The Algiers process had two phases: police or pseudo police contacts, and political talk, organised with formal delegations, mediators, an agenda and advisors.
In July 1986, one of the leaders of ETA, Txomin Iturbe, was arrested in France, transferred to Gabon, and then deported to Algeria, a country led by the National Liberation Front (FLN), which had had a fraternal relation with ETA since its creation. While in Algeria, Txomin Iturbe received several Spanish police representatives and started advocating for opening a negotiation front. After his accidental death in February 1987, another deported ETA representative, Eugenio Etxebeste (‘Antton’), was moved from Ecuador to Algeria for the purpose of starting talks. Meanwhile, in Spain, PSOE promoted the idea of a “front for protecting democracy and peace”, which was crystallised in the Madrid Agreement in November 1987 (which authorised the Spanish government to talk technically, but not politically, with ETA), and the Ajuria Enea Agreement44 for the Normalisation and Pacification of Euskadi, in January 1988, signed by the Popular Alliance (AP, later known as PP), the Democratic and Social Centre (CDS), EAJ-PNV, EE, PSE and Basque Solidarity (EA, a splinter party from EAJ-PNV) in the Basque Autonomous Community, with the objective of promoting the isolation of the abertzale left.45
On 28th January 1988, ETA published a statement accepting a two-month ceasefire if simultaneously and immediately a conference for political talks was formed in Algeria. Although the government did not accept the proposal, contact was established again in November 1988. Eugenio Etxebeste stated in a Spanish newspaper that “we are willing to start negotiating even tomorrow. But we will not repent of anything or surrender, nor accept a weak negotiation. We are not asking the Government to surrender. Nobody is going to compel the other to go down on his knees”.46 The government met all the political parties in order to gather enough support to start talks with ETA.
In January 1989, ETA decreed a 15-day ceasefire, followed by a two-month ceasefire to enable talks to be held. It also gave a list of topics to be discussed in the following meetings, such as an evaluation of the political reform, the situation from 1975 to 1988, the political situation,and an end to arrests. From January to March, under the auspices of the Algerian government, representatives of ETA and the Spanish government as well as advisors of both parties held five meetings. The first three meetings were used for reviewing history. In the fourth encounter, they discussed specific subjects, such as the Europe of nations, constitutional reform, the role of the army and the right to self-determination. In the fifth meeting, which lasted 30 hours, the parties agreed to start a new phase through a three-month ‘bilateral goodwill stage’, and to publish mutual statements of commitments. It was agreed that ETA would announce the maintenance of the ceasefire, while the Spanish government would declare its willingness to “achieve a negotiated political solution, in the framework of democratic principles and political parties”. However, the government later replaced the content of the agreed text with “achieve an agreed and definitive solution.” This modification was not only formal, but also substantial: the government was attempting to empty the negotiation process of its political content. Relations were also worsened by other manoeuvres by the government, such as the promotion of a silent mass demonstration against ETA during the ceasefire. As it was impossible to advance further in the political negotiation, ETA could not specify the negotiation outline for other political agents to take part.47 It gave two ultimatums for the government to correct its statement but after it refused to do so, the armed struggle was resumed.
Once the process was broken, ETA decided to force the Spanish government to come back to the negotiation table through a temporary increase of its armed activity, based on the political needs and challenges of the state in the coming years (in 1992 the Olympic Games and the World Exposition were to be held in Spain). The arrests of some ETA leaders by French police forces48 showed the limits of this strategy and of the idea of the undefeatedness of the armed struggle. After the Spanish government put pressure on Algeria to expel the Basque representatives from the country, five ETA members were deported to the Dominican Republic, where they were placed under house arrest.49 During the following years, they received messages and visits from representatives of the Spanish government, but none of these were fruitful. Between 1995 and 1997, there were also some mediation efforts by the Argentinean association Justicia y Paz (Justice and Peace) and its representative, Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, as well as the Carter Foundation. When the PSOE lost power to the Popular Party, the five representatives were handed over to the Spanish authorities to be imprisoned in Spain, and these mediation attempts were discontinued.
44 This agreement was named after the residence of the Basque Autonomous Government President.
45 While talks started, all the fighting fronts were opened; in early October 1987, 210 people were arrested in a police operation (including 120 in French territories), and ETA attacked the Guardia Civil station in Zaragoza, killing 12 people. At the same time, the government started using a dispersion policy with Basque political prisoners, instead of the previous policy of detaining all suspected ETA members in the same prison. Since then, the dispersal policy has been promoted by all Spanish governments. The policy of dispersal implemented by the French and Spanish states, whereby Basque prisoners are kept in jails far away from their country and prevented from having contact with each other, represents an additional punishment for the prisoners and their families, who have to travel hundreds of kilometres every week to visit their loved ones for no longer than 40 minutes. Friends and relatives of the more than 735 prisoners kept in 88 jails (of which only 7 are in jails located in the Basque Country) travel an average of 630 kilometres every week. Sixteen relatives have died in car accidents during such travels. During this period of dispersal policy, the economic cost of visits to relatives represents approximately 19,650 Euros for each family (see www.etxerat.info/orokor.php?id_saila=14〈=es, the website of Basque prisoners’ relatives). This policy has been denounced by several international institutions. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, following his visit to Spain in October 2003, stated that “the assignation of Basque prisoners must take into account the maintenance of social relations between the prisoners and their families, in the best interest of the family and the social rehabilitation of the prisoner” (UN Doc. E/CN.4/2004/56/Add.2).
46 Diario No. 16, December 21, 1988
47 ETA had foreseen several phases of engagement. The first one included talks between ETA and the government. In a second phase, political parties (first the PSOE and HB, and then the remaining parties) and the international community (i.e. the UN) would be involved. Lastly, in a third phase, the citizens would have to ratify the agreements.
48 On March 29th 1992, some members of the ETA leadership were arrested in Bidart (North Basque Country).
49 The Algerian government tried hard to restart negotiations, without success. It indicated that both sides stopped talking according to their own interest, as both the Spanish government and ETA were blinded by their initial positions and had no intention of making concessions to solve the conflict; instead, they wanted to resume the meetings elsewhere, on different terms and principles. The mediating party therefore considered that its work had ended.