The Regional Question

The Basques and Catalans

This tenth article in my series on Spain's Transition to Democracy covers the Regional Question, in particular with regard to the historic Basque and Catalan nationalities

As the demands for self-government in Catalonia and the Basque Country were becoming increasingly impatient, Adolfo Suárez and his first democratically-elected government introduced a series of temporary measures that should have been dealt with after the drawing up of the Constitution.

However, as we shall see in future articles these stop-gap solutions left a series of problems that were left unresolved and still cause divisions in Spain today.


In Catalonia, the Consell de Forces Polítiques de Catalunya had been calling for self-government since its constitution in December 1975, and after the first democratic elections of June 1977 all but one of the the members of the Catalan parliamentarians were in favour of the re-establishment of the Statute of Autonomy passed under the Second Republic in 1932. Furthermore, unlike in the rest of Spain, Catalonia had shown decidedly left-wing tendencies in the elections with the Catalan socialists, PSC, and communists, PSUC, winning 28.56% and 18.31% of the vote respectively whilst Jordi Pujol's Convergència Democràtica came in fourth behind Adolfo Suárez's UCD with 16.88%.

In order to placate both the left and the Catalan nationalists, Suárez decided to contact the President of the Generalitat in exile, Josep Tarradellas, with whom he met on June 27th 1977. Apparently the meeting went badly but after difficult negotiations, hastened by the demonstration of strength on the Catalan National Day on September 11th, when a million people came out onto the streets of Barcelona demanding "Liberty, Amnesty and a Statute of Autonomy", a decree-law of September 29th restored the provisional Generalitat.

The law made no reference to the 1932 Statute and gave no extra competences to the Generalitat beyond those of the existing provincial diputations. Consequently,  the agreement between Suárez and Tarradellas came in for a lot of criticism in Catalonia because it left the question of re-establishing the Statute until after the Constitution had been approved.

However, Tarradellas returned to Barcelona on October 23rd 1977 and pronounced his famous "Ja sóc aquí" (I'm here at last!) phrase, which still retains its symbolic power. The restored Generalitat government was appointed by Tarradellas on December 5th 1977, significantly before negotiations began for the drafting of the new Spanish Constitution.

The Basque Country

In the case of the Basque Country, Suárez tried to reach a similar agreement with the lehendekari in exile, Jesús María Leizaola, but was rejected. The UCD government had to negotiate with the Asamblea de Parlamentarios Vasco, which was made up of 12 deputies from state-wide parties, including 8 from PNV and 1 from Euskadiko Ezkerra.

An initial obstacle came when the Navarran UCD deputies, who had a majority in Navarre, refused to join the Asamblea de Parlamentarios Vascos, unlike the PSOE and PNV deputies for Navarre. Finally, in December 1977, the Consejo General Vasco was constituted, excluding Navarre, under the presidency of socialist Ramón Rubial, although as in the case of Catalonia, the republican Statute of Auonomy wasn't re-established either.

Autonomy for Everyone

The concession of a pre-autonomous regime in both Catalonia and the Basque Country stimulated "autonomist" movements in regions without historic tradition, which were the majority, and the government began pre-autonomous processes in all the regions that requested them. This was to result in the famous café para todos or coffee for everybody compromise, which ended up diluting the claims of the historic nationalities. There were particular tensions surrounding those communities made up of a single province such as Cantabria, La Rioja or the Región de Murcia.

The awakening of the autonomist identity in regions where it had never previously existed was the work of the political class that ended up being transmitted to the rest of society. It was also a pragmatic way of attending the autonomic demands of all the regions but left a series of problems until after the drafting of the Constitution. This would end up diminishing the success of the government in its treatment of the historic nationalisms, and leave a series of issues, particularly in Catalonia that are still unresolved today.

What was at stake, although it was never mentioned, was whether the final constitution of the Spanish state would obey federal logic or whether the Catalan and Basque autonomies, and possibly the Galician, would receive a special treatment. Finally, without it ever being named explicitly, a watered down version of federalism was imposed.

ETA, GRAPO and the Extreme Right

In spite of the Law of Amnesty having allowed the release all the Basque prisoners, ETA not only didn't abandon its armed fight but rather increased the number of terrorist attacks. On the same day as the Cortes passed the laws, ETA assinated three people and committed a further 71 terrorist attacks over the following year, which resulted in 85 dead. This meant the expectation that the return of democracy and the amnesty was achieved would lead to a decrease and final disappearance of terrorism wasn't fulfilled.

The actions of ETA were accepted to a certain extent by PNV and by large sections of the Basque church, which treated ETA members killed in confrontations with the police or by their own explosions like heroes and martyrs to a sacred cause. Moreover, the repressive actions of police and the civil guard contributed to creating a broad social support around ETA, particularly from young people.

A large part of Basque society considered ETA as "heroic anti-Francoist fighters". According to surveys at the end of the 1970s, between 13% and 16% of Basque society thought ETA members were patriots and between 29% and 35% idealists.

Recourse to violence to achieve their aims was also used by other nationalist groups, although it didn't reach the level of professionalism,efficiency and social support that ETA achieved. This was the case of the Movimiento por la Autodeterminación e Independencia del Archipiélago Canario, the pro-independence Catalan group Terra Lliure and later the Exército Guerrilheiro do Povo Galego Ceive, which didn't last long.

The far left revolutionary group, GRAPO continued to carry out attacks, although it never had more than two or three active operational groups, and the violent actions of the extreme right, committed by the Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey and the Alianza Apostólica Anticomunista, continued and counted on complicity from various reactionary groups inside the police.

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