Many billions of Euros are being extracted from Europe’s vassal-debtor nations – Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland – and transferred to the creditor banks, financial speculators and swindlers located in the City of London, Wall Street, Geneva and Frankfort. Under what have been termed ‘austerity’ programs, vast tributary payments are amassed by ruling Conservative and Social Democratic regimes via unprecedented and savage budget cuts in salaries, public investment, social programs and employment. The result has been catastrophic growth in unemployment, under-employment and casual labor reaching over 50% among workers under age 25, and between 15% and 32% of the total labor force. Wages, salaries and pensions have been slashed between 25% and 40%. The age of retirement has been postponed by 3 to 5 years. Labor contracts (dubbed ‘reforms’) concentrate power exclusively in the hands of the bosses and labor contractors who now impose work conditions reminiscent of the early 19th century.
o learn first-hand about the capitalist crisis and the workers’ responses, I spent the better part of May in Ireland and the Basque country meeting with labor leaders, rank and file militants, unemployed workers, political activists, academics and journalists. Numerous interviews, observations, publications, visits to job sites and households – in cities and villages – provide the basis for this essay.
Ireland and the Basque Country: Common Crises and Divergence Responses
The Irish and Spanish states, societies and economies (which presently includes the Basque country, pending a referendum) – have been victims of a prolonged, deep capitalist depression devastating the living standards of millions. Unemployment and underemployment in Ireland reach 35% and in the Basque country exceeds 40%, with youth unemployment reaching 50%. Both economies have contracted over 20% and show no signs of recovery. The governing parties have slashed public spending from 15% to 30% in a range of social services. By bailing out banks, paying overseas creditors and complying with the dictates of the autocratic ‘troika’ (International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission), the capitalist ruling class in Ireland and the Basque region have undermined any possible investments for recovery. The so-called ‘austerity’ program is imposed only on the workers, employees and small businesspeople, never on the elite. The Brussels-based ‘troika’ and its local collaborators have lowered or eliminated corporate taxes and provided subsidies and other monetary incentives to attract multi-national corporations and foreign finance capital.
The incumbent bourgeois political parties, in power at the beginning of the crash, have been replaced by new regimes that are signing additional agreements with the ‘troika’ and bankers. These agreements impose even deeper and more savage cuts in public employment and a further weakening of workers’ rights and protection. The employers now have arbitrary power to hire and fire workers at a moment’s notice, without severance pay, or worse. Some contracts in Ireland allow employers to demand partial repayment of wages if workers are forced to leave their jobs before the end of their contract because of employer abuse. The Spanish economy – including in the Basque country – is subject to a modern form of ‘tributary payments’ dictated by the ruling imperial oligarchy in Brussels. This oligarchy is not elected and does not represent the people it taxes and exploits. It is accountable only to the international bankers. In other words, the European Union has become a de facto empire – ruled by and for the bankers based in the City of London, Geneva, Frankfort and Wall Street. Ireland and the Basque country are ruled by collaborator vassal regimes which implement the economic pillage of the electorate and enforce the dictates of the EU oligarchy – including the criminalization of mass political protests.
The similarity in socio-economic conditions between Ireland and the Basque country in the face of crisis, austerity and imperial domination, however, contrasts with the sharply divergent responses among the workers in the two regions due to profoundly different political, social and economic structures, histories and practices.
Facing the Crisis: Basque Fight, Irish Flight
In the face of the long-term, large-scale crisis, Ireland has become the ‘model’ vassal state for the creditor imperial states. The leading Irish trade union federation and the dominant political parties – including the Labor Party currently in coalition with the ruling Fine Gael Party – have signed off on a series of agreements with the Brussels oligarchs to slash public employment and spending. In contrast, the militant pro-independence Basque Workers Commission, or LAB, has led seven successful general strikes with over 60% worker participation in the Basque country – including the latest on May 30, 2013.
The class collaborationist policies of the Irish trade unions have led to a sharp generational break – with older workers signing deals with the bosses to ‘preserve’ their jobs at the expense of job security for younger workers. Left without any organized means for mass struggle, young Irish workers have been leaving the country on a scale not seen since the Great Famine of the mid-19th century. Over 300,000 have emigrated in the past 4 years, with another 75,000 expected to leave in 2013, out of a working population of 2.16 million. In the face of this 21st century catastrophe, the bitterness and ‘generational break’ of the emigrating workers is expressed in the very low level of remittances sent back ‘home’. One reason the Irish unemployment rate remains at 14% instead of 20-25% is because of the astounding overseas flight of young workers.
In contrast, there is no such mass emigration of young workers from the Basque country. Instead of flight, the class fight has intensified. The struggle for national liberation has gained support among the middle class and small business owners faced with the complete failure of the right-wing regime in Madrid (ruled by the self-styled ‘Popular Party’) to stem the downward spiral. The fusion of class and national struggle in the Basque country has militated against any sell-out agreements signed by the ‘moderate’ trade unions, Workers Commissions (CCOO) and the General Union of Workers (UGT). LAB, the militant Basque Workers Commission, has vastly more influence than their number of formally affiliated unionized workers would suggest. LAB’s capacity to mobilize is rooted in their influence among factory delegates, who are elected in all workplaces, far exceeding all trade union membership. Through the delegates meeting in assemblies, workers discuss and vote on the general strike – frequently bypassing orders from central headquarters in Madrid. Direct democracy and grass roots militancy frees the militant Basque workers from the centralized bureaucratic trade union structure which, in Ireland, has imposed retrograde ‘give backs’ to the multi-national corporations.
In the Basque country, there is a powerful tradition of co-operatives, especially the Mondragon industrial complex, which has created worker solidarity in the urban-rural communities absent among Irish workers. The leading Irish politicians and economic advisers have groveled before the multi-national corporations, offering them the lowest tax rates, biggest and longest-term tax exemptions, and the most submissive labor regulations of any country in the European Union.
In the Basque country, the nationalist-socialist EH Bildu-Sortu political party, the daily newspaper Gara, and the LAB provide mutual political and ideological support during strikes, electoral contests and mass mobilizations based on class struggle. Together, they confront the ‘austerity’ programs as a united force.
In Ireland, the Labor Party – supposedly linked to the trade unions – has joined the current governing coalition. They have agreed to a new wave of cuts in social spending, layoffs of public employees, and wage and salary reductions of 20%. The trade union leadership may be divided on these draconian cuts, yet most still support the Labor Party. The more militant retail workers’ union rejects the cuts, but has no political alternative. Apart from support from the republican-nationalist Sein Fein and smaller leftist parties, the political class offers no clear progressive political program or strategy. [The Sein Fein has made the ‘transition’ from armed to electoral struggle.] According to the latest (May 2013) polls, it has doubled its voter approval rating from under 10% to 20% due to the crisis. However, Sein Fein is internally divided: the ‘left’ pro-socialist wing looks to intensify the ‘anti-austerity’ struggle while the ‘republican’ parliamentary leaders focus on unification and downplay class struggle. As a result of its collaboration with the ‘troika’ and the new regressive tax laws, the Labor Party is losing support and the traditional right-wing party, Fianne Fail, which presided over the massive swindles, speculative boom and corporate giveaways, is making an electoral comeback – and may even return to power. This helps to explain why Irish workers have lost hope in any positive political change and are fleeing in droves from the perpetual job insecurity imposed by their elite: ‘Better a plane ticket to Australia than a lifetime of debt peonage, regressive bankruptcy laws and boss-dictated contracts approved by trade union chiefs who draw six digit salaries’.
The Basque country’s revolt against centralized rule from Madrid is partly based on the fact that it is one of Spain’s most productive, technologically advanced and socially progressive regions. Basque unemployment is less then that of the rest of Spain. Higher levels of education, a comprehensive regional health system, especially in rural areas and a widespread network of local elected assembles, combined with the unique linguistic and cultural heritages, has advanced the Basque Nation toward greater political autonomy. For many this marks the Basques as a political ‘vanguard’ in the struggle to break with the neo-liberal dictates of the EU and the decrepit regime in Madrid.
Conclusion: Political Perspectives
If current austerity policies and emigration trends continue, Ireland will become a ‘hollowed out country’ of historical monuments, tourist-filled bars and ancient churches, devoid of its most ambitious, best trained and innovative workers: a de-industrialized tax-haven, the Cayman Island of the North Atlantic. No country of its size and dimensions can remain a viable state faced with the current and continuing levels of out-migration of its young workers. Ireland will be remembered for its postcards and tax holidays. Yet there is hope as the left republicans of the Sein Fein, socialists, communists and anti-imperialist activists, join the unemployed and underpaid workers in forming new grassroots networks. At some point the revolving doors of Irish politicos in and out of office may finally come to a halt. Unemployed and educated angry young people may decide to stay home, stand their ground and turn their energies toward a popular rebellion. One consequential socialist leader summed it up: “Deep pessimism and the influence of bankrupt social democracy and imperialist ideology within the labor movement are very strong. As you know we can’t start a journey other than from where we are”. The determination and conviction of Irish trade union militants is indeed a reason to hope and believe that current flight will turn into a future fight.
In the case of the Basque country, the rising class and national mass struggle, linked to the legacy of powerful co-operatives and solidarity based worker assemblies, provides hope that the current reactionary regime in Madrid can be defeated. The ruling neo-fascist junta (the ruling party still honors the Franco dictatorship and military) is increasingly discredited and has to resort to greater repression. With regard to the militant Basque movements, the regime has taken violent provocative measures: criminalizing legal mass protests, arresting independence fighters on trumped up charges and forcefully banning the public display of the photos of political prisoners (called ‘terrorists’ by Madrid). It is clear the government is increasingly worried by the strength of the general strikes, the rising electoral power of the pro-independence left and has been trying to provoke a ‘violent response’ as a pretext to ban the press, party and program of the EH Bildu-Sortu and LAB.
My sense is that Madrid will not succeed. Spain as a centralized state is disintegrating: the neo-liberal policies have destroyed the economic links, shattered the social bond and opened the door for the advance of mass social movements. The bi-party system is crumbling and the class-collaborationist policies of the traditional trade union confederations are being challenged by a new generation of autonomous movements.
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Nahikari Otaegi, a young Basque mother of two children, is getting ready to go to jail. She will be bringing her seven month-old daughter Oihana with her but will have to leave her three year-old son
She has been sentenced to six years of prison for alleged membership of SEGI – the banned Basque pro-independence left youth organisation. According to the Spanish state, to be a member of SEGI is to be helping ETA, the armed Basque resistance group; however no “terrorist” action was proved against either Nahikari or her seven male co-sentenced, no possession of arms, no plans, maps – nothing like that. The evidence against them consisted of T-shirts, CDs and posters which indicated that they are pro-Basque independence and for socialism, in accordance with which they have been doing open political work for years. But according to the Spanish state, as in the infamous words of a previous harrier of pro-independence Basques, the ‘liberal’ judge Garzón: “everything is ETA”.
Nahikari, partner and two children
ETA, on the other hand, has been in ceasefire for over two years now and seeking a resolution process but the response of the French and Spanish states, especially that of the latter, is to keep up the repression. Many more Basques, young and older – 200 according to one estimate – are awaiting trial. Some are on the run too and the Spanish state hunts them down when it can: currently there are Basques awaiting or under threat of extradition in Belfast, London, Rome, Brazil …. One of those who is in exile, in the northern Basque Country (i.e. under French rule), is Nahikari’s partner Aitor Mokoroa. And therein lies an intensification of the tragedy facing this family – he won’t be able to visit her in prison, for that would mean his arrest, his incarceration too – and the three year-old would have to be cared for by grandparents, cut off from both mother and father.
Nahikari was arrested in Donosti/ San Sebastian in December 2007 in an early morning police operation which dragged in another 27 youths. Many of them afterwards alleged that they had been tortured and forced to sign statements during the five days’ incommunicado detention permitted by Spain’s anti-terror laws. Many of the young women also alleged a sexual component to the torture, such as having their breasts and nipples, buttocks and vagina fondled while they were hooded and being threatened with rape. Some of the male youths alleged that they were threatened with having sisters or partners arrested and raped. Among the more physical torture methods were having to maintain stress positions for hours and part-suffocation with a plastic bag. Their parents and siblings mounted a campaign of protest to government and church figures without receiving any satisfaction.
Those who are inclined to disbelieve those claims should read the annual reports of Amnesty International as well as the reports of a number of other human rights agencies, including relevant committees of the UN and of EU.
Subsequently ten were released but eighteen were convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. They served eighteen months in jail, Nahikari doing hers in Soto del Real prison in Madrid and in Brieva jail, in Avila, after which they were released while they appealed their conviction. In 2011 the Spanish Supreme Court ordered the National Court which had convicted to them to review their judgements, which they did a month later: “Apart from a including a few phrases of our lawyers, the judgement and sentences were exactly the same as before, even to including identical grammatical errors,” stated Nahikari. They appealed again and a few weeks ago the sentences on seven were overturned but confirmed on eight, including Nahikari.
Nahikari admits that when she heard the result, she felt crushed and only wanted to stay at home with her children and partner. But as time went on she felt she had to speak out, to affirm her existence and her humanity in the face of the attempts of the state to eradicate both.
A campaign organised by Basque youth quickly grew in Donosti, with press conferences, demonstrations, posters, pickets and videos, photos and text updates on the internet, using email, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. The Basque Government police, the Ertzaintza, body-armoured and masked, raided the encampment and arrested youth, including one of the seven youths whose appeal had been successful. More Basque youth gathered and six of the eight sentenced youth took up residence in an area of the Basque city, surrounded by hundreds of supporters, who took part in a rota to maintain a “human wall” around the sentenced youth.
The Ertzaintza made three attacks on the “human wall” during early hours of mornings. The first two were unsuccessful but in the third, which lasted over three hours, they dragged away sufficient people to clear a path through to six of the youth, which they arrested, along with a couple of others. Nahikari spoke emotionally of the effect of watching that police operation on video and also the solidarity protest demonstration that followed.
In an interview with Ainara Lertxundi, a reporter for the pro-Basque independence left bilingual daily newspaper GARA, Nahikari explained why they had gone ahead and had children, despite the constant threat of Spanish jail. “We wanted to have children while we were still young. They have robbed us of a major part of our youth between arrests, court cases, appeals and jail. Aitor and I decided to go on with our lives and not to allow the state or Spanish judges to control our lives to any greater degree but recognising that it was going to be very difficult. And it is. But why should I put my life on hold while I await their decision?”
As Nahikari went on to point out, she is not the only one in this situation. According to Aske Gunea (“Free Space”) which ran a high-profile practical solidarity and publicity campaign for the eight sentenced youth, there are another 200 Basques awaiting trial or sentencing or results of appeals. There are already 600 men and women who belong to the Basque political prisoners’ collective serving time in French and Spanish jails – out of a total population of less than three million in the whole Basque Country.
Solidarity with the prisoners is very strong in the Basque Country. Each Friday sees the gathering of solidarity pickets of Etxerat, the relatives and friends’ collective in every town or city district. Several times a year, there are huge demonstrations; last January’s, in Bilbao, organised by Etxerat and Herrira, a campaigning organisation, sponsored by the Basque trade unions and many Basque local, cultural and sports associations, jammed the streets with an estimated 115,000 people. “After everything we have to go through, that solidarity is like oxygen”, says Nahikari gratefully. These days her phone doesn’t stop ringing as well-wishers call.
The Spanish and French states have a deliberate policy of dispersing their prisoners across their territory’s jails, laying a heavy burden on the prisoners’ relatives, who have to travel hundreds or thousands of kilometers to the prison and back again. Often they have to book overnight accommodation near the jail, adding to their expenses. Some can’t make the long journeys, being too young or too elderly or too ill. Thousands make the journey but put their lives in danger on the way – visitors have been in two serious traffic accidents already this year.
As Nahikari will be going to one of the Spanish prisons which contain women with children, she has a choice: Valencia or Aranjuez. The first is 570 km away from the Donosti/ San Sebastian in the Basque Country (although a little further from where Ekaitz lives with his father), a journey of about five-and-a-half hours), whilst the second is 495 km away in Madrid, a journey of nearly five hours. And of course the same distance and hours back again.
Aitor and his partner and daugher will not see one another for four-and-a-half years. Ekaitz will be able to see his mother and sister every month or so, for an hour-and-a-half or two, depending on the jail, in the face-to-face family (or “open”) visits. “We discounted the weekly ones with a glass partition (between visitor and prisoner),” she explains, “because it would be very traumatic for Ekaitz to see me through glass but not to be able to touch me …. and for me too.” Once ever three months, prisoners are permitted an open family visit of four hours.
Nahikari is considering what to bring with her. She has investigated the regulations and also talked to a Basque female former prisoner. The mothers are not permitted to bring their own pushchair or even children’s toys but she has been advised to try it as sometimes particular favourite objects of the child have been permitted. “The bottles and soothers (‘dummies’) are allowed but the thermos and bottle heater have to be applied for for security reasons … but I don’t expect to have any problems with all that.”
The reporter writes that Nahikari’s voice sounds strong as she says that … but that she wrings her hands and seems to look away into the distance through the walls of the room ….
Nahikari and daughter — both are going to prison
The GARA article and interview by Ainara Lertxundi: http://gara.naiz.info/paperezkoa/20130424/399307/es/Est…vidas