If the opportunity presents itself, one of the first things I do when I get to a new city is pay a visit to a local tourist information office. While such a habit may align poorly with the image of an independent, off-the-beaten-track, intrepid traveller, I find that it can be (ironically) a good place to get non-tourist-like information. If I get lucky, the person working the desk is bored out of his or her skull and dying to talk to anyone, even me, about anything.
Kat and I arrived in Bilbao, Spain on a sun-scorched Tuesday morning, having endured a ten-hour overnight bus from Santiago. After a week of hiking on the Camino, our lethargy level was at a maximum and we had read little about the ins and outs of our present location, referred to – sometimes proudly, sometimes pejoratively – as Basque Country. I found a seemingly underused tourist office and, before the poor woman could object, began unleashing questions. Among other things I learned that in addition to boasting deliciously displayed pub foods and pristine beaches (most famously located in stunning San Sebastian), there are more Basques living abroad (particularly in Chile) than there are in northern Spain; that the co-official Basque language is in no way related to Spanish and – although only about thirty percent of the population speaks it fluently – remains a significant source of cultural pride; and that the most recent ceasefire between Basque separatists and the Spanish government, negotiated in 2010, had brought about a new calm to the area – politically and otherwise.
At the risk of calling my taste in movies into question, I can tell you that I first heard the term “Basque” when I was ten years old from the film, The Jackal, starring Bruce Willis and Richard Gere (Bruce – bad; Gere – good). I won’t bore you with a play by play of every (awesome) scene, but basically Gere plays a former member of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, whose former girlfriend (a Basque woman) is a former member of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA (clear as mud?). Together they try to catch Bruce Willis before he kills the First Lady at the behest of some Russian gangsters. The End.
I later learned that ETA, which translates to Basque Homeland and Freedom, is actually the most powerful player in a now decades-old Basque independence movement. The group was formed in 1959 during the Fascist rule of General Francisco Franco (many of you will know Picasso’s famous Guernica painting, inspired by the Franco-approved massacre of a Basque city of the same name). However, even after Franco’s death and the fall of the regime in 1975, ETA, similar to the Irish Republican Army, remained branded as a terrorist organization by most of the “developed world.”
At this point it would perhaps be prudent to offer some sort of disclaimer about my inability to comment meaningfully on such a complex history. This may well be true – I was only in Basque Country for a week and, admittedly, spent much of my time there working on my burn-tan – but what I think (not to be confused with how I feel) is that while we love to say that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, “terrorism”, if we must use the term, is less subjective than we like to pretend. I need not romanticize the Basques, nor offer any apology for the many egregious acts committed by ETA in the name of freedom, in order to recognize the difference between focused and aggressive independence movements, whose goals are sometimes furthered by deplorable means, and amorphous and exported and delusional nihilism à la Islamic Jihad (for example). In addition, coming from a country that has had to deal in its own way with its own independence movement, it is difficult not to notice a similar dissemination of “official” misinformation about the issue.
In 1995 the government of Quebec held a referendum on the political future of the province, and thus, of Canada. The results, almost as if in a movie, were a nail-biting 50.58-49.42 in favour of a united country. I may betray a bias when I say that I think Canada, though perhaps belatedly, did the right thing. The referendum occurred many years after the strongest and most violent (in the Front de Liberation du Quebec, or FLQ) push for Quebec’s secession, but at the very least the people were given a chance to decide their own fate (twice actually). It is perhaps for this reason that Canada felt confident enough to recognize the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo in 2008, a precedent of some implication for Canadian separatists. And it will likely come as no surprise to hear that Spain was one of the only countries in the developed world to withhold its blessing.
Upon hearing of our visit to Basque Country, a new friend from Madrid told us that the Basques’ word for “friends”, lagunz, is the same as that for “help.” This little homonym (am I remembering English class right?), on one hand rather romantic, serves as a reminder of the cruel hand that the Basques have been dealt by history (and geography). For it has been friendship (often from powerful nations) and help (often from the tides of history themselves), or rather a lack of each, that have largely prevented this small “state” from realizing the freedom it has long desired.
At present, ambitions of Basque independence – especially vis-à-vis armed resistance – appear to have receded. The alleged political wing of ETA, Batasuna, was banned in 2003 and in 2011 ETA itself renounced all violence and pledged to pursue independence solely by democratic means. Similar to Quebec, Basque Country now enjoys a great deal of hard-earned autonomy within the country that once marginalized it (indeed, the Basques have fared significantly better during the recession than “greater Spain”) which could further dampen the will to secede. Who knows? One day in the future, long after the bombs and threats and fear have become a distant memory, the Basques may get their chance to vote on their own destiny. Until then, enjoy the beaches, savour the pintxos, fumble with the language, and take a ride on the amazingly slow but scenic routes of Euskotren, Basque Country’s own rail line. Statehood or no statehood, you will know you have arrived.