Rhetoric, Not Substance, to Change in Spain

The election upset in Spain last Sunday is being seen by some observers as a repudiation of outgoing Prime Minister José María Aznar's close ties with the US and support for the Iraq War. In Latin America, national leaders from Argentina to Venezuela are celebrating the arrival of a stronger ally in the new socialist party government of Spain. Despite the potential for change, however, columnist Andres Oppenheimer reports that the incoming Spanish government is unlikely to make any dramatic changes in the country's Latin American policies. "While we are likely to see a downgrading of Spain's ties with Washington, and a Spanish realignment with France and Germany," he says, "most Madrid watchers agree that this will probably not translate into significant changes in Spain's Latin America policies." Nonetheless, he argues, the closer ties that Madrid will probably enjoy with European Union leaders France and Germany may benefit Latin American governments. – YaleGlobal

Rhetoric, Not Substance, to Change in Spain

Andres Oppenheimer
Thursday, March 18, 2004

Spanish Socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's upset victory in Sunday's elections has brought about cheers from Latin America's center-left and leftist leaders, who expect Spain's new government will side instinctively with them in disputes with Washington.

Argentina's interior minister, Aníbal Fernández, was quoted as saying that President Néstor Kirchner was ''elated'' with the election result, and that there were strong ''ideological affinities'' between the two leaders. Brazilian officials similarly were optimistic.

Venezuela's foreign minister, Jesús Amado Pérez, expressed hopes for improved relations with the new government. The Cuban regime's daily Juventud Rebelde celebrated Spain's imminent departure from what it called former Prime Minister José María Aznar's ``fascist ideology.''

But while we are likely to see a downgrading of Spain's ties with Washington, and a Spanish realignment with France and Germany, most Madrid watchers agree that this will probably not translate into significant changes in Spain's Latin America policies.

Rodríguez Zapatero, who has virtually no experience in foreign policy, has said he will pursue a ''multilateralist'' foreign policy and withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq by June 30, barring a United Nations mandate for an international presence there.

But Rodríguez Zapatero may play a less visible role in world affairs than Aznar, who made front pages worldwide when he stood by President Bush at the start of last year's war with Iraq.

''I see a lesser activism in foreign policy,'' Emilio Lamo, director of Spain's influential Elcano Royal Institute of International Affairs, told me in a telephone interview from Madrid. 'Spain's tradition is rather isolationist, and public opinion's stand on Iraq tends to be, `What the heck are we doing there?' '' Lamo said. ``The Socialist Party is in a way reflecting that mood, which may bring about a much more prudent, less visible, less active foreign policy.''

Socialist Party foreign affairs chief Miguel Angel Moratinos, one of the candidates to become foreign minister, said in a March 10 speech that a Socialist victory would move Spain to a more independent policy in Latin America. He said that Aznar's government ``has subordinated our relations with Ibero-America to the transatlantic ties with the United States.''

Moratinos said a Socialist government would make human rights ''the compass'' of its foreign policy, increase foreign aid and move away from rhetoric that he described as excessively ``economic-centered.''

In other words, the Socialist government will seek to strengthen political ties to Latin America.

Moratinos suggested that Madrid would return to its traditional foreign policy, held by leftist and conservative governments until Aznar ''abandoned it'' two years ago.

Judging from what I'm hearing from several Madrid insiders, we may see less aggressive personal attacks on Cuba's dictator Fidel Castro -- especially if Rodríguez Zapatero forges a de facto coalition in Congress with the hard-line United Left Party -- but without lessening Spain's demands for human rights and democracy on the island.

Former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González, the Socialist Party's elder statesman, told me in an interview last year that Castro ''is pathetic.'' It's unlikely that Rodríguez Zapatero feels any different.

On Venezuela, there will be ''observation, distance and support for democracy,'' one well-placed Spanish source tells me.

With Brazil and Argentina, Spain actually may be more supportive of their demands on foreign debt and agricultural subsidies. But Rodríguez Zapatero is unlikely to have the clout to change the 15-country European Union's policies on these issues, at least for now.

On Colombia, Rodríguez Zapatero may distance himself more from President Alvaro Uribe, whom many Socialist Party legislators see as too tolerant of right-wing paramilitary human rights abuses. But few expect a serious diplomatic rift with Colombia.

Will Rodríguez Zapatero help or hurt Latin America? While Aznar's departure means that Latin America's democratic countries will lose an influential go-between with Bush, they may win a more effective mediator with France and Germany in Brussels, the European Union capital.

It may not be a bad deal: The French and the Germans have been far tougher on the region than Washington on foreign debt, agricultural subsidies and immigration issues. Perhaps Brussels will listen to Rodríguez Zapatero more than it listened to Aznar.

© 2004 The Miami Herald