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Spain's Leap Leftward By: Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 26, 2006

If one word could be used to describe Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s nearly two years in office it would be “controversial.” Rising through the ranks of the country’s Socialist Party (PSOE), Zapatero -- affectionately known as Bambi for his bland demeanor -- won the Spanish presidential election in March 2004 shortly after the deadly terrorist bombings in Madrid. Since taking office, the young Spanish prime minister has promoted ambitious; some would say dangerous, social and foreign policy agendas. Indeed, a “New Europeanism” has taken hold in Madrid which promises to change the face of Spanish politics and society for years to come.

During his first year in office, Zapatero introduced legislation to end long-standing funding subsidies to the Roman Catholic Church and religious instruction in public schools. The “bashful” prime minister also attacked the practice of placing religious symbols in public places. Continuing his targeted assault on the social fabric of Spain, Zapatero proudly supported the legalization of gay marriage, adoption rights for gay couples, liberalized divorce and abortion laws and expanded stem cell research.

Zapatero’s “Evolution of Society” has been much less an “evolution” and more a “full-scale assault” – eliciting the ire of Spain’s Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Vatican. Led by Spanish Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Pontifical Council on the Family, and the late Pope John Paul II, Zapatero has come under fire for his ultra-liberal social views. Last June, one million protesters marched in Madrid in a pro-family demonstration against Zapatero’s extreme social agenda.


Taken separately, the debate surrounding any one of these important social issues would cause serious divisiveness within a country -- taken collectively over a very short span of time; however, they are purely incendiary. As a result, many Spanish citizens, especially the country’s majority Roman Catholic population, view these changes as sudden, unnecessary and in many ways, discriminatory.


As if Zapatero’s conflict-ridden social agenda wasn’t enough of a concern, his foreign policy has been plagued by costly missteps, with Spanish-U.S. bilateral relations the key casualty. The announcement by Madrid last week that it would move forward with the $2 billion sale of twelve military transport and maritime surveillance aircraft and eight patrol boats to leftist instigator Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, in spite of Washington’s refusal to grant a re-export license, did little to help mend the fractured relationship. “We’re concerned that this proposed sale of military equipment and components to Venezuela could contribute to destabilization in Latin America,” remarked U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.


This isn’t the first time Zapatero has offended Washington during his short time in office. In March 2004, the Spanish prime minister kept former Secretary of State Colin Powell waiting for thirty minutes as he talked on the phone with France’s President Jacques Chirac about “an ambitious vision for the construction of Europe.” Powell was in Madrid to attend a memorial service for the victims of the March 11 Madrid terrorist bombings.


Showing an immaturity that has defined his tenure as prime minister, Zapatero became involved in the November 2004 U.S. presidential election by supporting Democrat John Kerry for president – a diplomatic mistake that most seasoned politicians adroitly avoid. “We’re aligning ourselves with Kerry. Our allegiance will be for peace, against war, no more deaths for oil, and for a dialogue between the government of Spain and the new Kerry administration,” Zapatero said.  


But the greatest affront to the Bush Administration to date occurred in April 2004 when the newly elected Zapatero withdrew his country’s 1,300 troops from Iraq and then urged other coalition members to follow suit. “I will listen to Mr. Bush, but my position is quite clear and very firm. The occupation is a fiasco,” the Spanish prime minister said.


In addition to his past problems with the White House, Zapatero’s relations with a group of unsavory Latin American leaders including Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales have also become a serious concern for Washington. All three have professed a genuine dislike for the U.S. and have actively pursued the creation of regional alliances designed to weaken democracy in the Western Hemisphere.


In a visit to Caracas last March, Zapatero agreed to sell eight light military ships, ten C-295 type transport planes and 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles to Venezuela. After the sale was announced, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld glumly told the Miami Herald, “I personally think that Spain is making a mistake.” Following the sale, President Hugo Chavez announced the creation of a million-man popular militia designed to “protect national sovereignty.” Regrettably, Zapatero has also reneged on an agreement made by former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to sell forty-six AMX-30 tanks and three C-212 ambulance planes to U.S. ally Columbia to assist in the country’s ongoing anti-drug war.


Just months before his irresponsible foreign policy decision concerning Venezuela, Zapatero pressed the EU to temporarily lift diplomatic sanctions against Cuba, even as reports surfaced that notorious human rights violator Fidel Castro had illegally jailed seventy-five journalists, academics and librarians. Thankfully, the EU rejected Zapatero’s request and maintained sanctions against the small island, noting in their response that Cuba’s violations in the areas of human rights, democratization and prisoner rights remained unresolved. In a similar move, Zapatero lobbied the EU in early 2005 to lift defense and technology sanctions against communist China in the face of strong U.S. opposition -- that attempt also failed.


Looking ahead, several potential obstacles remain on the horizon that could derail the Zapatero government.


First, his relations with Washington and the Roman Catholic Church remain strained and could present problems for any Zapatero re-election bid. Popularity polls show the prime minister’s support waning at home. A survey by Spanish newspaper La Razon earlier this month showed Zapatero had lost 1.2 million votes during his 20 months in office. Second, his inexperience in the area of foreign policy has become an obvious liability, as evidenced by his less-than-stellar performance at the recent Alliance of Civilizations summit. Third, Zapatero’s relationship with known Latin American dictators such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez continues to disappoint Washington and will need to be better managed – something Zapatero has failed to demonstrate so far.


In his short time in office, Zapatero has disturbed Spain’s delicate cultural identity and seriously harmed his country’s relationship with the U.S. He is on a mission not to simply revise, but systematically dismantle, the centuries-old social fabric of Spain, while molding the country’s foreign policy in his own image; demonstrating a resistance to pluralism, traditionalism and nationalism.


Zapatero’s ultimate impact on Spanish politics and relations with the West remains to be seen. For the sake of the Spanish people, however, one can only hope that whatever additional changes Zapatero has in mind; they will be far less controversial than those he has already made.


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Fred Stakelbeck is a Senior Asia Fellow with Washington-based Center for Security Policy. He is an expert on the economic and national security implications for the U.S. of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence. Comments can be forwarded to Frederick.Stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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