By David Tobenkin

U.S. universities have played a surprising role in facilitating efforts to address the Basque conflict.

It's a long way from Spain to Reno, Nevada, the self-dubbed Biggest Little City in the World. But in 2004, when bombs ripped through metro trains in Madrid, Spain, and killed 191 people just days before the Spanish general elections, the intellectual front line of understanding the event included the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR).

After the bombing, conservative Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar wasted no time in laying blame for the incident on ETA, the Basque independence group responsible for numerous fatal bombings tied to its quest for Basque independence from Spain. But to William Douglass, founder of the Center for Basque Studies at UNR, that rang false.

"The M.O. didn't fit and ETA had never done anything like that," says Douglass. "The head of Batasuna [ETA's affiliated political arm] held a conference denying they had done it. And would ETA, which is essentially Marxist-oriented group, target a commuter train full for workers? No one paid attention to that, but we did and we picked up on it. It was clear that a big number was being run on the world [by the then conservative Spanish government]."

Founded by Douglass 40 years ago, the institution is a rare English-language repository of Basque language, history, cultural, and political studies. For many in the English-speaking world, it has become the face of Basque Country, which Douglass says placed him and then Center Director Joseba Zulaika in a position to do something about Aznar's apparent misstatements.

"After the Madrid bombing, we were getting calls from all over the world from journalists, such as the BBC and the Australian networks," Douglass said. "I and Zulaika started talking to the international community, who were trying to get condemnation of ETA from us. We put the word out to everyone that it was unlikely that ETA was involved. I think that we crippled a part of the campaign on part of the [conservative] Partido Popular. They couldn't have been very happy with the way it was reported. We were taking on Madrid in Reno, though not in the spirit of defending Basque nationalism against Spanish nationalism. That's not what we do."

IE Sep/Oct 07 Web Extra Basque The bombing was soon proven to be the work of Islamist-inspired militants and Aznar and his party lost control of the Spanish legislature.

U.S. universities have served other important roles in attempting to solve the conflict.

One has been offering their institutions as forums for political discussions among the Basque and Spanish leaders. "The best thing a university can do is offer itself as a place where people can talk in reasonable fashion and come to solutions," says Robert Clark, professor of government emeritus at George Mason University and an author of three books on Basque nationalism. Clark says George Mason's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR) has twice led covert meetings of Basques from across the political spectrum in trying to reach a common position from which they could negotiate with Spanish authorities.

Christopher Mitchell, an ICAR professor emeritus who attended the meetings, said what was most surprising was that the different leaders were not aware of the positions of others in the group. He said that not much communicating had been going on, despite the tiny distances between their cities.

Other universities have led similar efforts, including The Center for International Conflict Resolution (CIRC) at Columbia University, which has assisted the Basque government and Basque peace groups for the past five years. "We were invited by a local NGO, Elkarri, and the Basque government to examine the situation critically and more creatively," says CIRC Director Andrea Bartoli.

As for whether and how the conferences and seminars they organized actually advance the peace process, Bartoli concedes that measurement is difficult: "It's hard to tell what's working and why. But I think that shifts in thinking do occur at these conversations and that's why it's important to have these events."

CICR is also serving an integral role in the Basque government's Konpondu initiative of involving local Basque institutions and individual Basques in peace efforts (see main story).

And what of Europe's peacemaking role? The creation of the European Union is generally cited as a positive influence in the Basque conflict. First, it created a forum for intra-European affiliation outside the nation state, allowing for possible creativity in political relationships. Too, its various directives have created a floor of conduct. No longer is wiping out your opponent an accepted means of dealing with nationalist conflicts.

However, the European Union and European institutions have generally been less involved in resolving the dispute than might be expected, says Gorka Espiau, an adviser to the Basque presidency with respect to the peace process, and a senior associate to the International Conflict Resolution Center at Columbia University.

Douglass says that, in part, that reflects the primacy of larger states like Spain in the EU, which has allowed Spain to use its clout to effectively block EU intervention in resolving the Basque conflict.

Thus, U.S. universities' distance from regional politics have helped convert them into a sanctuary from the conflict for Basque political players and source of independent thought about how to resolve it.

Return to the Sep/Oct issue of International Educator.