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Spain and US: Latin Partners?

The United States should explore broader cooperation with Spain in Latin America, where their companies face similar challenges.


The re-election of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on March 9 was noted without enthusiasm in Washington. After all, soon after his first election in 2004, Zapatero fulfilled a campaign promise when he hastily withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq, and he remains the only EU leader who has not met with President Bush. Yet despite these differences, Zapatero’s re-election may in fact provide an opportunity for renewed collaboration, so long as both Madrid and Washington put pragmatism before ideology and focus on areas where progress can actually be made. 

The results of the Spanish election were close, though not unexpected.  American voters might recognize the hot button issues: a slowing economy, immigration, and terrorism.  The March 9 contest was a rematch of 2004, when Zapatero came from behind in the polls to defeat Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy three days after the March 11 train bombings, which were mishandled by the ruling conservatives.  This time around, the socialists were able to hold on despite a burst in the housing bubble that has led to increased unemployment and a ten-year high in inflation, and Zapatero has already announced a program to juice the economy going forward.  

The question for the United States is, where do we go from here?  Yes, there is residual bad blood over the fact that Zapatero failed to stand as the American flag passed by during Columbus Day commemorations in 2003, and the uncoordinated manner in which Spanish troops were withdrawn from Iraq. In addition, Spain has recently taken steps to increase engagement with Cuba, a policy at odds with the United States embargo as the baton has been passed from Fidel to Raul Castro.  These are important and emotionally-charged issues.

Yet despite this diplomatic overhang, there are many areas where the United States and Spain are partners, including the war on terror given the fact that the United States actively maintains two military bases in Spain, including one which serves as the main transit point between the United States and Iraq and Afghanistan. On trade and investment, Spanish investment in the U.S. renewable energy sector is soaring: Spanish companies own the largest solar and wind power plants in the world, both located in the United States.  Spanish financial, tourism, and telecommunications service providers are also aggressively moving into the U.S. market, focusing in particular on the growing Hispanic market here. 

Moreover, both countries have invested heavily in Latin America. Spanish and American firms face similar challenges in the region in terms of the rule of law, corruption, tax policies, and education levels, to name but a few.  Together, our nations should work to improve Latin America’s competitiveness and standing in the global economy.  One specific way could be by establishing an expectation for corporate social responsibility which would encourage participation in such activities by Latin American corporate entities themselves.  Energy and climate change is another area ripe for exploration, and cooperation between the United States and Spain would provide an anchor for Latin America in both North America and Europe in addressing these critical issues together.

We should also explore broader cooperation in Latin America.  After all, it was an exasperated King Juan Carlos who, speaking for most if not all of the leaders present, harshly rebuked Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez during the 2007 Ibero-American Summit.  His “Por que no te callas” (Why don’t you shut up?) instantly became a leading candidate for inclusion in the Spanish language equivalent of Bartlett’s quotations.  And with the recent revelations of Chavez’ funding for the vicious FARC guerrillas in Colombia, Spain and the United States should consider standing together to support democracy in the Andes by establishing, with other willing regional partners, a contact group for Venezuela that would begin to forge a path toward mitigating the worst tendencies of the Venezuelan regime.   

If the United States and Spain focus on those areas that potentially unite us rather than divide us, we will be best able to address the issues that are most in our self-interest.  The one certainty about the Spanish elections is that Prime Minister Zapatero will now have the opportunity to work with a new U.S. president next year.  But there’s no compelling reason why we should choose to wait that long.

Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Council of the Americas.  Christian Gomez, Jr. is program assistant for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue.  Both are in Washington.  They wrote this column for Latin Business Chronicle.

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