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Wikileaks: Washington’s peculiar view of Spain

The release of classified US State Department documents offers some intriguing insights into Spanish politics; it also highlights the complex relationship between the United States and Spain.

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Washington's view of Spanish politics' personalities offers some fascinating reading.

The amount of information related to Spain that has emerged as part of the recent Wikileaks revelations is enormous. With El País nominated as one of the five newspapers to benefit from the distribution, this was inevitable. Since the first day of publication, on November 28, we have seen reports of how the US government pressured Spanish legal authorities to drop the case against American troops blamed for the death of cameraman José Couso in Iraq; of how Washington pressured Spanish firms to leave Iran and the Spanish government to approve internet anti-piracy legislation; of Madrid’s covert support for Morocco’s cause in the Western Sahara conflict; and of Prime Minister Zapatero’s alleged collusion in favouring General Electric over Britain’s Rolls Royce with a military contract, to name just a few examples.

The list is long and the details overwhelming. But while much of this information related to diplomacy and matters of state is interesting -and some of it downright damning- the really absorbing material is in the personal sphere, with some of the most intriguing information hidden from the banner headlines of Spain’s biggest daily.

Much has been made of the US Embassy’s view that Defence Minister Carme Chacón suffers from “relative inexperience in defense issues”, although this is presumably obvious for such a young politician who has never held a military post before. Moreover, the same June 2009 cable insists that US officials “should by no means underestimate her” during her planned US visit.

The embassy’s eye for detail is more gainfully employed when we hear that not only is Chacón the first woman to be appointed defence minister, but she is also the “first Minister to give birth while in office.” (And could that possibly be an ambassadorial pun where the cable asserts that Chacón has been “on the defensive” against opposition attacks?).

There are plenty more pen portraits of Spain’s Socialists and their views, including the observations that Public Works Minister José Blanco is not to be trusted and avoids eye contact and that former minister José Bono is unhappy with the benefits Spain is receiving in return for its cooperation with Washington.

The US Embassy has, understandably, dealt less with the Popular Party in recent years, given that it has been out of power since 2004. Nonetheless, while cables describing PP leader Mariano Rajoy as uncharismatic hardly constitute breaking news, the lack of confidence he enjoys from his own party is made starkly apparent from interviews with other senior figures within the party.

A more surprising element of these missives is the enormous influence the United States Embassy in Madrid feels it exerts on the Spanish government – even during the transatlantic frost of the Bush years; and how susceptible to that influence it believes Spain is.

A March 2004 cable, just days after José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s surprise win in the general elections, talks of the new prime minister thus: “He is likely to be a difficult but manageable interlocutor and carries with him the Spanish left’s scepticism of U.S. motives.”

Like a strict parent observing a wayward child, Washington’s ambassadors look at the Socialist government with a mixture of condescension, concern, and occasionally, a degree of approval.

“Spanish democracy is still rather immature – less than 30 years old,” reads the same cable, musing on Zapatero’s victory and its implications. “The high voter turnout last week was a victory for democracy in Spain. We should avoid castigating Spanish voters and allow them to come to their own conclusions about the government that they have elected, albeit under extraordinary circumstances.”

The paternal tone continues: “(A)s Zapatero realizes he is governing one of Europe’s fastest growing economies, he will quickly find that on some issues Spain will want to have a voice that is separate from those of France and Germany”.

But as infuriating as these texts may be for many Spaniards -who could be forgiven for thinking that on the evidence of these cables the United States sees their country as akin to an unstable Latin American nation in need of some firm guidance- they nonetheless contain some priceless insights rarely seen in the mainstream media and which are to be valued for their relative neutrality.

Revealed: Zapatero’s a conversation-hogger

Following a meeting between the prime minister and Ambassador Eduardo Aguirre in July 2005, the embassy reported the following:

“Though Zapatero sometimes has a tendency to interrupt other speakers and to dominate conversations, in this meeting he was very engaging and listened attentively to the Ambassador’s points.” For those of us who have never met Zapatero, the notion that he hogs conversations is indeed news.

One individual the embassy is less likely to patronise is King Juan Carlos, whom it sees as potentially a “formidable ally” in a cable from January 2009. Advice on how to handle the monarch’s customary joshing offers a rare insight into his personality as well as the kind of esteem Washington holds him in:

“In meetings, the King will try to charm interlocutors and will bring down the level of formality and protocol to make them feel comfortable, thereby seek to guide the relationship. It is best to stay at the King’s level of banter and not be cowed by his aura. If you push back with joviality at any verbal jousting, you will win his respect.”

The same cable reveals that the king has Zapatero’s ear –although he rarely meddles– and that he even pushed for the appointment of Jorge Dezcallar as Spain’s ambassador in Washington.

Wikileaks, it seems, is unlikely to have any major repercussions for Spain’s relationship with the United States, which has been complex and often difficult ever since the two countries’ colonial clashes of 1898. With the content of classified documents still being splashed over El País’s front page each day, the big stories run the risk of being buried by the title-tattle. However, what these revelations do highlight is that the two countries’ association remains as intriguing as ever.





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Published: Dec 22 2010
Category: Uncategorized
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=1829
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