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.

Peru: The Shuffling Continues

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Pedro Cateriano (l) and President Humala Ollanta. Photo Credit: Galería del Ministerio de Defensa de Perú

Pedro Cateriano (l) and President Humala Ollanta. Photo Credit: Galería del Ministerio de Defensa de Perú

President Humala Ollanta’s new prime minister – his seventh in less than four years – won a vote of confidence in Congress two weeks ago, but odds are that his government won’t be much more popular than those of his six predecessors.  Pedro Cateriano, who had served for three years as Humala’s Minister of Defense, was sworn in on April 2, after the Congress turned against Prime Minister Ana Jara over a spy scandal involving Chile.  (The Chileans, whose intelligence service allegedly recruited several Peruvian Marines in 2005-2012, ended the crisis last week after providing what the Peruvians said were “satisfactory explanations” and pledges to “cease old practices” that have been negative for bilateral relations.)  Fulfilling constitutional requirements, Cateriano and his cabinet presented their program to the Congress on April 28 for the vote of confidence, in which there were 73 votes in favor, 10 against, and 39 abstentions.  The government team reiterated a commitment to reduce inequality, remove obstacles to investment, and improve education, health care, and other social services.

Like Humala’s first four years in office, his remaining 14 months (he can’t run again) appear likely to feature a mix of successes and stubborn challenges.

  • Peru’s economy is doing better than most others in Latin America – 2.4 percent growth in 2014 and slightly more than 3 percent projected for this year – but a drop in Chinese demand for Peruvian copper has depressed prices 6.4 percent last year and more than 13 percent this. (Metals account for 60 percent of Peru’s export earnings.)  This has been a drag on growth and caused the trade deficit to rise to $2.5 billion in 2014 and even higher in 2015.  Humala has increased spending, and poverty reduction programs have lifted about a million Peruvians out of “extreme poverty” since he took office, while inflation remains low – about 3 percent a year.
  • Under Humala, Peru is also grappling with image problems abroad. His administration has strenuously rejected a decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to take up the cases of 64 persons tried for terrorism during previous governments – a process that threatens to disrupt delicate political balances in Peru.  Press freedom in Peru was also downgraded in Freedom House’s most recent report.  With a score of 47, the country is still ranked ahead of others in the region (Ecuador has 64; Bolivia 47; Honduras 68; and Venezuela 81), but it slipped three points because of “an increase in death threats and violence against journalists, ongoing impunity for past crimes, and a lack of political will to address the problem.”
  • The decline in metals earnings has fueled internal tensions as the government has attempted increasingly aggressive policies to open new areas to mining and accelerate mining projects in the pipeline. The mobilization of military troops last week to quell protests over a new $1.4 billion mining project in the south, which have already resulted in the death of three police and several civilians, poses a real problem.

Humala is by no means unique in suffering a contradiction between basically sound economic performance and chronic inability to sustain domestic political support.  His predecessors have suffered variations of the same malady, rooted in part in the country’s notorious lack of a functioning political party system.  But with seven different prime ministers, his government has looked particularly disorganized.  He has arguably been a competent manager but an ineffective leader – muddling through rather than executing a vision for a better future for Peru.  In the runup to winning his vote of confidence, Cateriano showed strong, consultative political skills in garnering the support of most former Peruvian Presidents, but overcoming the administration’s lame-duck status amidst growing conflict over metals extraction and the beginning of campaigning for the 2016 election will be a constant challenge.  And this government’s experience, like that of its predecessors, suggests that his successor will also face powerful headwinds in a persistently fragmented political landscape.

May 11, 2015