could be reached and above all, that it would last over time. The goodwill between the parties was translated through a “method”, since they could not reach a political agreement that would be a chimera, something unthinkable for the Spanish Government. This method was crystallized through two dialogue tables, in which they spoke of disarmament and the rapprochement of prisoners, among other issues, but in which the negotiation of any sphere of the political sphere was excluded.

Ultimately, what Eguiguren achieved with his method was to remove ETA of the political negotiation not to violate neither the Spanish Constitution nor the antiterrorist laws. This is the key– in addition to the predisposition of the parties– to understand how they got agreement between the Government of Spain and ETA: did not agree to a political agreement, but a method of dialogue.

A dialogue, which was broken after the attack on Terminal 4in Madrid and which “forced Arnaldo Otegui to confront the dissident sector of ETA”, which led years later to a vote of the bases of the abertzale left, whose majority supported the end of the terrorist gang.

-You are the man who managed to put an end to ETA terrorism, but this feat entailed a political cost within your party and also became a target for the right …

-I am obviously proud of what I did, but it is true that I paid a price … furious attacks from the right and also misunderstanding by part of my party – referring to the PSE– and of course, all that has left me some psychological wounds .

– Looking back, was it worth it?

-Yes of course. It was my obligation. It was worth the personal cost to such an extent that Spain’s main problem was solved. Thousands of lives have been saved. Is there something more important than achieving peace?

-Regarding the peace process, putting ourselves in context, it should be remembered that at that time the PP ruled in the country, the PNV in the Basque Country was immersed in its secessionist challenge and in Spain an antiterrorist pact had been approved … how were those first contacts?

-In the first contacts we met two frustrated men. I was frustrated by the inability of the state to end terrorism, and Oteguiwas frustrated, I think, for a lifetime dedicated to that radical politics that had degenerated in the end in that they killed workers, workers … from that frustration came the joint will in some way not to leave that problem for future generations. We were both veteran politicians, we sat down to find a method for peace in the country.

-So, Otegui wanted to put an end to ETA

-Yes, the will was firm. I think he thought he would end up achieving a series of goals that he had. He wanted to get rid of the weight of ETA because it no longer benefited them electorally, or anything …

-In fact, Otegui kept his word, because once the violence ended, he participated in political life like any other party …

-Yes. He kept his promise.

-Jesus, you were the one who received the first letter from ETAand gave it to Rubalcaba. Didn’t the Government fear that if you answered as requested by the armed gang, they would use it to pressure you as had happened in the past?

-It was all secret. I went to France for the letter. She was in Badajoz and I drove to France to pick her up. Then I gave it to Rubalcaba. The answer that ETAwas asking for was made by myself.   A lot of discretion was required.

-Then two more letters arrived and in the third, ETAalready set an appointment in Geneva …

-That’s how it is.  In the third they talk about the international organization, which was going to act as a mediator, and set an appointment in Switzerland, in  Geneva specifically.

– Is it true that you went to Switzerland in a van and that you had to give your escorts a ‘slip’?

-Well, yes.  The Government of Spain did not want these conversations to rise to a level because they had come to fruition in Guipuzcua,   in a secluded place, and of course, they had no intention of it going by plane and so on … we had to continue with discretion. The escort thing was not difficult because when you travel outside the Basque Country, they stay and we told them I was going to Barcelona. I asked for a van and after many hours of driving, I finally arrived …

-In addition, the next day he had to be in the Basque Country because you had the Lendakari vote… what happened when he arrived at the hotel in Geneva?

-I literally broke down. I sat down and fell asleep. When I woke up, I asked reception if there was someone who had asked for me (they had given me a different name, I think it was Mikel) and they said no. So I called the mediators to see what had happened… I explained to them that I had a vote in Parliament and that I had to leave in a few hours. Then they asked me if I wanted to have a contact, even if it was brief, and I said yes. Josu Terneraarrived and I told him I was serious about negotiating. Veal told me that he too had the will and after speaking for half an hour, I went back to Spain to vote.

-After the voting, he returned to Switzerland … but it just coincided with the attack at  La Peineta in Madrid …

-Exactly. In fact, Rubalcaba   told me to go back to Spain and I replied that I would not return until I got something out. I gave him as an excuse that ETA was going to give me explanations of what had happened.

-Were you afraid at some point?

-No. I had precautions at all times, but no fear. The thing is, I was kind of possessed by the belief that everything is going to be okay … I don’t know how to explain it to you. He firmly believed that everything would be fine.

-Once the Swiss phase ended, the Norwegian phase began …

-That’s it. In Geneva we reached the agreement and in Norway it was ratified.

-When you presented that agreement to Rubalcaba, did you make any changes?

-No. And I went to Norway with the satisfaction of being able to say to ETA: look, not a comma have we changed … instead they did want to introduce a lot of changes and that dragged on …

-That -the ratification of the agreement- happened in the famous spa of Oslo. But on that occasion Josu Ternera was not so conciliatory and you could not get out of the democratic framework in any type of transfer …

-I was clear about it. Nothing political was going to be negotiated. They were not going to talk about self-determination, or Navarra, or changing the Constitution … I was very clear about the limits.

-What did that agreement consist of?

-In short it was a copy of what they did in Ireland; The Government gave the Basques more freedom to choose their future, -more autonomy to the autonomous community- and ETA promised to give an indefinite truce, but to reach that agreement I knew perfectly well the limits and I made them very clear. For their part, they finally respected them.

-It was in March 2006 when ETA finally announced the long-awaited truce … do you remember what you were doing when you found out?

-Well, I was on my way to Madrid to have lunch with the director of El País and the journalist Luis Aizpeolea.

-That announcement took a long time …

-Yes. They said they were going to do it at Christmas but it took a long time because ETAwas already beginning to have internal divisions … In that temporary parenthesis I went back to Switzerland to ask Ternera what was happening. He told me that ETAwanted all its members to agree with the text of the truce, and that is why they were slow to make it public …

Then the meetings with Thierry began and the meetings were no longer like the ones he had with Josu Ternera …

-Once what we called the road map was ratified, negotiations began. Until then everything had been a preparation for the negotiation. After the announcement of the truce and Zapatero’s statements, I went from being a stranger to being the negotiator with ETA. The terrorist gang also changed the interlocutor and the boss, Thierry, came.

-With Thierry the conversations were more tense, is it true that he told you that you would have to buy new black ties?

-Although it seems strange, apart from the negotiations we talked a lot, because I was interested in getting to know them as well as possible. On one of these occasions I said to Thierry: don’t you realize that you’re going to end up dying in jail …? And he answered me: and you don’t realize that if this doesn’t end you’re going to have to keep buying ties black ?. So it was. I had to go to funerals for attacks and he died in jail.

-At that time they made the attack in Terminal 4of the Madrid airport, did they already have it prepared?

-Completely. Thierry told me days before, after some arrests of ETA members, that they were going to do something in Madrid. I communicated it, but they thought they were telling me to scare me and put pressure on the negotiations …

-In reality, ETA had never attacked without breaking the truce before …

-That’s why they thought nothing fat would happen. When the attack on T4, I told Thierry that after that he had to understand that he could not continue negotiating … he replied that “the boys had gone overboard with the explosives that they had put in the van” ….

-The banality with which ETAtalks about attacks in which so many lives have been lost is astonishing …

-The power ofETAwas to kill. One of the things I learned is that terrorism feels very strong. It is as if they believe a small state because with an attack they see how the whole country talks about them. They were also used to killing because they considered it an act of war against a State, in their opinion oppressive, and for that reason, there were no problems of conscience or dissimulation when talking about killing. I already told you that if they talked about someone who was bothering them, then they said “to this guy: bang bang and legs up” … just like I’m telling you.

-Is ETA’s terrorism irreversible?

-Absolutely. In part, because they themselves made sure that within their organization there was no split and no one got out of the peace agreement, and because there is no longer a place for dictators.

-Have the wounds healed in the Basque Country?

-I think there are wounds that do not heal and I mean those of the soul. Who has suffered terrorism is a different person from the one who has not suffered it. Yes, hatreds have healed and coexistence has been achieved quickly. I do not dare to generalize because there will be sectors that have suffered terrorism in such a way that they will not be able to overcome it, because ETAhas ended, but we cannot forget that the victims remain.

-Jesús, have you ever questioned withinETAthat despite so many decades of terror and crimes they had not achieved their goal? I mean, it was nonsense …

-No way!. They felt strong. They had a lot of weapons and a lot of money. They had everything very organized. The revolutionary taxwas paid by almost all businessmen because it was the way to survive … ETAhad set up a kind of ‘Treasury’ from which I am sure, they handled more information on the Basque business economy than the State itself. They had total control over shady businesses (prostitution, drugs …) that the State does not reach.

-What message would you convey to young people?

-The important thing is that they know what happened. The tragedy that it has meant.  What about the subject… in short, let the memory win the pulse.

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