By Simon Romero
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
CARACAS: Even though they achieved independence more than a century ago,
the Spanish-speaking nations of Latin America often look to Spain as a
reference point. Sometimes the mother country is a foil, sometimes a
support, sometimes a mirror, for what unfolds on this side of the Atlantic.
In recent weeks, Spain clearly has been cast as both a punching bag for
Latin America's leftists and a bastion of valor for its moderates, after
a dissing match in which a king of Spain took offense at a Venezuelan
president's remarks and told him, very publicly: "Why don't you shut up?"
The dressing down quickly took on a life of its own. King Juan Carlos's
blunt question instantly became the campaign slogan of the day for
enemies of President Hugo Chávez. It blared from YouTube clips
everywhere, rang out from cellphones in both Spain and Venezuela, and
screamed from T-shirts all over Caracas.
In the excitement, the context of the exchange was largely brushed over:
In addition to an epic spectacle, the comic opera offered a terrific
glimpse into the unendingly complicated relations between Spain and its
First, what happened: Seizing on a moment when the king had returned
from a polemical tour of small Spanish enclaves near Morocco, Chávez
used a summit in Chile of Latin American and Iberian leaders to taunt
the Spaniards, applying the word "fascist" to a right-wing former
Spanish prime minister who wasn't even there.
The king's rebuke followed, and then threats from Chávez to review
Spanish investments in Venezuela. Before it was over, the president of
Nicaragua and even Fidel Castro had chimed in to defend Chávez with
allusions to Spanish economic colonialism and ancient racial grievances.
There is a history to all this. In the 1980s, when Spain and much of
Latin America were emerging from authoritarian rule, Spain was something
of a model as it moved beyond General Francisco Franco's long
dictatorship. In 1981, leftists across the region applauded King Juan
Carlos after he helped to thwart a reactionary coup attempt at home.
In the 1990s, the relationship changed. Cash-strapped Latin American
countries were privatizing state enterprises and offering them for sale.
Spaniards snapped up banks, electric utilities, telephone companies and
road concessions. Latin Americans called it "the reconquest."
Now, global migration aggravates resentments. Spain draws hundreds of
thousands of immigrants, largely from the Andean countries, and many
complain of xenophobic treatment. Last month, the beating of a teenage
Ecuadorean immigrant on a train in Barcelona was caught on video,
prompting an outcry across the Andes.
Meanwhile, Spain's investment in the region has slowed drastically, a
result of a surge in trade within the region, new investment from China
and India, and complaints against some Spanish companies. So it has
become easy for a populist to make points with poor voters by bashing Spain.
The spat at the summit offered a good example. When Daniel Ortega, the
former Marxist rebel leader who is now president of Nicaragua, took the
microphone to defend Chávez, he also denounced a Spanish utility with a
virtual monopoly on power distribution in Nicaragua.
Castro, from his seclusion in Cuba, framed the episode as the Spanish
monarchy's "ideological Waterloo." Himself the son of an immigrant from
Spain and a Cuban woman, he raised old race issues by invoking his
ancestral connection to the Tainos, Cuba's pre-Columbian inhabitants. "I
have Taino, Canarian, Celtic blood and who knows what else," he wrote in
an essay published last week in his government's signature newspaper,
In his attack on the absent Spanish prime minister, Chávez employed a
rich Venezuelan tradition that still shocks more gentlemanly parts of
Latin America and the Iberian peninsula: the political insult.
The tradition "has been part of our culture since the early days of
independence, when insulting a political rival's virility was the norm,"
said Francisco Javier Pérez, author of "The Insult in Venezuela." Chávez
has used it against President George W. Bush, Tony Blair of Britain,
Vicente Fox of Mexico and Alejandro Toledo of Peru.
Chávez has outlasted all of them in power, except for Bush, and may
outlast him as well. The Santiago confrontation came just weeks before a
referendum scheduled for Dec. 2, which Chávez hopes will allow him to
run for an indefinite number of terms in office. His critics say the
incident could have been a distraction ahead of the referendum, but it
may not end that way.
There are now about 300,000 Spaniards in Venezuela, many of whom moved
here in search of opportunity before Spain's economy took off in the
1990s; many of them are less than thrilled about the insults to Spain.
The influx, in fact, has strengthened bonds between Venezuela and Spain,
and they are reflected here in cuisine, music, trade, even novels. One
book published this year, 'La Caraqueña del Mani," by the Spanish writer
José Luis Muñoz, captures the complexity. The protagonist is a Basque
exile seeking a new life amid the demimonde here of salsa bars and
Over a meal of Txakoli wine and Idiazábal cheese, he sums up how the New
World, despite its occasional outbursts against Spain, still fascinates
the Old. "Venezuela is a friendly country," Muñoz says, "and if one is
lucky not to be caught in the middle of a gunfight, well, it's almost