18 March 2004 Edition
Lies fail to save Spain's right-wing government
On Wednesday 10 March, pre-election polls in Spain indicated that the governing right-wing Popular Party would win a clear majority in last Sunday's Spanish general election, with a predicted 184 seats. By Sunday, however, the political climate had changed utterly as a result of a bombing atrocity that had left 200 people dead. Outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was left bemoaning the loss of the election, but it was his government's self-serving attempt to place the blame at the door of ETA, even in the face of growing evidence to the contrary, that led voters to shift allegiances.
On Thursday 11 March, a series of bombs on trains running between the suburb of Alcala and Madrid exploded, killing 200 people and wounding over 1,500. The scale of the atrocity was such that it is being described as Spain's 9/11.
In the aftermath, the Spanish government attempted to do everything in its power to minimise the electoral ramifications for themselves of the massacre. This meant blaming Basque separatist militants rather than al Qaeda, even as evidence mounted of al Qaeda responsibility and ETA denied any involvement.
The lies of Home Minister Acebes, and the Aznar administration's fear of telling the truth - that their decision to go to war against Iraq had led to Spain being targeted by Islamic militants - angered voters, who elected José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's Socialist Party against all odds. The PP's blame game also caused the death of two Basque activists and led to attacks against Basque prisoners in Spanish jails.
On Friday 12 March, around 11 million Spaniards gathered in cities, towns and villages to protest the horror of the deaths of 200 citizens after ten bombs went off in four trains traveling towards Madrid the previous morning. Similar numbers had taken to the streets on 15 February 2003 to oppose the war against Iraq. At the time, nearly 90% of the Spanish population rejected the idea of joining forces with the US, Britain and the coalition of the willing in their campaign against Iraq, however, Aznar's government ignored the wishes of those who had elected him to join his good friends Bush and Blair in their Iraq adventure.
Like Blair, Aznar fashioned himself as a god of spin. His colleagues in the government of Madrid sacked the head of the city's independent television station because it broadcast a documentary that included an interview with a spokesperson for Basque pro-independence movement Batasuna. This helped him to keep the media in his pocket. He trusted this control would help his chosen successor, Mariano Rajoy, retain the party's seats in the parliament.
Everything changed on 13 March, however. With the eyes of the International press community on them in the aftermath of the Madrid outrage, it was difficult to control information surrounding the events of Thursday morning.
Soon enough, the international press were commenting on how the right-wing Popular Party was persisting in discounting evidence that al Qaeda seemed to be responsible for the massacre. In its digital edition, German newspaper Spiegel On Line informed of how Spanish Foreign Affairs minister, Ana Palacio, had sent a letter to all Spanish ambassadors instructing them that when contacted by the media, they should insist that ETA was responsible for the outrage, even though all evidence pointed to al Queda. The article detailed how the Spanish government was determined to keep its people in the dark until they voted on Sunday 14 March.
Foreign press correspondants working in Spain on the evening of the explosions received a phone call from the Prime Minister's office to assure them that ETA had planted the bombs on the trains.
When some journalists questioned the government about what evidence they had to make such statement, the Prime Minister's spokesperson stated that the main proof was that no one had claimed responsibility for the attack; the explosive used was that usually used by ETA and that ETA never issued warnings in relation to its actions. Some of the journalists pointed out that they knew that ETA always issued warnings and that it was a little bit too early to have obtained a reliable analysis of the explosives used.
Most of the correspondants were surprised by the call. Many have spent nearly 20 years in Spain and had never got any information from the Prime Minister's office in La Moncloa Palace.
On Monday 15 March, the Association of Foreign Correspondants met in Madrid to officially complain about what they described as manipulation by the government.
The blatant lies and misinformation issued by the Spanish ministers brought to its knees a party that had mastered the fine art of spin and media control. On Saturday, just two days after the explosions in Madrid, spontaneous demonstrations took place outside the headquarters of the Popular Party in Madrid.
It quickly spread to other cities and Barcelona, Bilbao, Seville and many others staged further protests against the PP.
In Madrid, the main concentration took place outside the PP headquarters, where 5,000 citizens met at about 6pm, keeping the protest going until 6am, shouting slogans such as "Your war. Our dead" and "We want the truth before the elections".
In Barcelona, 7,000 people demonstrated; hundreds gathered in Coruña, Vigo, Uvieu, Seville, Bilbo, Xixón, Santiago de Compostela, Valencia, Alacant, Valladolid, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Cáceres, Palma de Mallorca, Zaragoza, Burgos and Donosti. The PP described the demonstrations as "undemocratic".
Even at this stage, after al Qaeda had claimed responsibility via a fax to a London newspaper and ETA had rejected any responsibility in the event, PP Home minister Acebes kept insisting ETA had planted the bombs.
The insistence of the PP minister on blaming ETA is easy to understand. The rejection and anger caused by the bombs in Spain would transform into further votes for the Popular Party in the elections if voters believed ETA was to blame. It would also reinforce the support of the population for the repressive policies of the right-wing government against Basque pro-independence activists.
However, if the outrage was linked to Islamic militants before the election, the PP feared a backlash from a population that had always opposed the war against Iraq and now had to pay the price for the decision of a government that had opted to ignore the people's will.
However, the PP's decision to blame ETA had further implications for the Basques. Basque citizens living outside the Basque Country felt intimidated and were afraid to leave their homes as they feared the anger the government's statements were inciting.
For Basque and anti-fascist political prisoners in Spanish jails, the situation was complicated. Many were attacked by prisoners incited to violence by prison officers. Askatasuna, the support organisation for Basque political prisoners, reported that in Alcala Meco high security prison, three female political prisoners - two Basque and one from anti-facist organisation GRAPO - had been beaten by some prisoners in full view of the screws. After the attack, the three prisoners were placed in isolation cells.
In the same jail, prisoners threw stones and pieces of furniture against the windows of Basque political prisoners. In Burgos, Basque political prisoners had their status upgraded to the highest level, imposing many restrictions on their rights. In Villena, Edier Pérez was attacked in full view of the screws and another Basque prisoner suffered a panic attack and had to be taken to the prison infirmary.
In Ocaña 1 and Aranjuez, the political prisoners have been placed in isolation and cannot receive visits.
But it was the killing of shop-owner Angel Berrueta by a Spanish policeman in Iruñea that brought home the full implications of the government campaign against the Basque pro-independence left.
Angel, a baker and a supporter of Batasuna, was shot and stabbed by a policeman and his son after he refused to place a poster reading ETA No in his shop window, as the policeman's wife had requested. She went home and minutes later, her husband shot Angel three times while the son stabbed him with a machete.
To make things worst, when people tried to protest against the killing, the Spanish police baton-charged mourners.
In a separate incident, Conchi Sanchiz was taking part in protest against Angel's killing when the Basque police charged the demonstrators. As a consequence, she suffered a heart attack and died soon after.
These two deaths are also a consequence of the policies of the Popular Party, that opted - in Iraq and the Basque Country - for confrontation instead of dialogue.
The question is whether the Socialist Party, back in power after their defeat in 1996, will choose the policies of negotiation or those of the dirty war of the past.