Deeper peace still elusive for Basques

Fri Aug 19, 2011 12:22pm EDT
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BILBAO, Spain (Reuters) - After 10 years working as a bodyguard in Spain's Basque country, where mayors need 24-hour protection and university professors check their cars for bombs, Julen knows when he's not welcome.

The animosity that fueled decades of separatist violence has softened with recent political developments, which includes surprise electoral wins for nationalist candidates in May. But that does not mean it is gone, he said.

In the towns where he accompanies local councilors and ex-politicians about their daily lives, Julen -- a false name he uses when he's working -- is still seen by many as a lackey for Spain's centuries-old repression of the Basques.

"Everyone wants this to end, but let's not confuse hope with reality," said the athletic 50-year-old.

"We still get refused food in shops and restaurants if we're recognized and get a mouthful of insults instead. The level of hostility has diminished, but it hasn't disappeared."

It's been 75 years since former dictator Francisco Franco ordered the fire-bombing of the Basque market town of Guernica in the Spanish civil war, heralding a renewed wave of repression of Spanish Basques, a culturally and linguistically different group in northern Spain and France.

Franco's ruthless suppression of his opponents was especially brutal in regions of Spain with some measure of autonomy like the Basque country and extended to language and culture as well as political beliefs.

Citizens caught speaking the Basque language faced public humiliation and fines, and incarcerated protesters reported torture, sexual abuse and even murders committed by the regime's police officers and paramilitary thugs.

Spain's transition from fascism to democracy after Franco's death in 1975 led to a sharp decline in human rights violations committed by the state and returned a degree of autonomy to Basques not seen since before the civil war.   Continued...