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Aznar Could Cost Spain Ties With Latin America

Council on Hemispheric Affairs

March 14, 2003

For Immediate Release

Memorandum to the Press


Aznar's Courtship of Bush Regarding Iraq Could Cost Spain the Fruit of its Return to Latin America

- Sunday's Azores meeting likely to mean more of the same

- Survival of Ibero-American Summit could be jeopardized

- Aznar's delusion of grandeur soars as his popularity in Spain and Latin America falls to new lows

- A vain man, he now sees himself as a member of The Big Three on Iraq, with Bulgaria as his competitor

- Spanish leader turns his back on Mexico and Chile

- Felipe Gonzalez and the King Juan Carlos' good work in replacing the negative legacy of the Spanish Conquest and the cruelty of colonial rule, has largely been dissipated by Aznar's craving to be among the powerful

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's total dedication to President Bush's imperious strategy regarding Iraq could cost Spain dearly in Latin America. In racing to keep up with the U.S. and British-generated Iraqi policy, the Spanish prime minister has turned his back on Latin America, as well as most of his country's traditional, continental allies for the uncertain reward of being pictured in photo-ops with President Bush and Britain's Prime Minister Blair, and in being invited to the presidential ranch.

But Aznar's celebrity status has cost his nation and Latin America dearly. Nor will this Sunday's hastily called meeting on Iraq in the Azores with Bush and Blair be likely to change his domestic isolation.

Spain's position on the UN's dealings with Iraq equates to Aznar stabbing Chile and Mexico in the back and leaving these two UN Security Council Members vulnerable to retaliation from Washington-if they continue to thwart U.S. policy by refusing to sanction an early military attack without allowing additional time for inspections.

Rather than publicly insist that whatever the outcome, the two governments' decisions should be respected, Aznar instead has dutifully aped the language uttered by White House speechwriters. On the surface, Spain would seem to have very little to gain from Aznar's unabashed assumption of Washington's position aside from some modest U.S. handouts and encouraging words about the need to fight Basque terrorists. However, Spain may lose considerably more than it ever had to gain. Firstly, Aznar has triggered what could become the worst crisis in the Ibero-American Summit since its founding. This essentially sentimental rather than functional organization has had as its two European representatives, the very conservative leaders of Portugal and Spain. Both men are woefully out of sync with the present populist direction in which Latin America is now heading. However, Aznar and his Portuguese counterpart have truly failed to take advantage of, or even acknowledge, this powerful and growing trend. Aznar has gone a long way toward undermining Spain's strong identification with the tough human rights and anti-dictatorial standards championed by former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales and King Juan Carlos. The effort of Gonzales and the King allowed Spain to "return" to Latin America in spite of its bitter heritage of conquest and cruelty afflicted on the region during the period of colonial rule.

Aznar's Flawed Past

Aznar's choice to back the U.S. rather than the kindred nations of Chile and Mexico deserves to be viewed as no less than an act of treachery. It is but the latest chapter in Aznar's misbegotten tour of government that has included the botched salvage effort of an oil tanker in November 2002 (leading to a huge oil spill and causing irreparable damage to the Spanish coastline), his attempts to hobble the efforts of a Spanish judge seeking to extradite General Pinochet from Great Britain for human rights derelictions, and an unseemly squabble with Fidel Castro that he ignited at an Ibero-American Summit gathering.

Two years ago, Aznar exhibited his ego and his lust for self-importance by exclaiming to the International Herald Tribune, that Spain is "one of the big guys now," proffering his belief that he has led his country to equal standing with continental giants France and Germany. On its path to international recognition, Spain surpassed the United States as the largest foreign investor in Latin America, even though in recent months, aid to the region has dropped significantly. Aznar made a concerted effort to push his paternalistic sentiments onto needy Central and South America, hoping to become the leading advocate for the Western Hemisphere's 400 million Spanish-speakers. It is this newfound camaraderie that is now in jeopardy and could come to a crashing end as both Spain and Latin America choose sides in the Iraq crisis.

Friendship on the Hoof

President George W. Bush could not have found a more eager or vocal ally in continental Europe than Spain's Aznar. A longtime buddy of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Aznar has been unfailing in his support for Bush's plans to disarm Iraq, forcibly if need be, and with or without the UN's imprimatur. This is a surprising level of harmony from a man who originally felt snubbed by Bush when the newly elected U.S. president butchered his name during a formal television interview, referring to him as "Anzar." Equally at risk is the chilled distance that now fills the void previously warmed by Bush's former rapport with Mexican President Vicente Fox. The new Mexican leader had found his U.S. counterpart so engaging that their personal and political futures appeared inseparable-Fox even brought Bush home to meet his mother. The burgeoning friendship has now been stunted, with Fox canceling a visit to President Bush's Texas ranch because of Bush's outright refusal to stay the execution of a Mexican national. As Bush turned east and west for allies in his War on Terror, he has all but ignored his friends in Latin and South America, replacing them with Blair and Aznar. Bush has also successively named two right-wing ideologues-Otto Reich and Roger Noriega-to be Assistant Secretaries of State for Latin America. As for the visit to the ranch, Fox's designated, but declined, bedroom was now assigned to Aznar.

Mexico Resists the Spanish Temptation

The once promising Bush relationship Bush with Latin America has all but disappeared, as U.S. diplomats sadly discovered that Mexico and Chile, in spite of subtle and not so subtle badgering, would not provide the "easy votes" needed for the U.S. president's UN resolution on Iraq. Spain's vote, however, has been cost-free, despite the barrage of anti-war and anti-U.S. protests that Aznar faces daily. Staunchly anti-war, nearly 80 percent of Spaniards are against joining the U.S. in a non-UN-sanctioned conflict with Iraq. Aznar, however, has chosen not to bow to public opinion by continuing his unflagging support for the U.S. Fox, on the other hand, has remained somewhat steadfast in his call for a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis, although conceivably he might finally buckle out of a sense of pragmatism. On his way to a powwow at Bush's Crawford, TX ranch, Aznar made a crucial stop in Mexico. Perhaps Washington was hoping that Aznar's fluent language skills might be more convincing than Bush's much-touted, yet significantly inferior Spanish. While his visit did nothing to bring Mexico closer to supporting Spain's pro-war position on Iraq, Aznar left Fox claiming he would not dream of attempting to extort Fox or twist his arm into agreement, "President Fox would not tolerate such pressure, as would be natural, nor would it ever occur to me" to employ such strong-arm tactics.

Demonstrations in Venezuela

Mexicans have shown themselves to be adamantly opposed to a military conflict in Iraq. Protest marches have been staged in downtown Mexico City, at the U.S. Embassy, in addition to Mexicans gathering outside the Spanish Embassy to protest Aznar's arrival. The demonstrators held signs saying, "Aznar is not welcome in Mexico" or labeling Aznar as the "European Judas." Fox and the Mexicans are not alone. Throughout Latin America, protests have been staged. Even in embattled Venezuela, where the country appears to be ripping apart over domestic issues, citizens of all political hues have managed to muster a significant anti-war voice. Entangled in anti-Chavez protests, violent strikes, and political upheaval, Venezuelans marched on February 16 in favor of peace. Venezuelan Congressman Dario Vivas participated in the downtown Caracas protest, where he commented, "This is the support for a people that need solidarity." Many Venezuelans are all too aware of what "regime change" means; the U.S. was strongly implicated in the attempt to depose President Hugo Chavez in the failed April 2002 coup attempt. If the U.S. would support the regime change of a democratically-elected, albeit now unpopular, president, what wouldn't the U.S. think to rain down upon an entrenched and madden anti-U.S. dictator? Clearly, Venezuela's show of support is not for the person of Saddam Hussein, rather it is a demonstration of solidarity for the people of Iraq.

Instead of playing the supportive role he has claimed for backing Latin American democratization, Aznar was barely lukewarm in his congratulations to Chavez on regaining executive power. Neither was he outspoken in denouncing the deposition of Chavez in the first place. It appears that Venezuela under Chavez and Spain under Aznar will never be close; too much hostility has been generated by Spain's diplomatic snubbing of Chavez and Venezuela's prickly attitude towards the extradition of resident ETA members whose refuge in Venezuela was negotiated at the time of the Felipe Gonzalez government.

The Rest of Latin America Weighs In

Despite hefty American influence and tight economic ties, Puerto Rican Islanders gathered en masse to protest a U.S.-led war on Iraq. They raised placards calling the United States "the most terrorist country," and waived banners reading "No War for Oil!" Puerto Rico, more than other Latin American countries, has a vested interest in any U.S.-Iraq conflict. As a U.S. commonwealth, the island's National Guard is subject to a U.S. military call-up-the Associated Press reports over 40 percent of the Guard complement has already been called up to serve in the Persian Gulf.

Large anti-U.S. protests occurred in the more industrialized regional nations of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Nearly 5,000 Brazilians protested on the Copacabana beach and in Sao Paolo. About 8,000 Argentines marched through Buenos Aires up to the gates of the U.S. Embassy on February 15. Chile continues to nurse sore wounds. The Sunday Times reported one Chilean official as saying, "We know very well in Latin America that if the Americans want a regime change, they can do it without resorting to bombing cities." Perhaps the proposed regime change in Iraq is too close for comfort when recalling the U.S.-partially-scripted coup d'etat that deposed democratically-elected Salvador Allende. In his stead, U.S.-backed Augusto Pinochet was installed and went on to become a human rights abuser of such nefarious rank that his reign was in the same league as that of Saddam Hussein. Needless to say, Chile is skeptical of any U.S.-led military confrontation that doesn't have the sanction of the UN. Subsequently, that skepticism would largely color the budding relationship that Spain had hoped to nurture with Chile.

Will Economic Ties Keep Them Bound or Rip Them Apart?

Not even a year ago, Aznar and Latin American leaders met in Madrid, at the EU summit of Latin America and the Caribbean, where they helped to plan new economic developments aimed at strengthening bilateral ties. Commissioner of Economic Affairs for the EU, Pedro Solbes, warned that prompt debt repayments and fiscal discipline were crucial to better trade relations. Mexico's Fox claimed "our relationship with Europe has unlimited potential."

Aznar may have encouraged Spanish business to invest in Latin America, highlighting the investors' protection from bankruptcy. Yet, it was noted at the time that Aznar didn't show comparable zeal in being concerned with the depth of the region's debt problem or that European agricultural subsidies were hurting Latin America's exports to the region. Now the major investor, Spain has a vested interest in keeping the region as stable and prosperous as possible. Because of that vested interest, it is perplexing that Spain is now supporting a military conflict in Iraq, the fall-out of which could threaten the economic and political stability of the region.

This Press Memorandum was prepared by Larry Birns, Director, and Julie Mumford, Research Associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Additional research assistance was contributed by Manuel Rueda.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of our nations' most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers."

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