Basque diaspora seeks home vote

Unknown numbers of residents of the northern region have been forced to flee They were subject to ETA harassment aimed at "cleaning up" the electoral rolls

Tens of thousands of Basque citizens have left the region over the past few decades.
Tens of thousands of Basque citizens have left the region over the past few decades.JAVIER HERNÁNDEZ (EL PAÍS)

For decades, a steady undercurrent of harassment has been a highly effective complement to the murders and the bombs, to the insidious accusations and the outright threats.

"Your militant Spaniard attitude forces us to warn you to leave Euskal Herria. Prepare to face the consequences, you and your family. ETA." Carlos Fernández de Casadevante, a professor of international law, received this letter in his office at the Basque Country University's School of Law in San Sebastián; before that, the campus had been plastered with signs inviting students to attack him and two other faculty members deemed "Spanish." This was followed by graffiti consisting of the words "Casadevante carcelero" (Casadevante jailer) surrounded by a target symbol. Even later came an explosive package with loose cables that the regional police dealt with.

At this point Casadevante, a native of San Sebastián and a father of five, felt he had had enough. These days, he teaches at King Juan Carlos University in Madrid. His "crime" was to have noted down on the classroom blackboard the number of days that ETA's kidnap victims had been kept locked up in cramped hideouts.

The ideological cleansing carried out systematically by ETA and sectarian nationalists has resulted in a purge of the Basque voter rolls. Over the years, tens of thousands of people have left their native land in a quiet but persistent stream, nearly always with a heavy heart, a hurt soul and the distress of having to start their lives over in a new place.

But the truly disconcerting thing is that, despite all the broken lives and the enormous tear in the Basque Country's social fabric, this exodus has been practically invisible to official Basque nationalism. In fact, the only diaspora there is official news of in Euskadi is the one at the 187 Basque social centers scattered across the globe (mostly in the Americas), which is chiefly made up of descendants of Basques who emigrated around a century ago for economic and political reasons.

It is only now, with some voices proposing ways to help displaced Basques join the voter rolls without leaving their current residences, that the true dimension of the phenomenon is beginning to take shape amid significant controversy.

We want the same treatment as the descendants of Basques in America"

"We want the same treatment as the Basques or descendants of Basques in America," demand some of the people who left Euskadi because of ETA-related threats. Can they be denied the right to vote in Basque elections, when the children and grandchildren of Basques who left for America 80, 100 or 130 years ago have it?

Basque nationalism extended its web across the ocean with subsidies for projects that promoted Basque folklore and language and for the maintenance of the Basque centers. At the same time, it turned a blind eye on the exodus taking place in the real Euskadi. Nobody knows the exact number of people who fled to save their lives or out of progressive weariness at the constant harassment and the poisoned social and political atmosphere.

The figures range from the 300,000 claimed by the Basque Popular Party to the 100,000 posited by the current Basque government (Socialist) and the 200,000 estimated by Foro Ermua, an association of Basque professionals (including many university lecturers).

"These are inflated estimates," says the sociologist Josu Mezo, a professor at Castilla-La Mancha University. "They are based on the fact that the Basque voter rolls would have 228,000 additional voters if it had grown at the same rate as the rest of Spain between 1979 and 2011. The mistake lies in attributing all the exits to the terrorist threat and failing to consider other factors like the extremely low birth rate in Euskadi, the industrial crisis and the workers from other regions who retired and went back home to their villages."

Nationalists feel that the reform would open the door to "an electoral fiddle"

Between 1980 and 2000, the migratory balance in Euskadi was negative by 157,417 people, or 7.2 percent of the population. Most of this emigration took place in the 1980s, when terrorist activity reached a peak and the great industrial restructurings took place.

Faced with a lack of reliable data, the basic reference remains the direct relatives of the hundreds of murder victims and injured survivors, plus an at-risk community potentially made up of police officers, non-nationalist politicians, judges, prosecutors, entrepreneurs and other professionals who are victims of economic extortion, members of citizen associations, intellectuals, teachers and journalists committed to the resistance against ETA. The most commonly accepted estimates in this case talk in terms of some 40,000 people.

Two of these are Antxon Urrestarazu, 57, a technical architect for the city of Puerto de Santa María (Cádiz), and Arantxa González, 54, a civil servant with the Andalusian health service.

"I never could get used to the lack of freedom," says Urrestarazu. "One day, you see four individuals shut down all the stalls at Zarautz market without any kind of opposition, and you realize that these experiences in collective submission are accumulative and contagious, and that you don't want your child to grow up in a society like that. So we put 1,200 kilometers between us and them. Should I be able to vote there? I no longer feel part of that community."

"It is evident that to a greater or lesser degree, the Basque voter rolls have been purged due to ETA's violence," says Javier Tajadura, a professor of constitutional law. "We jurists started out from the belief that the reform would be justified even if there was just one person who lost his or her right to vote because of terrorism. It's about restituting that right and finding a constitutional context for it."

"Quantitatively the reform will not be relevant. We don't expect thousands of displaced people to return to the Basque voter rolls," adds Ángel Sánchez Navarro, who coordinated the 21 jurists who came up with the proposal for electoral reform at the government's request.

But nationalists feel that the reform would open the door to "a Spanish electoral fiddle" because it would include the vote of police, military and other state workers stationed in Euskadi for five years who declare having left because of terrorist threats. Or, in the words of radical nationalist leader Arnaldo Otegi, whose lexicon speaks volumes: "Txakurras [dogs in Basque, a pejorative term for the police] and their fucking families will be able to vote."

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