In Boise, Basque president feels pride of working people who ‘love liberty’

Iñigo Urkullu, the 53-year-old lehendakari of the Basque autonomous region, took office in December 2012. A teacher by profession, he is the seventh leader of the Basque people since 1936. The first two served in exile before Basque autonomy was ratified in a 1979 referendum in Spain. He has served in the Basque parliament and in the leadership of the Basque Nationalist Party, and also in the government and party leadership of Bizkaia province.

The lehendakari is making his first visit to Boise and Idaho this week for Jaialdi. Outside of attending the festival, he has met with Gov. Butch Otter, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, Boise State University President Bob Kustra, and all of their staffs. He’s visited a Basque school and toured Morris Hill Cemetery to see a monument to Basques buried in unmarked graves from the early 1900s. With the governor, he renewed a trade cooperation agreement that Lt. Gov. Brad Little signed in the Basque Country in 2012, and the two spoke about advancing mutual business interests in agriculture, technology and renewable energy.

“We’re interested in trying to open the doors of Basque businesses to internationalization here in Boise, not just in New York, not just in Chicago, not just in Washington, but also here and on the West Coast,” Urkullu told the Statesman in an interview Thursday at the Grove Hotel. He said “reciprocities” will allow businesses in Boise to “form strategic alliances with Basque businesses.”

Here are more answers from Urkullu, lightly edited for clarity. Translation is by Statesman reporter Sven Berg:

Q: How impressed are you by the number of Basques in Boise and in this part of the U.S.?

A: Not just the number, because there’s a number of Basques in other countries. In North America, there’s a great existence of the Basque Diaspora, many Basques that in various generations emigrated from the Basque Country. But it’s true that Boise concentrates ... the history, culture, folklore. It also concentrates the importance of developing Basque studies here in North America.

Jaialdi is a festival, but you have some very important business that you want to do here, right?

It’s important to share with the Basques for reasons of parties, folklore and culture. ... It’s just as important that a representative of a country to celebrate official, institutional, commercial, academic and cultural acts.

That’s the objective of this trip: Share the experience with the Basques in a festival context, but also develop an objective of opening Euskadi (the Basque Country) to the world.

At your visit to the cemetery, were you moved by that?

For those people that are still unidentified, along with the emotion, I’ve manifested a commitment to contribute to the Center of Basque Studies and also to the Department of Basque Studies at Boise State University possible financing to continue researching and discovering the identity of many Basques who today still are unidentified, and whose families don’t know if they’re even buried here.

In your conversation with the governor, did you come up with any areas of collaboration that you hadn’t expected?

We emphasized the specialization of Idaho in agricultural material, principally, and how we could work together between Euskadi and Idaho in our centers of technological research on agricultural products.

In Euskadi, too, there’s a territory that historically has had an extensive crop of potatoes, making possible the creation of a center for potato research.

Are you concerned that the broader economy in Spain might drag down the economy in the Basque region?

The Basque economy, compared to the economy in the rest of Spain, is very much based in industry. Though, in recent years, tourism is gaining ground — cultural tourism, based in the wealth of museums that we have in the Basque country.

(Urkullu noted that the United States is the third most common destination country for Basque exports. He wants to see expansion of exports and overseas business. Unemployment in the Basque region is about 14 percent, compared with 24 percent in Spain as a whole, he said.)

We are establishing the basis for what is a new economy in Euskadi. We’ve made a plan for science, technology, innovation for the year 2020. We’ve defined areas of intelligent specialization in the productive Basque economy. We’re also involved in investment, innovation, industrialization and internationalization.

What are your impressions of the people in Boise?

We’re receiving a lot of information from the people who live here about the quality of life here in Boise and in Idaho. And we’re hearing more and more people that have lived in New York or Boston or any other area, with a different, more stressful rhythm of life, and they want a better quality of life for their sons and daughters. That’s a difference that we do observe. The growth of Boise in recent years, economic, urban growth, is transforming the city. Still, it offers a quality of life that the big cities don’t offer.

Is Jaialdi what you expected?

They tell us it grows every time. It’s not just for Basques in the United States. It’s also for the Basque citizens of Euskadi. It’s very important I’m seeing the interest that Basque families in Euskadi have in coming here to Boise and they’ve put a date in their calendars to come here every five years. Because they want to keep alive the relationship with their families and friends or those who came here many years ago.

What will you take home with you?

I’ll take the pride that Basques feel here in Boise, Idaho and all of the United States.

The pride of feeling like a working people, people who love liberty, people who want the best for themselves and the rest of society. And that pride is what fills me personally. And I’ll take with me, also, the commitment to continue passing history down, generation to generation. It’s important to know what world we’re a part of. To know that each one of us has our personality, our identity, and that the communion between the identities enriches society. Here, the Basques are doing that for the enrichment of the United States.