Last week, John McCain set off a political firestorm when he suggested that he might not meet with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in the White House. Speaking to a reporter from Spanish-language Union Radio, McCain said “Honestly, I have to analyze our relationships, situations and priorities, but I can assure you that I will establish closer relationships with our friends, and I will stand up to those who want to harm the United States.”
The question about socialist leader Zapatero came up in the midst of a wider conversation about how McCain viewed U.S. relations with leftist regimes in Latin America such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba.
McCain declared that he would not speak to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez “without any sort of preconditions, as Senator Obama has said he would.” The Arizona politician added that Chávez was “depriving his people of their democratic rights.” The Arizona Senator viewed Bolivia’s Evo Morales as “very similar” and also condemned Cuba’s Raúl Castro.
Then the reporter changed the subject, asking whether McCain would invite Zapatero to Washington. McCain was non-committal, remarking vaguely that he would meet “with those leaders who are our friends.” Perhaps believing that McCain did not understand the question, the reporter tried several more times to steer the Senator back to a clear answer on Spain. However, McCain avoided directly addressing the nation, declaring, “What I would say is that my record is that of someone who has worked in a friendly atmosphere with those who are our friends and faced up to those who aren’t.”
Speaking with the same Miami radio station that interviewed McCain, Obama hit back remarking, “Spain is a NATO ally, and the fact that Senator McCain indicated that he might not meet with Zapatero I think indicates that he wants to continue the Cheney policies of trying to dictate American foreign policy instead of trying to build cooperation. I think that’s a mistake.”
The Spanish media jumped on McCain’s remarks and concluded that the Arizona Senator must have confused Spain with troublesome leftist leaders from South America. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion to arrive at in light of McCain’s own history in relation to Spain and South America.
Carrying out Washington’s Dirty Work in Venezuela
During Bush’s first term it seemed that the United States enjoyed a willing foreign partner in Spain. José María Aznar, who had reorganized Spanish conservatives into the People’s Party (Partido Popular or PP) had been Prime Minister of Spain since 1996. Aznar, whose grandfather served as fascist General Francisco Franco’s ambassador to Morocco and the United Nations and whose father was a pro-Franco journalist, was re-elected with an absolute majority in the 2000 general election.
Despite robust public opposition, with polls indicating 90% of the Spanish public opposed to the war, Aznar supported Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. In August 2003 Aznar even sent 1,300 Spanish peace keeping troops to Iraq as part of the government’s support for the U.S. invasion.
Simultaneously Aznar was Washington’s willing ally in opposing Chavez in Venezuela. By 2002 the maverick Venezuelan president was looking increasingly vulnerable. Faced with a growing wave of protests supported by the United States, Chavez was briefly removed from power by the military in a coup d’etat. In his place, Pedro Carmona, previously the head of Venezuela’s largest business association, Fedecamaras, became interim president. However, after poor Caracas residents massed at the presidential palace Chavez was able to return to power and defeat the coup plotters.
Prior to the April 12, 2002 coup Venezuelan businessman Carmona visited high level government officials in Madrid as well as prominent Spanish businessmen. Once the coup had been carried out Carmona called Aznar and met with the Spanish ambassador in Caracas, Manuel Viturro de la Torre. The Spanish ambassador was accompanied at the meeting by the U.S. Ambassador, Charles Shapiro.
According to anonymous diplomatic sources who spoke with Inter Press Service, the Spanish foreign ministry holds documents which reveal the Spanish role. The documents reportedly prove that de la Torre had written instructions from the Aznar government to recognize Carmona as the new president of Venezuela.
In 2003, during his Sunday radio and TV show, Chavez angrily remarked that Spain should not interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs. “We must respect each other,” said Chavez. “Don’t get involved in our things and we won’t involve ourselves in your things. Is it necessary to remember that the Spanish ambassador was here applauding the April coup?”
In a further snub Chavez stated that Aznar should respond to the Spanish public which protested PP support for the invasion of Iraq. “He should definitely take responsibility for that,” Chavez concluded.
McCain and “New Europe”
For the neo-conservative right and John McCain, Aznar was a Godsend. Not only did the PP put pressure on Venezuela, whose government the Arizona Senator had roundly condemned, but Aznar was an important ally within George Bush’s “coalition of the willing.”
In the run-up to the war in Iraq the so-called nations of “Old Europe,” led by France and Germany, were cold towards U.S. plans to take out Saddam Hussein’s regime. In contrast Spain and the nations of “New Europe” were openly enthusiastic about Bush’s drive to war. In fact, in February 2003 Aznar joined the leaders of Britain, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Denmark in signing an op-ed statement supporting the U.S. stand on Saddam, in effect asserting that Germany and France did not speak for Europe.
In the Senate, McCain helped to introduce a Sense of the Congress resolution praising Spain and other European allies for their support for enforcing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 which demanded Iraqi disarmament. “The majority of Europe’s democracies have spoken, and their message could not be clearer: France and Germany do not speak for Europe. Most European governments support the Security Council’s clear mandate to require Iraq’s full disarmament and do not shrink from the grave responsibilities such a commitment entails,” McCain said.
The Spanish people, however, had diverging political notions from the Aznar government. In Madrid and Barcelona, more than a million people marched against the war.
Speaking on Fox News, McCain had nothing but contempt for international protests, remarking that “I applaud the right of everyone to be unwise and foolish.”
The Tide Turns
In March 2004 however the tide turned. Three days prior to the presidential election Madrid commuter train bombings killed 201 people and injured 1,500. The PP hastily blamed the Basque separatist group ETA for the bombings but as suspicions grew of al Qaeda involvement Aznar’s party suffered.
Some analysts argued that the PP held some responsibility for the Madrid bombings because it sent troops to Iraq and acquiesced in U.S. foreign policy. Thousands poured out on to the streets to protest the PP. Socialist Zapatero was thrust to an upset victory in the election.
The socialists quickly shifted away from the strongly pro-U.S. focus of the PP, allying closer to the nations of “Old Europe” such as France and Germany. Zapatero described Spain’s participation in the Iraq war as “a total error.” In May, two months after his electoral victory, he withdrew Spain’s 1,430 troops.
Observing the political fallout from across the Atlantic, McCain grew furious with the Spanish electoral result. Appearing on NBC News, McCain was asked by Matt Lauer if he thought the result of the Spanish election signified a growing distaste for U.S. foreign policy in Europe.
“I think it’s a sign that the–a lot of people in countries in Europe are strongly anti-American and anti-Iraq war,” McCain answered. “I also believe that history shows that appeasement doesn’t work. I hope that this terrible tragedy in Madrid will show the European leaders that they are vulnerable too, and it’s in their interest to work with us to combat the war on terrorism which could strike anywhere in the world, including in European capitals. I hope that’s the end result.”
The Chavez-Zapatero Alliance
Unlike McCain, Chavez was ecstatic about the socialist win and made no effort to conceal his high spirits. Shortly after Zapatero’s victory Chavez praised the Spanish government for withdrawing its troops from Iraq. In November, 2004 the Venezuelan leader traveled to Spain personally. Expressing his satisfaction with the change of government in Spain, Chavez commented “How happy the Spain of today, and how sad the Spain that was subordinate to Washington’s mandate.”
During a joint news conference Chavez advocated “a new progressive, transforming and liberating way of thinking,” that should confront the negative effects of the free market neo-liberal economic model. That model, he maintained, “is only useful for a world at war.” During the press conference, Zapatero agreed with the Venezuelan’s comments. Shortly afterwards, Spain and Venezuela deepened ties by concluding agreements in a number of key areas including defense, energy and commerce.
Clearly, politics in Spain and South America had come full circle. Indeed, analysts suggested that voters held Aznar responsible for the Madrid terrorist attacks, a result of Spain’s close alliance with the U.S. Zapatero then punished Bush, first by withdrawing Spain’s forces from Iraq and allying more closely with "Old Europe," and secondly by pursuing a more independent policy in South America.
In this sense Zapatero seemed to agree with Chavez’s desire to create a more "multipolar" world in which smaller nations unite and deal with the U.S. on more equal terms. Now that Chavez has consolidated power and is extending economic and political ties not only with neighboring South American countries but also with Europe, the United States looks increasingly bereft. In light of the history, it’s easy to see why McCain might view these developments with alarm. Consciously or unconsciously, he may lop South America and Spain together within his own Axis of Evil.
Nikolas Kozloff is a NACLA Senior Research Associate and the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)