Spain's Atlantic Option

Spain's Atlantic Option

Mini Teaser: Spain's recent election has altered Madrid's foreign policy strategy. The transatlantic window is closing. Can it be re-opened?

by Author(s): Valenti Puig

Important for Latin America, such investment has been vital for Spain. According to Cinco Días, a Spanish newspaper, Latin America has provided over 30 percent of the 2001 profits for the 48 listed companies with interests in the zone. The spread of investments by Spanish companies in Latin America is, among other things, a response to the competitive pressures experienced by Spanish businesses in recent years. They had to seek new markets owing to the opening up of their own markets, the reduction in the size of the public sector on which they had depended, the arrival of the euro and, above all, the era of globalization. Latin America, because of cultural, legal and political affinities, was a natural market for their expansion.

Such significant levels of foreign investment inevitably produced mixed feelings in a continent as mired in economic nationalism as Latin America. Foreign investment often invites ambivalence as public opinion becomes polarized between the appeal of dynamism and the fear of impotence. On the one hand, people appreciated the fact that their country could attract investors, while on the other hand, they felt that national identity was being eroded. Also, the sale of national firms, as well as eroding national pride, meant greater competition for local companies, inevitably generating some resistance. In light of its history, Latin America looked especially susceptible to the temptations of retreating behind barriers and thus cutting the new investment and trading links with Spain.

The test came financially when the "golden decade" of the 1990s went through a succession of crises: the "tequila effect", the Russian crisis and the "Asian contagion." Latin America was hard hit from the beginning of 1999 when Brazil was hit with its currency crisis. The Argentinean crisis followed in 2000. It was a bumpy ride. But by the end of the 1990s, the results of applying the "Washington consensus" showed themselves to be generally positive, except in particularly serious cases of currency mismanagement such as Argentina (where Spanish investors sustained major losses.) Privatization and economic deregulation had helped to reduce inflation significantly, to underline the advantages of macroeconomic balance, and to entrench the region's integration in the world market. By and large, Latin America passed the test and the temptations of economic nationalism were resisted. This should solidify and entrench the "openness" of Latin American economies--and the growing integration with Spain to which such openness has led.

But the most vital component of the Hispanosphere may be its cultural unity--and its sense of being a part of "the West." Since religion is one of the foundations of culture, it is of no small significance that there are 300 million Catholics in Latin America outside Brazil. Through an evolutionary process starting with the arrival of Columbus and the spread of the Spanish empire and Catholic apostolate, the idea of the West has remained a fixture in Latin American thought. It has always resisted challenges from the philosophies of civilizational singularity (what is called in Latin America "indigeneity") and Third-Worldism that--beginning with Frantz Fanon--have helped to legitimize violence and terrorism. Even during the most violent and ideologically confused times, this traditional idea of the West held sway in Latin American thought by virtue of its Spanish roots.

Much more recent--though not less significant--is the identification of the West with the values of the "open society": reformism rather than revolution, a preference for society over the state, a free market versus a planned economy, citizenship as opposed to ethnicity, and civil authority versus military power. These are ideas that are very familiar to the heirs of the Anglophone civilization from Britain to Australia. Hence, this new and broader idea of the West links Latin America to North America and the Anglophone world as much as to Spain. In more ill-fated times for freedom, Octavio Paz published Tiempo nublado (1983), repeating that the most destructive phenomenon of the 20th century was totalitarianism and that only the West, with North American leadership, could recognize and challenge this. In those same years, alas, most of those who passed for the Latin American intelligentsia opted for a model of separatism and for violence as a sort of ideological exorcism.

Yet the fall of the Berlin Wall changed all that. As the great Venezuelan writer Arturo Uslar Pietri observed, one of its effects was the undermining of all the theoretical systems that had striven to construct an "existential community" of a Third World uniting Latin America with Africa and parts of Asia. Except in the eruptions of such provincial volcanoes as Chiapas in Mexico, the Pleistocene permanence of Castro in Cuba and the radical populism of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, these utopian perversions have been largely abandoned. The passing of the future economic elite of Latin America through North American universities and the gradual drying up of ideological pollution from Paris, have together produced a recognition of realities. Even the old Brazilian Leftist Ignacio Lula de Silva has compromised with his own ideological origins and come closer to political realism as president.

The main surviving obstacle to a deeply rooted civil society is an intelligentsia that seems not to have noticed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the near-universal acceptance of free markets over state inertia as the best means to economic progress. But even this obstacle is crumbling with the passage of time and generations. One clear and significant indication of Latin America's recognition of the truth of Paz's argument and of the continent's rejection of Castro's long short-cut to progress is the democratic clause that links the member states of Mercosur.

If the emergence of a Hispanosphere today is feasible, it is because, looking back, there is no period in the history of Latin America that shows such economic, social or political potential as that of today. This optimistic prospect not only strengthens the Hispanosphere but also brings the two great Atlantic civilizations, Hispanic and Anglophone, closer together in political thought, economic theory and even cultural sympathy than at any time since Columbus discovered the New World. As the Chilean sociologist Claudio Veliz has argued in The New Age of the Gothic Fox, the cultural inter-penetration of the English- and Spanish-speaking worlds is growing rapidly, even as each of them intensifies its own cultural affinities.

Forward to the Past?

For some, proposing to remodel Atlanticism is not only awkward but somewhat obsolete. But something new has to arise from the slow fragmentation of that old alliance that won the Cold War. If it is not to be two hostile superstates confronting each other across the pond, then the future of NATO requires new energy and the intellectual tools from an updated Atlantic culture. Aznar's reversal of foreign policy pointed ultimately towards a broadening of the Atlantic Alliance by gradually drawing the Latin American nations into it in a way that did not signify their subordination to the "Yanquis." It was rooted not only in Spanish raison d'état, but also in growing economic integration and in a cultural transnationalism made possible by new communications. And it promised to make Atlanticism palatable to the European Union by making it more than a synonym for "the Anglo-Saxons."

There is now sufficient evidence to establish that the new socialist government of Spain will neither continue with the Atlanticist approach employed by Aznar, nor be a good friend to Washington, let alone look for an equidistant policy between Washington and Brussels. From Spain, the horizon of the Hispanosphere is shrinking. It will continue to develop and grow spontaneously through trade, commerce, investment, cultural exchanges, family links, increased communications, diasporas and all the other expressions of market economics and civil society. Politically, however, it will be becalmed--an idea whose time has either gone or not yet truly arrived.

In Latin America, Zapatero's game of political alliances will pivot on different axes, protected by the winds favorable to a Left that has manifestly lost any sense of historical possibilities. Rejecting Atlanticist values and, even more so, the Bush Administration, Spain's new government will simply not see the potential for Hispanic consolidation and Atlantic convergence that the resurgence of liberal values within the Hispanic world offers. Its most likely course will be to drift back to the network of interested ambiguities that go to make up the Franco-German axis and to become bogged down in the redistribution of power within the European Union--even as the EU itself, with Al-Qaeda on its doorstep, gets still more entangled in the confusion of national referenda on a constitutional treaty of doubtful necessity. A great opportunity is being lost. It is as if Zapatero believes that Columbus was less a great man than a great mistake.

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