The Spanish state is set to close 107 Basque social centres, confiscate their funds and sell off their assets, including property. With allegiance to the Basque Patriotic Left, the “Izquierda Abertzale” as it terms itself in Spanish, the Herriko Tabernak (“Peoples’ Taverns”) function as centres for social, cultural and political activity. The sale of coffee, alcohol and pintxos (a variety of home-produced small items of food, mostly eaten cold) also generates income with which to employ some activists within the movement and also to fund some of its political activities.
Those are the socially-useful functions of the Herriko Tabernak and precisely the reasons the Spanish state plans to close them down. Not that they say that openly, of course – the official line is that the taverns “fund terrorism”. Never mind that the police have never furnished any evidence of that, never mind too that the alleged recipient, the armed organisation ETA, has been in uninterrupted ceasefire since 5th September 2011, confirmed as “permanent” in a statement the following January and again as a “permanent cessation of armed activity” in October 2012.
There is an herriko taberna in many vilages and in every town throughout much of the southern Basque Country (i.e the part under Spanish state rule) and Bilbao, for example, has several. They vary from one another but typically have a front bar area and a rear or upstairs function room which may be used for political, cultural,
educational or social event, or hired for personal social functions such as celebrating a birthday, successful conclusion of studies, an engagement or wedding, a return for a migrant. Social functions of a more political nature such as welcoming a recently-released political prisoner or a commemoration of some figure of the resistance are also held there.
Although people hostile to the ‘herrikos’ would not usually enter one, anyone can do so and order coffee, beer or soft drink, perhaps buy some pintxos – no-one will bother them. The language of conversation inside may be Euskera (Basque) or Castellano (Spanish) but all the staff have at least enough Euskera for the customers’ needs and many are fluent.
On the walls notices and posters carry political, cultural or social messages or advertise an event, either specific to the Basque Country or perhaps in solidarity with the Palestinians, the Saharaui (Western Sahara people), or to do with gender and sexuality-social issues, workers’ and migrants’ rights, animal rights ….
Photo portraits of prisoners are “glorification of terrorism”
Recently, the walls carried photo portraits of political prisoners from the area. After the Spanish National Court decreed, a few years ago, that these were expressions of “glorification of terrorism”, the police raided many herriko tabernak (and also sympathetic bars) and arrested those who refused to take them down. The herrikos and bars affected then removed the portraits but replaced them with black silhouettes. Despite a widespread expectation that those arrested would face prison terms, nothing happened and the pictures are back up on the walls of the herrikos.
The herriko closures are expected after the Spanish state’s General Elections, which must be held before December and are expected in October or November. According to opinion polls, both traditional governing parties, the PP and the PSOE, are ahead of all others and even Podemos, with its meteoric rise to December 2014, did not overtake them and continues to show a decline in the voting intentions of those polled. In the southern Basque Country itself, the christian democratic Basque Nationalist Party continues to dominate and, even if they wished to help the party to their left (and they don’t), could not stand up against the Spanish state. A political solution therefore is out of reach.
When the herrikos close, the loss will be enormous: the organised movement will suffer politically, culturally and financially and the social and cultural life of thousands will suffer. There seems little that the Abertzale Left movement can do within the Spanish state – its legal challenge in the Supreme Court has failed. It can apply to the Constitutional Court but decisions there usually concur with those of the Supreme. After the Constitutional, it can apply to Europe, to either the Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg or the Court of International Justice at the Hague but the delay in cases being heard there can take years and by the time they are heard, the herrikos will have been closed and properties auctioned off. Nor are the European Courts’ decisions necessarily to the benefit of the Basques – although a number of times Strasbourg has found against the Spanish state for failing to investigate a claim of torture by a political prisoner, it has never actually found the state guilty of the torture itself. And when the Abertzale Left’s political party, Herri Batasuna, was banned by the Spanish Supreme Court (and confirmed by the Constitutional) in 2003, the movement took the case to Strasbourg. Eventually, in 2009, the Court delivered its judgement – incredibly, it decided that banning a political party with electoral support varying from 15% to nearly 25% in the southern Basque Country was not an abuse of the human rights of the people concerned.
Considering the options and Spanish democracy
Now the people are considering their options in action outside the courts. Should they occupy the buildings and resist their takeover by the Spanish state? Maybe that would make sense where their location is a fairly high-profile one. But others are in back streets and laneways; the “Zipayos” (pejorative name for the Euskadi police, the Ertzaintza) can swarm those places, assault the occupants and evict them in a matter of hours. That they can do the same in the more high-profile locations is without doubt but at least the community and passers-by will see the resistance there. In the smaller villages, herrikos may change their name and perhaps replace the buildings’ renters or lessees. Whatever course they take, the disruption overall will be huge.
In 1998, the Spanish National Court judge Balthazar Garzon (beloved of many liberals around the world) closed down the Basque-language newspaper Egin, a bilingual daily in Euskera and Castellano first published 20 years earlier. Over a year later, a judge ruled that the newspaper could reopen but by then its machinery had been dismantled or left unusable and its owners left without funds as they were using them in court proceedings. In 2009, a Spanish court finally decided that there had been no grounds for closing it in the first place. A year later, there was a similar decision in the case of Egunkaria, the first-ever daily in the Basque language, closed down by the Spanish state in 2003. In 2010, the National Court decided that there had been no reason to close the newspaper and that the accused were innocent, hinting that the accusation of torture was true. But no formal apology followed, nor was there any compensation paid and Otamendi, the newspaper’s manager, had to take his torture case to Strasbourg, where in 2012 he was awarded compensation of €20,000 (and €4,000 legal costs) against the Spanish state because (as usual) they had not bothered to investigate his claims of torture. No compensation has yet been paid for Egunkaria‘s closure and its successor, Berria, reportedly struggles financially today.
Basques smile ruefully when students of recent Spanish history talk about the “democratisation” of the State through the “Transition” from General Franco’s dictatorship. Apart from the killing by Spanish police and state-supported fascist gangs during that Transition, the southern Basque Country has seen state-organised assassination squads, bannings of newspapers and radio stations, bannings of political parties, youth and cultural organisations and arrests, torture and jailing of political activists. This is the reality behind the words of “Spanish state democracy”.