Spain: Too Distracted to Play in Latin America?

By An Observer*

Rajoy Latin America

Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España and Heraldry (Modified) / Flickr & Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Spain’s political crisis and problems facing the European Union have undermined Madrid’s ability to pursue interests in Latin America at a time of new opportunities.  Amidst countless months of lameduck government and the failure of either the Partido Popular (PP) or the Partido Socialista (PSOE) to form a government, the country is also tied in knots over corruption scandals, including some touching a Cabinet member and the royal family, and Cataluña’s persistent challenges to central authority.  Even before the current mess, Prime Minister Rajoy had shown only modest interest in Latin America, and King Felipe hadn’t yet demonstrated the mettle of his father, who once famously told Venezuelan President Chávez to shut up at an Ibero-American Summit.  Adding to Spain’s distractions are a series of EU challenges, ranging from refugee crises to terrorism and the Mediterranean countries’ debt overhang.  Spanish elites, who remain committed to the EU vision, are seized with concerns about Brexit, the UK’s flirtation with withdrawal, and perplexed by the absence of a renewed integration project.

Madrid’s declining role coincides with changes in Latin America that would normally grab its attention.  President Obama and Raúl Castro’s historic normalization of diplomatic relations has opened the door to at least one major U.S. hotel firm signing contracts to refurbish and manage several Cuban hotels – an industry in which Spain previously had extraordinary advantages.  Having played “good cop” with Cuba for many years, compared to Washington’s “bad cop,” Madrid’s future role on the island is at most uncertain.  The election of market-friendly President Macri in Argentina, where the previous government nationalized a Spanish energy company and adopted other policies causing bilateral estrangement, also represents an opportunity for Spain.  The near-completion of peace talks between the Colombian government and guerrillas should be the crowning jewel of a foreign policy in which Spain made a strong political investment early on, but Madrid has receded to the role of bit player.  At a time that Latin Americans continue to espouse support for CELAC and other regional organizations that exclude Spain (and the United States), Spain-sponsored Cumbres Iberoamericanas since 1991 have – even more than the U.S.-sponsored Summit of the Americas – lacked dynamism and produced little as the beacon of the Spanish transition was dying down

By turning inward, Spain risks losing what remains of its special cachet as Latin America’s link to Europe and as a country that made a successful transition to democracy with inclusion, human rights, vibrant media, and increasing transparency.  Its political capital in the region is running low, and budgetary constraints have diminished its aid budgets (from 0.5 percent of GDP to 0.13 percent).  But opportunities remain.  Big Spanish companies – Telefónica, Banco Santander, BBVA, Repsol, and others – and numerous mid-sized firms have shown interest in Latin America.  Cuba’s reluctance to embrace U.S. ties too tightly and too fast gives Spain important space to play a role if it wants.  Moreover, Spain’s diplomatic skills, critical for Central America’s peace processes and elsewhere, could still be a positive force in that subregion.   If it weren’t for former Spanish Prime Ministers’ contradictory roles in Venezuela, where U.S. baggage undermines Washington’s approach to political, economic, and security problems, Spain could be active there too.  But the Prime Minister and his cabinet have not given the Foreign Ministry the green light to get more deeply involved.  It’s not too late for Spain to turn things around and get back into the game in Latin America.  For that to happen Spain needs more consistent governance.

April 18, 2016

* The writer is long-time non-academic observer of Spanish foreign policy in Latin America.

Why Is Madrid Not in the Game in Latin America?

By Fulton Armstrong

Pres. Mariano Rajoy (Spain) y  Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia), signing an agreement at the Palacio de La Moncloa. Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España / Flickr / Creative Commons

Pres. Mariano Rajoy (Spain) y Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia), signing an agreement at the Palacio de La Moncloa. Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España / Flickr / Creative Commons

Spain’s media, government ministries and academic specialists watch what they call Iberoamérica closely, but President Rajoy and other political leaders have adopted a lower policy profile in the region than in the past – and they appear unlikely to raise it soon.  Local observers stress that Spain’s interests in the region – preserving historic leadership and influence and building commercial relations – remain the same.  The Foreign Ministry’s website emphasizes the goal of achieving “relations based on equality and balance with all of the countries” in Latin America and to be the European Union’s “key agent” in relations with the region.  Spain also puts great stock in the annual Iberoamerican Summits, even though attendance can fall short of what it hopes for, such as in Veracruz, Mexico, last December.  Madrid rolled out the red carpet for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in February, during which both countries’ leaders spoke of their unstinting friendship and backing.  Spanish investment in Latin America has rebounded from the setbacks of the 2008 crisis and the bad odor left by Argentina’s nationalization of Repsol’s shares in the YPF oil corporation in 2012.  Trade has never been the mainstay of the bilateral relationship, but it too has been steady, according to local experts.

Neither of Spain’s two leading parties, however, has shown much interest in making relations as “special” as they like to say.  The frisson of excitement from President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba – arguably a validation of longstanding Spanish policy that engagement is better – did not last long.  Observers in Madrid say the government is neither concerned about new U.S. competition on the island, such as in the hotel industry, nor excited that Spanish companies will win big when U.S. tourists flood in.  After former President Zapatero met with Cuban President Raúl Castro late last month, current Foreign Minister García-Margallo accused him of “extraordinary disloyalty and … inappropriateness,” apparently for violating several Spanish protocols for former heads of government.  But Margallo’s pique was consistent with the Partido Popular’s longstanding chilliness toward Cuba (particularly under former President Aznar) and almost certain was aggravated by the fact that Raúl had stood him up for a meeting in Havana in November.  The two parties use similar rhetoric to condemn Venezuelan President Maduro’s increasingly abusive policies, but neither has provided creative leadership in finding solutions to the country’s impasse.  Former President Felipe González, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), has agreed to join the legal defense team of jailed oppositionists but apparently not counseled them on broader strategies.

Transient issues, such as frustration that investments might be nationalized, and widespread perceptions that Venezuela and other problem cases in Latin America are intractable probably lie at the heart of Spain’s preference to stay on the sidelines.  The shift probably also reflects Spanish leaders’ focus on internal priorities – an economy still reeling from the 2008 crisis and youth unemployment so high (over 40 percent in some regions) that there’s fear of a “lost generation.”  In important ways, Spain’s posture toward the region parallels Washington’s – showing fatigue or doubt at a crucial juncture in Latin America’s search for political and economic models as well as effective trading alliances.  Even though Latin American rhetoric tends to reject outside models for democratic transition and institution-building – including Spain’s – Madrid’s historical experience gives it potential advantages in dealing with the region’s political challenges.  Spain and the United States approach in Latin America are quite different – Washington tends to rely on programs to strengthen regime opponents as agents of change – but their strategic objectives in Latin America are complementary.  It would make sense for the two to team up in the region, cooperate in diplomatic strategies, and provide the sort of respectful partnership that many Latin Americans seem to yearn for.

March 31, 2015

Argentina Foreign Policy – National Pride or Domestic Consumption?

Photo by Jonathan Huston

The stridency of Argentina’s foreign policy over the past two years suggests an effort by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to capitalize on elements of authentic nationalism and harness them into a durable political tool at home.  Buenos Aires has dialed up the pressure on the Falklands-Malvinas dispute with the United Kingdom by seeking regional support and calling for a boycott.  The nationalization of the holdings of Spain-based oil giant Repsol has also soured relations with several European states.  Recently, the Argentine government has assailed the impounding of an historical frigate, the Libertad, in Ghana by agents of an investment fund that owns defaulted Argentine sovereign debt, labeling them “vultures.”  Argentina has ramped up criticism of U.S. restrictions on its agricultural exports, as the two countries trade accusations in the World Trade Organization.

The conventional wisdom in Washington has been that President Fernández de Kirchner is picking fights abroad to distract attention from economic and political problems at home.  Following its record $100 billion default in 2001, Argentina remains locked out of most international financial markets despite deals to discount and reschedule much of that debt.  Inflation is high and capital flight is so serious that the government has imposed strict controls on sending dollars out of the country – a measure unpopular with the middle and upper classes.  These problems have taken a toll on the president’s popularity, as have intimations that she might change the Constitution to permit her to run for a third term.

The view from Washington misses a couple key points.  Many of these nationalist moves have been wildly popular – above all the Repsol decision.  To attribute them to President Fernández de Kirchner alone ignores deep feelings in Argentina that the country deserves greater respect than it gets, as well as the fact that since the peso crisis, rejection of the sort of “carnal relations” that President Carlos Menem had with Washington (in his own words) in the 1990s has grown strong.  The current foreign policy orientation harkens to a much longer tradition, from Peronism and beyond.  There is little chance that issues such as the Malvinas or the Libertad are going to make Argentines forget about everyday economic challenges.  Rather, they are a manifestation of an Argentine narrative in which the country is denied its rightful place in international politics and trade – and in which it is being held unfairly in the penalty box for the peso crisis.  The United States support for the billionaire investors and hedge fund managers who bought deeply discounted bonds but are demanding full payment, and Washington’s subsequent vote against loans Buenos Aires needs from international financial institutions, are playing into nationalist themes.  Fernández de Kirchner’s foreign policy rhetoric taps into resentment; she is hardly responsible for creating it.