A Basque in Boise

In Defense of Pete Cenarrusa: In Memorian (1917-2013)

A few days ago we learned, sadly, about the passing of Pete Cenarrusa, one of Idaho’s most influential Basque-Americans. Shortly after, Spanish national newspaper ABC published an article by former Spanish ambassador to the United States, Javier Ruperez, where he pretty much equates being independent to being a terrorist, such a tired argument anymore.

We don’t know Ruperez. But he also doesn’t know Basques, and he certainly didn’t know Pete. And we think it’s a very small person who sticks a knife into the back of a man who has just died. Some of us have the honor of havind met this great Basque-America at some point in our lives; and some of us don’t. However, we all wanted to reflect on Pete’s significant contribution to the preservation of Basque identity inside and outside the Basque Country (see the personal reflections of About the Basque Country and Bieter Blog). The eight blogs that sign this post (A Basque in Boise, About Basque CountryBasque Identity 2.0Bieter Blog, 8 Probintziak, Nafar Herria, EuskoSare, and Blog do Tsavkko – The Angry Brazilian) could not stand still regarding Ruperez public defamation of Pete Cenarrusa. We encourage you to freely share this post and make it yours in your own blog, website or social network.

UPDATE: Dan Popkey has written an article published today, October 10, 2013 in the Idaho Statesman regarding our blogs initiative where he also includes some comments from Geddes setting the record straight: Cenarrusa still stirs pot in Spain.

In Defense of Pete Cenarrusa: In Memorian (1917-2013)

Pete Cenarrusa at Fish Creek homesteadPete Cenarrusa died last week at age 95. To begin with, it’s strange to speak of “defending” Pete from anything. He was a wonderful person, somebody many of us admired and respected. His parents were immigrants who grew up in neighboring Basque towns but who met thousands of miles away in the middle of Idaho. Pete’s first language was Basque, and he kept speaking it for the rest of the life, sometimes throwing in English words along the way.

Pete went to the University of Idaho, where he was on the boxing team and completed degrees in agriculture and animal husbandry (at age 92, he blogged that his favorite courses were nutrition, organic chemistry, and bacteriology—“I would recommend these courses to everyone in college.”) He joined the Marines in 1942 and became an aviation instructor. He flew for 59 years, more than 15,000 hours of flight time without an accident.

Pete was elected as a Republican to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1950 and served nine terms, including three as House Speaker. In 1967, when Idaho’s secretary of state died, the governor appointed him to fill the position, where he served until 2003. He wasn’t a politician from central casting. As his friend and successor said at his funeral, Pete wasn’t a good public speaker; but unlike most politicians, Pete knew it. Still, it’s hard to argue with success: Pete never lost an election, and he was in public office for 52 years, the longest-serving elected official in Idaho history.

Then the Spanish national newspaper ABC published an “obituary” by Javier Ruperez, the former Spanish ambassador to the United States. Ruperez calls Pete a “Basque separatist,” a man filled with “blind obstinacy” against Spain “until the very day of his death.” It was a piece written with venom saved up from an event that happened more than a decade ago, spewed out just a couple days after Pete died. Pete can’t stand up for himself now. That’s why we feel a strong obligation to do so.

PETE CENARRUSA (1917-2013)


Deceased at 96, Cenarrusa – which was the way he had shortened his paternal surname Zenarruzabeita – had the leading role in Idaho’s political and social scene for almost six decades, being elected several times to the local legislature and carrying out for years the role of Secretary of State in the rustic territory. His parents emigrated from the Basque Country to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, as many of their compatriots did in those days, in response to the call for sheepherders to run the significant number of livestock in the American West.

From early on, conscious of his Basque origins, he tried to promote individual and collective memories in the environment of his countrymen, an activity that took a noticeable nationalist tone in the 1960s. He wasn’t awarded the prize “Sabino Arana” to the “universal Basque” by the Basque Nationalist Party for nothing.

It was in 2002 when these nationalist inclinations took shape in the attempt to make the Idaho legislature adopt a memorial that ignored ETA’s terrorist activities, demanded a favorable disposition from Spain and France to negotiate “the end of the conflict,” and asked for the self-determination of the Basque Country. Cenarrusa was the inspirer and visible leader of the attempt, for which he had the support of Ibarreche’s Basque government and Batasuna’s contacts incarnated in journalists for “Gara” and “Egunkaria”, regular visitors of the land where they received the hospitality of then local legislator and now mayor of Boise, Idaho’s capital, David Bieter.

The government of Jose Maria Aznar warned George W. Bush’s White House about the maneuver, and made Idaho legislators realize the inconvenience of adopting texts which were offensive to a friend and allied country such as Spain. The spokesman for the Department of State made a strong statement during those days that said, among other things: “The Spanish people suffer the violence carried out by a terrorist organization called ETA on a regular basis.” Exactly what the memo Cenarrusa/Bieter/Ibarreche/ Gara/Egunkaria did not want to gather. And that to the dismay of its sponsors ended up written in the amended text, which was eventually approved by the Idaho legislature.

It was in January 2003 when Idaho’s Senate president had the opportunity to communicate to the representatives of the Spanish government his regret for what happened, blaming it on the extreme ignorance by local representatives about Spanish affairs and the generalized willingness to please Cenarrusa in the last initiative he took on before retiring from his role as Secretary of State. Robert L. Geddes had begged the veteran rancher and politician of Basque origins that “the next time he wanted to declare war on Spain he give him prior notice to avoid misunderstandings.” On that same occasion Idaho’s Senate made the Spanish ambassador in Washington honorary citizen of the State. And Spain officially named Adelia Garro Simplot, another Basque descendant, honorary consul in the area. Garro is the abbreviation of Garroguerricoechevarria. Cenarrusa, who had not thrown in the towel in his blind obstinacy against constitutional and democratic Spain until the very day of his death, wasn’t able to make himself the only representative of Idaho’s Basque community.

As Mark Twain would say, not all deaths are received in the same way.

And an important bit of background: Ruperez , the author, was kidnapped by the Basque terrorist group ETA in 1979. He was held for a month. After he was released, 26 Basque prisoners were freed from prison, and the Spanish parliament agreed to create a special commission to investigate charges of torture of Basque prisoners. We can’t imagine what Rupérez went through, and we wish it would never have happened. It would certainly shape one’s world view. But Pete had nothing to do with that horrible event, and we know he would have condemned it. And that’s where Rupérez is horribly wrong about Pete and about Basques generally.

Toward the end of his career, Pete announced the introduction of a declaration in the Idaho legislature that addressed a critical series of events in the Basque Country and Spain. The declaration, officially known as a “memorial,” called on leaders in the United States and Spain to undertake a peace process. In 2002, Ruperez caught wind of the memorial and immediately flew out to Idaho, alerted the Spanish prime minister, the State Department, and the White House. Suddenly, a declaration by the legislature of a small Western state blew up and became international news.

As the memorial got close to a vote, there was a lot of back and forth among the many parties that had suddenly become involved. But Pete’s reaction was pitch perfect—paraphrasing him: Since when did the United States start running its foreign policy by foreign governments? In the end, the Idaho legislature unanimously approved this memorial. It described the history of Basques in Idaho, the earlier actions by the Idaho legislature to condemn the repression of Franco’s dictatorship, the efforts of Basques to maintain their culture, and all “but a marginalized fraction” of Basques’ condemnation of violence.

Perfect or not, it was a unanimous statement by a democratically elected, autonomous state legislature. But it seems to have haunted Ruperez all these years. Barely 72 hours after Pete had died, Rupérez condemned Pete as “the inspirer and visible leader” of an effort that turned a blind eye at violence, an effort that an Idaho Senate leader later purportedly told him was the result of the “extreme ignorance by local representatives” about Spanish affairs and “the generalized willingness to please Cenarrusa in the last initiative he took on before retiring.” Rupérez suggests that Pete was not typical of Idaho’s Basque community, that there were others who are worthier representatives.

Ruperez closes with a quote he says comes from Mark Twain: “Not all deaths are received in the same way.” Maybe that’s true. Either way, we can assure Mr. Ruperez that Pete’s death was received with a great deal of sadness and with the respect worthy of somebody who had done great things with his life. We would like to conclude by using another quote from Mark Twain that clearly suits perfectly for people like Javier Rupérez: “Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

Agur eta ohore, Pete.

Signed by:

Thanks for passing by: ↓

Anne Marie Lontzo Sainz Basco3 Aitzol Azurtza Sharon Bilbao Juan C Irurozqui i-svekiata Josu Elordieta Miren

12 thoughts on “In Defense of Pete Cenarrusa: In Memorian (1917-2013)

  1. Basco3

    I always find it interesting when the Spanish Government condemn the activities of ETA in a vacuum, as if the oppression and torture committed during Francos reign of terror and after never happened. Government sponsored terrorism is still terrorism.

  2. Juan C Irurozqui

    Everything related to death is horrible, before, now and after Franco´s death. Nothing can stand violent crimes, torture…I don´t agree with the idea of killing someone in order to demand anything. We have been on earth years enough to know how to resolve things not in a violent way. I don´t know Mr. Cenarrusa but I want to think that he did not agree with the idea of ETA. I presume reading these lines that he never condemned in public all the innocent killed by ETA, but if he did, please let me know.
    There are still today lots of innocent people suffering violence supported by the wrong idea that they can´t develop their culture. Well this was many years ago while dictator Franco was in charge, but fortunately, nowadays we can say anything we want in public, so there in no reason now to kill people in order to demand anything. Please, do not misunderstand the terms. The government might not be right all the time, but ETA and his supporters have killed almost 1,000 thousand people. It´s time to finish the massacre, Give back the weapons, dissolve and take the chance to enter the democratic life. As you don´t do, we give you oportunities.
    We have to start calling the things clearly not politically correct. A death man is a death man and if someone is in jail for killing, is what in modern life we call justice. We need clear messages form our leaders and unfortunately, PNV (the nationalist Basque party) is not in that idea. It´s time to leave the weapons and climb the stairs that go to the congress, not to be hiding in the forest planning to kill someone firing from the back, no matter the age, with the wrong idea that he or she didn´t agree with their thoughts. The rest of us use democracy, why not you? You guys, sorry “yellow” guys, are doing worse than Franco. Your violence has never been justified and it´s time to say sorry, we did wrong, we want to apologize. There are a lot us us that have to go to visit our relatives in the cementery, and not because of their age or their health. This really hurts.

  3. Garaikoetxea

    Funny comment Basco3 (by the way, is Vasco or Basque, not “Basco”) when you say “The Spanish Government” I assume you mean SOME of the Governments that Spain has had, but there have been SOME OTHERS Governments that have condemned both: Franco and ETA. And yes, there has been a lot of oppression and torture during Franco’s regime, same as it has happened in the Basque Country from ETA to the people that were not supporting them. 1000 dead people… Do not re-write history biased.

  4. Ania

    I didn’t have the honor of meeting Pete in person, and sadly I wont be able to know sadly. I just want to say agur eta ohore Pete, nobody with a right mind will put dirt on your name an actions. Egiazko euskalduna, goian bego, mila esker bizitza osoan egin dezun lanarengatik.

  5. Bilbao

    Juan C Irurozqui

    En primer lugar, disculpas por escribir en castellano. No conozco lo suficiente el inglés como para escribir un texto de estas características.
    En primer lugar, La mayoría de la sociedad vasca siempre ha estado en contra de ETA, incluyendo la mayoría del nacionalismo vasco. ETA es una escisión del PNV, por la simple razón de que el PNV no apoyaba la violencia. Ha habido miembros del PNV asesinados o que han sufrido intentos de asesinato por parte de ETA. Eso es un echo irrefutable que indica, claramente, que el PNV ha sido un enemigo de ETA, como toda la sociedad vasca que no apoyaba la implantación de la dictadura socialista que propugna ETA.

    Por otra parte, cuando los políticos, policías, jueces, funcionarios, diplomáticos, que trabajaron y sostuvieron la dictadura de Franco pidan disculpas, afirmen que se sienten arrepentidos y que lo que hicieron fue apoyar un régimen ilegal, fascista, asesino y cruel, se podrá pedir a otros que hagan lo mismo.
    Matar es siempre matar. Peor también lo es cuando un gobierno decide acabar, sin juicio ni sentencia, con la vida de alguien al que considera enemigo de su país. ¿Le suena a algo eso? la cuestión es que la vara de medir es diferente. Cuando las fuerzas de orden tienen permiso para hacer lo que quieran, porque estan libre de acusaciones por sus actos, no se diferencian en absoluto de los terroristas. Ahí no hay Estado de Derecho, sino barbarie.

    Si usted es ciudadano de los USA, ¿Cuando afirma que “los demás usamos la democracia” se esta refiriendo a las actuaciones de la CIA en Sudamérica para derrocar gobiernos legítimos e instaurar crueles dictaduras? Esas actuaciones se hicieron con dinero aportados por ciudadanos americanos y aun no conozco ningún responsable político que haya sido juzgado y condenado por esas actuaciones.
    Es fácil, necesario pero fácil, denunciar la violencia de los grupos terroristas. Pero esa no es la única ni la peor d elas violencias. Nada diferencia el secuestro de Rupérez con el tener encerrados sin juicio ni derechos a personas a las que no se les respeta sus derechos humanos, por la única razón de nos ser ciudadanos del país que toma esas medida. ¿Le suena Guantánamo?
    ETA, es una tragedia, en especial para las personas que sufrieron de cualquier manera su violencia. Sus actos no deben quedar sin justicia. Pero usted sabe que entre el clero vasco, hubo diecisiete asesinados, tres muertos en prisión, tres condenados a muerte (no ejecutados), quince sentenciados a cadena perpetua, varios condenados a penas entre un año y 20 años de prisión y unos 8.000 exiliados en el interior peninsular o en diferentes países del mundo. Todo ello realizado no por un grupo terrorista, sino por el gobierno fascista de Franco que recibió, con posterioridad las bendiciones del Gobierno de lo USA.

    Si hay que mirar la historia, analizar las decisiones tomadas y las consecuencias de las mismas. Hay que hacerlo en su conjunto. ETA y su violencia es consecuencia, única y exclusivamente, de la dictadura de Franco. hasta el punto de que para muchos el franquismo acabó cuando ETA anunció que dejaba de matar.

    Y si, si una persona ha realizado un acto ilegal debe ser juzgado y condenado. Lo terrible es que algunos, muchos, en el Reino de España no solo no han sido juzgados y condenados por sus actuaciones ilegales, sino que incluso se les han enterrado con honores, mientras que muchos demócratas, defensores de la legalidad siguen enterrados en las fosas comunes en que se les escondió después de ser asesinados por los que ahora quieren dar lecciones de democracia, o por sus herederos políticos.

  6. Bilbao


    Ningun torturador, asesino, o politico que de forma ilegal gobernó España durante toda la dictadura ha sido juzgado o tan siquiera reprendido.
    El partido que gobierna hoy en dia con mayoria absoluta en España se niega a condenar el Régimen de Franco. Aun queda mucho para que muchos españoles den lecciones de nada a nadie

  7. i-svekiata

    “Garaikoetxea” and “Irurozqui”:
    Can you please tell me why do you writte about ETA here? What I know is that Pete Cenarrusa has nothing to do with ETA. He only was a Basque-American man who really loved his heritage. Ruperez only was against him because he tried to clam a deposition asking a negotiation to Spain and France in order to finish our political struggle and the right of selft determination. As alwasys they (Ruperez and Spanish Goverment) tried to put together this issue with ETA in order to discredit Pete Cenarrusa. And now, when he is already dead he tries to ad more shit in his memorial just in case it was not enough 10 years ago. Please, Pete Cenarrusa had nothing to do with ETA!!!

    By the way, don’t you still know that ETA is seit 2 years in stand-by in process of disappearing??? Why do you still writte “It´s time to finish the massacre, Give back the weapons, dissolve and take the chance to enter the democratic life”.

    Of course, ETA killed a lot of innocents and that is really bad. But, how can you say “The government might not be right all the time”??? It is not the same reaction to the people they support ETA???

    And last, it is really important to writte correctly “Vasco” or “Basque” in a nickname???

  8. Basco3

    Garaikoetxea and Irurozqui;

    You have made my point for me. I never defended ETA or their activities in my post. As a matter of fact I have lost some friendships for my opposition to their activities. I simply pointed out you can’t look at this issue in a vacuum. I knew Pete very well and he only wanted peace in the Basque Country, so for Ruperez to attack him in his death was appalling. By the way Garaikoetxea, in the USA we use the term Basco as nickname and term of endearment and that is how it is spelled.

  9. Karlos Subijana

    Estos escriben sobre ETA porque son unos guays que piensan que es guay y moderno condenar cosas sin saber mucho de que hablan, escribiendo una historia tan incierta y tendenciosa como la que me hicieron estudiar a mi en tiempos de franco. En lugar de ceñirse al tema que nos ocupa. Es la peor clase: represores reprimidos.

  10. Josu Elordieta

    What needs to be said on this matter is that Ruperez was kidnapped by ETA because he was one of the apparatchiks of the UCD/PP who,with perhaps a few exceptions,are the sons and grandsons of Francoists.A quick background check on those who form the current Spanish government will confirm that.Y,a Bilbao,tienes toda razon,el PP nunca condenara el franquismo,por esta misma razon.

  11. Paul Iñaki Etxeberri

    It cannot be more hypocritical to condemn the “innocents” that died at the hands of ETA while simultaneously ignoring those “innocents” that died thanks to Franco and his fasict backers. The toxic fasict residue known as the Popular Party, PP, in Spain suffers from memory loss as it is unable to recall what it did to the Basques in Gernika. Don’t talk about those victims of ETA if you’re not ready to mention all the victims, from both sides of the conflict! Spanish propaganda only makes mention of their victims with the objective of skewing the conversation, but some of us refuse to be inoculated with these biased Spanish views. Remember, Franco killed on a scale that ETA could only dream of. He and his goose steeping buddies were the real terrorists, along with the politicians (PP) who came along later to replace them. Basques want their own country so that they can be Basques in order to live in peace, it’s Madrid and Paris who don’t want peace.

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