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.
The region recovered its own police force and some of the tax independence it historically enjoyed, and savvy politicians have continued to squeeze more powers from minority governments in Madrid.
While Basque resistance to the Franco regime won supporters across Spain and abroad, that support waned after ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom) militants rejected offers of amnesty after 1975 and stepped up separatist violence instead.
The more than 800 people who died in the heightened violence included women and children in the wrong place at the wrong time or bystanders in undercover state-sponsored attacks on ETA suspects.
Hope for an end to the conflict is stronger than ever since ETA’s political wing Batasuna rejected violence and cajoled the group into a partial ceasefire in September 2010.
Although Batasuna was banned after a change in the law, a court ruled that candidates linked to it could run in nationwide polls in May, prompting the formation of a new coalition, Bildu (Gather, in Basque), which ran on a non-violence ticket.
Bildu brought together a left-wing movement fragmented by their views on ETA’s violence but committed in their struggle for an independent Basque homeland, and now the coalition has control of one of the Basque country’s three provinces and town councils across the region and in neighboring Navarre.
Bildu has upset Spanish politicians by taking down Spanish flags and banning bodyguards from town halls on the grounds the ceasefire has removed the need for them, but the largest point of disagreement with Madrid is Bildu’s refusal to ask ETA to disarm and disband.
Basque society, too, remains split over whether Bildu’s victories in recent local elections are a good or a bad thing given the coalition’s links to ETA apologists.
“They have dragged themselves out of the violent waters, but they haven’t put the ‘no swimming’ sign next to them yet,” said Txema Montero, a former leader of ETA’s political wing who was expelled after calling for ETA’s disarmament as early as 1992.
In the picturesque coastal city of San Sebastian, where Bildu controls the local council and support for Basque nationalism is strongest, native Basques and assimilated residents from elsewhere in Spain chat about politics without fear while their children play in the city’s elegant parks and gardens.
“There has been a change since the ceasefire, people are much more relaxed, on the street, in conversation, many cuadrillas (tight-knit Basque family groupings) are speaking to each other again,” said Celestino, a 60-year-old retired fisherman and Bildu supporter.
The atmosphere is different down the road in the region’s industrial powerhouse and largest city Bilbao, whose large and diverse working class has come from all over Spain to feed its expansion.
While many embrace the idea of some form of a separatist Basque country, others are stalwart Spanish constitutionalists.
Given that supporters and opponents don’t fit any ethnic or religious profile and it’s hard to identify which side a person is on, citizens are cautious and check press credentials before talking about anything as incendiary as politics to reporters.
“Up to the elections I was noting a change, now I don’t know. We can’t expect anything good from Bildu. We should never forget the victims, and these people helped to kill them,” said Paco, from the neighboring Spanish region of Castille, speaking in hushed tones.
According to a June survey by the University of the Basque Country, just over one in three Basques feels free to talk about their political beliefs in public, a figure which hasn’t changed in the past six months.
What has changed is that Basque nationalists feel freer to talk openly about the political views, at 43 percent now, up from 38 percent six months earlier and compared to just 29 percent of people who see themselves as Spanish first.
Locals and political leaders say that shows that the rejection of ETA’s violence by Batasuna kingpins like leader Arnaldo Otegi has allowed many separatists to turn their back on violence and speak out without being accused of “going soft.”
Txema Montero recalls meetings of the Herri Batasuna party, Batasuna’s predecessor, where the ever-present but unofficial ETA spokesman would pour scorn on any non-violent rhetoric and set the hard-line tone for the rest of the assembly.
“It looks like the ETA representative isn’t at those meetings any more. I hope that’s true,” Montero said.
But the conversation between the half of the Basque population who see Spain as their country and the half who don’t is still stilted.
More ominously, the wounds of the past 40 years are nowhere close to being healed.
Spain has still not addressed accusations of state torture, intimidation and mistreatment of prisoners, while those who were threatened or lost loved ones at the hands of ETA still have no guarantee that they will not become targets again or that justice will be done.
At summer festivals across Basque towns and cities, walls and bars are often plastered with posters paying homage to ETA prisoners and calling for their release.
Indeed, Batasuna has faced a bitter backlash from politicized and well-organized victims’ associations, for whom justice and punishment must come before any peace process.
“The victims don’t need to reconcile ourselves with anyone. What we need is memory, truth and justice,” said Cristina Cuesta, deputy chairwoman of Spain’s Foundation for Terrorist Victims, who lost her father to ETA in 1982.
“Bildu has not denounced ETA’s terrorist past, so it is pure hypocrisy for them to talk about reconciliation.”
The peace process also faces challenges ahead from Spain’s right-wing People’s Party, which is expected to win general elections in November though the margins are narrowing.
The chances the party will allow Batasuna politicians to participate in politics are close to zero since in the eyes of its leading members they are still ETA.
“A lot of hate has been generated in the Basque country. You don’t get rid of that in a day ... or even a lifetime,” said Julen, before bidding farewell and disappearing into the rainy Bilbao night.
Additional reporting by Arantza Goyoaga, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall