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Issues of the Day A Week Among the Basque

I have long been interested in nations obscured by larger political entities. My 1982 book, Self-Determination in the Middle East dealt with groups such as the Kurds, Armenians, southern Sudanese and Berbers and their relationships with the empires that occupied them and the states they live under.


When not distorted by chauvinism, I believe that pride in national identity and cultural survival contribute positively to social cogency and help anchor individuals in time, place and continuity. Today, many ethnonational groups find themselves conducting their communal life in frameworks that may not be of their choosing but enable them to express their national language and cultural with some degree of  liberty and pride. Among these, are the Basque who live in northern Spain and adjoining areas of southern France.


A Week in the Basque Country

Having spent a week in the Basque Country (Euskadi, also known as Euskal Herria in Basque and País Vasco in Spanish) which spans northern Spain and southwestern France, I gained insight into a strikingly unique people. Of indeterminate origin and employing a language, Euskara, unlike any other, the Basque inhabit a territory that is mountainous yet unfolds toward the sea along the Gulf of Biscay.


This isolated territory gave rise to a people who became herders of sheep and cattle and engaged in transhumance during the spring and autumn. Along the coast and rivers their economy also included fishing. Over time Basque mariners became known for their skill as whalers and for their naval achievements.


Much of the story is related at the San Telmo Museum located in Donostia, better known by its Spanish name, San Sebastian, which is one of the two major cities in Spanish Euskadi. The intimacy between the Basque people, the rough but beautiful land they inhabit and the adjacent sea is well-illustrated in the museum’s exhibits. In Bilbao’s Old City, the Euskal Museoa or Basque Museum further documents the long history, life-style, economy and folkways of the Basque nation.  Aside from its maritime activities, the development of ironworks, ceramics and weaving industries characterized the economic development of the Basques.


The Basque Coast

The beauty of the Basque coast was evident during visits to the city of Biarritz and the town of St. Jean de Lutz in the French part of the country, as well as Hondarribia, Zarautz and Getaria along the country’s western, Spanish coastline.


At the picturesque town of Zumaia the Basque Coast Geopark begins. Along its coastal peaks one encounters grand sea vistas such as that seen from Santa Katalina near the town of Deba. The passage to the summit is marked by  small hamlets consisting of family farms that combine the small-scale cultivation of field crops and livestock (sheep, cows) husbandry. Along he shore of the Geopark are flysch formations, an unusual comb-like etching in the stone seabed.


Three Regions

Three regions make up the Spanish part of the Basque Country: Bizkaia (or Bizcay or Vizcaya) in the east where Bilbao is the main urban center, Gipuzkoa, where Donostia/San Sebastain is the main city with a large rural hinterland, and Álava-Araba in the south of which Vitoria-Gasteiz is the capital. The greater Basque homeland, Euskal Herria, is considered by partisans to include Navarra in the south and Iparralde on the French side of the border, which is referred to as Pais Basco Norte, or the northern Basque country.


I stayed at the heart of Gipukoza, outside a village known as Bidania-Goiatz high in the mountains in herding country where farmsteads cling to steep green hills under crisp blue skies.


Basque Travails

 Iban, the owner of the lodging where I stayed and a staunch if understated Basque patriot relayed the story of his homestead, which had been built and resided in by his family for generations. I learned about the ban on the Basque language and the general repression of Basque identity and culture that took place during the Franco regime. 


Iban’s father, a prominent person in Basque public life escaped into exile with his family across the border in the French Basque country. In the interim, the family’s homestead and business were confiscated and only after Franco’s death in 1975 was the family able to return to their lands and resume their lives there.


From my conversations with Iban and other Basque the trauma of the Francoist repression, the subsequent confrontation with the Spanish state, the outbreak of violent secessionist activity (by the terrorist group known by the initials ETA, which declared a permanent ceasefire in 2010) and a gradual rapprochement between the Spanish Basque and Madrid was highly traumatic collectively and individually for members of this community.


All of the Basque with whom I spoke renounced violence as a means of achieving greater autonomy for their people. However, wherever you visit in Euskal Herria Basque language fills the air, though for many it is a second language. The Basque flag is freely flown and nationalist banners are ubiquitous. Many of these demand amnesty for Basque political/security prisoners or their transfer from prisons throughout Spain to detention in the Basque homeland.


In the Spanish constitution of 1978 the Basque Autonomous Community was created, although the extent of the powers its institutions may exercise and the jurisdictional rights of these institutions remain contentious. Many Basque resent that the status of an autonomous community, less than the fuller self-determination to which they aspire,  had been imposed on them by a constitution which was formulated without their input. Nonetheless, responsibility for taxation, education and healthcare is in the hands of an autonomous government, the Eusko Jaurlaritzaren, which is known in Spanish as the Gobierno Vasco.


Basque Life Today

Euskara, the Basque language, which had been forced into disuse under the Nationalists has rebounded and a Basque multiparty legislature, presidency, civil service and police force function with vigor.


Basque community life is evident in central plazas found throughout the cities, towns and villages throughout the country where cultural celebrations abound. On a weekend afternoon I visited a traditional farmers market in the main square of Tolosa which took place as a string of wedding ceremonies was underway at the town hall. All the while a community brass band paraded from location to location throughout the town as people ate one of the mainstays of Basque cuisine, pintxos, a food similar to tapas.

In Getaria, another brass band entertained revelers at a festival centered on sardines, a major food cultivated by fishers along the Basque coast.


Basque pride was evident everywhere. With a standard of living well above the Spanish and European averages based on an economy in which aeronautic, energy and tool and machine industries are prominent, the Basque have every reason to be proud of their achievements.


Lessons from the Basque Country

The tension between centralism, the doctrine by which authority and power is concentrated in state centers, and self-determination for ethnonational groups is a major source of conflict in the contemporary era.


In the Middle East where artificial, post-colonial states like Iraq and Syria appear to be ripping at the seams along fissures corresponding to ethnonational and sectarian lines, the decentralization of power into mini- and micro-states is violently taking place before our eyes. Some form of federalism or confederalism for the sake of resource sharing and stability may be the only way to accommodate these centrifugal forces.


Elsewhere, as in Belgium, the centripetal forces of kingdom and state are only barely able to keep its composite communities from disbanding. The recent upheavals in Crimea show how such trends can unravel. In this context, finding a modus vivendi for coexistence acceptable to all concerned is an elusive but vital concern.


For the Basque people in Spain, the current status quo seems to be holding and though it may not be an ideal one as far as they are concerned the existing arrangement seems to safeguard their socioeconomic status and communal autonomy.


Yet, power relations everywhere are dynamic and balancing the the interests and demands of vying groups and sectors depends on goodwill, dialog and cooperation. Failing farsighted policies based on these pillars, the futures of multiethnic societies will be threatened by instability and unrest.

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved