Shattered Spain's scars won't heal
TODAY will see royalty, politicians and citizens alike bow their heads in commemoration of the 191 killed and hundreds injured in the al-Qaeda- inspired attack on Madrid.
But three years after the deadly bombings of March 11, 2004, Spain has become a deeply divided country, split into two in a way not seen since General Franco died and the country made a transition to democracy more than three decades ago.
The brief act of remembrance comes after two days of marches which have seen tens of thousands of Spaniards around the country take to the streets in protest against the Socialist government of Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero.
The focus of the marches was Zapatero's decision last week to free ETA hunger striker Jos Ignacio de Juana Chaos, convicted in 1987 for his part in 25 deaths.
At the time of his release, to complete the remaining year of his sentence under house arrest in the Basque Country, de Juana was said to have been days from death after more than 100 days of refusing food. He has since started eating and receiving visitors.
The opposition's leader in the Spanish senate last week accused Zapatero of "giving in to terrorist blackmail". "And now you're afraid of the reaction of Spanish society, which you have humiliated, Mr Zapatero," Garcia Escudero said.
The links between ETA and the bombings of March 11, or 11-M as they are known in Spain, have been present since the first explosion.
The keenness of the then president Jos Mara Aznar to blame the Basque terrorists, despite a growing body of evidence suggesting an al-Qaeda-inspired group from within Spain, was seen by many as the key reason voters turned against his conservative PP government and gave a surprise victory to Zapatero's PSOE party in the general election on March 14.
Within days, the new government made good its election promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. But while Zapatero's move proved popular among voters strongly against their country's intervention in a war seen to have little to do with Spain, his election also brought a raft of measures that have polarised society.
Within months of winning power, the PSOE had incurred the wrath of one of the major forces of Spanish society - the Catholic Church. Among the first acts of legislation were bills liberalising divorce and blocking mandatory religious instruction in schools. Zapatero also called for the easing of restrictions on abortion and announced plans to cut the state funding the Church had enjoyed since the end of the civil war.
Matters spilled out of the pulpit and onto the streets the following year, when legislation was passed legalising same-sex marriages and giving gay couples the right to adopt.
Among the thousands of Spaniards protesting against the legislation were 19 bishops - the first time in Spain's democratic history that the country's churchmen had marched against government policy.
Even the death of John Paul II became a focal point, with left-wing groups criticising TVE, the state TV channel, for its 24-hour uninterrupted screening of events and programmes related to the pontiff, while the PP praised it.
But it is not only the attacks on the Church's role in modern Spain that have reopened old rifts. A major building block in the transition was the "pact of forgetting" - collective amnesia on the part of Spaniards towards the country's recent past and the atrocities that took place during the Civil War and afterwards.
While Franco had actively encouraged such memories, building monuments to the Nationalists who had fallen "in service of their country" while letting mass graves of Republican dead go unnoticed, it was decided that the new Spain should start with a clean slate.
However, since the start of his presidency, Zapatero, whose grandfather was shot in 1936 for refusing to join the rebels, has been keen to rewrite the doctored past and give the Republican dead their place in history in new legislation.
In 2005, the year that marked the 30th anniversary of Franco's death, the last statue of the dictator in the capital was removed. However, plans to move it in secret went wrong and soon a group of fascists and anti-fascists had gathered to watch the event, jeering and cheering respectively.
But it has been the Socialist government's actions towards the autonomous regions that have caused most outrage - and led to this weekend's protests.
Under Franco, Basque and Catalan independence groups were firmly suppressed. Following the transition, they have steadily increased their calls for independence, culminating in last year's vote to increase Cataluan autonomy which gave the region greater powers of self-government and more control over its finances.
The moves have caused unrest among the rest of the country. Proud Madrileos complain they feel like foreigners in their own land when visiting the regions, where street signs and announcements are printed in Catalan or Basque first and the language is given priority over Castilian.
However, it is the peace process in the Basque Country that has perhaps been hit hardest by changes brought about by the 11-M attacks. Ever since ETA took up arms in 1968 in its fight for Basque independence, successive governments have refused dialogue until the terrorists laid down their arms. With last year's ceasefire, the Socialists announced that talks could begin and hopes were raised of an end to the decades-long violence in which more than 800 people have been killed.
In the months that followed, the Association of Victims of Terrorism, the largest of several such groups in Spain and the one which counts former president Aznar as a member, organised several protest marches against the decision.
The situation changed last December with the death of two immigrants in an ETA bombing at Madrid's new Terminal 4 at Barajas Airport. Zapatero's first response was to say talks had been "suspended", an announcement that angered right-wing and victims' groups.
Being held at such a significant time, this weekend's marches, which led to violence in some cities, reinforce the PP's argument that 11-M was linked to ETA, a claim believed by one in three Spaniards, and that the government is prepared to go to any lengths to appease terrorists - from pulling out of Iraq to freeing prisoners.
Division over the events since 11-M are now so deep that the four main groups helping victims of the atrocity are polarised along political lines, while two of Spain's major newspapers, El Mundo and El Pais, supporters of the PP and PSOE respectively, regularly use their pages to attack each other. Meanwhile, the name-calling of street protests has reached parliament, with any attempt at serious debate being abandoned in favour of slurs and playground attacks on policies.
The bombings of 11-M were over in seconds. But three years on, Spain is still suffering the aftermath - and the pain looks set to continue.
Decades of death and bloodshed
Euskadi Ta Askatasuma, or Basque Homeland and Freedom, was first established in the late 1950s to fight for the independence of the Basque country in the far north of Spain and south-west corner of France.
It was founded in the wake of General Franco's moves to ban the Basque language and clamp down on the culture of the area. In 1973 it assassinated Franco's right-hand man, Luis Carrero Blanco.
The group's bloodshed hit its peak in the 70s and 80s with scores of car bombs and gun attacks against judges, politicians and police.
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