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Spain's ambasador, Javier Ruperez, outlines his priorities
The Washington Diplomat / January 2004

By Larry Luxner

From his spacious fourth-floor office overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, Spanish Ambassador Javier Ruperez guides his country's relations with the United States with a firm hand shaped by years of diplomatic experience in Addis Ababa, Warsaw, Helsinki and Madrid.

Today, says Ruperez, those relations are better than ever — boosted, of course, by Spain's steadfast support of President Bush at a time when other European allies, led by France and Germany, angrily opposed his invasion of Iraq.

"A number of factors explain that situation, and those factors go beyond 9/11," he said. "It's true that the fight against terrorism created several commonalities between Spain and the United States. But even before that, in June 2001, President Bush chose Spain as the first country he visited in Europe as president. At that time, he made a very clear commitment to help Spain in our fight against terrorism. Even during Clinton's time, relations were already strong."

Spanish Prime Minister Josι Marνa Aznar is particularly grateful to the Bush administration for its decision to brand the Basque separatist group ETA a terrorist organization.

Since 1968, more than 800 military police, civilians and others have died — and thousands injured — in ETA-sponsored attacks aimed at creating sympathy for an independent Basque nation in northern Spain. But the number and intensity of those attacks seems to have diminished in the face of Aznar's refusal to negotiate or offer concessions.

Aznar himself escaped unhurt from an ETA car-bombing in 1995; years earlier, in 1979, Ruperez was kidnapped by the guerrillas while serving in the Spanish Parliament.

"Fortunately, the terrorists decided that they had already achieved what they wanted, and they released me after a month," he said. "I was not hurt."

Asked if he had been well-treated by his ETA captors, the ambassador replied: "When you are completely isolated from the world, when you're threatened to death practically every minute for a whole month, the question of well-treated is relative."

The experience seems to have strengthened the ambassador's resolve that terrorism must be rooted out at all costs, even if it means having waged a war against Iraq that most of the rest of the war opposed.

"In Spain, we've been living with terrorism for the last 30 years," he said. "We know very much what it takes to fight terrorists, and we know that you have to do it with full respect of the rule of law, but at the same time, without complacency towards assassins."

"Even before 9/11, we were very active in the fight against al-Qaeda," he told us. "This stems from the conviction that terrorism affects us. We've been trying to convey that conviction to the rest of our friends and allies. Whenever any of them are attacked by terrorists, we immediately feel solidarity with them."

Ruperez, 62, spoke to the Washington Diplomat last month, in a lengthy interview whose subjects ranged from Iraq to immigration, from commerce to Castro.

The ambassador's office is decorated with art books of his native Madrid, a scale-model U.S. Coast Guard plane and various knick-knacks proudly displayed on a nearby shelf: keys to the city of San Diego, an engraved silver plate from the Universtiy of New Mexico, a marble paperweight from Hawaii and a glass etching presented by the municipal government of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

A career diplomat since 1965, Ruperez was posted as secretary to Spanish embassies in Ethiopia, Finland and Poland (where he learned how to speak Polish fluently). He rose through the ranks of the Spanish Foreign Ministry and in 1982 was appointed Spain's first ambassador to NATO. He eventually became president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Brussels.

Along the way, he also received degrees in law and journalism from the University of Madrid, and has held various political positions — most recently serving as president of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Spanish House of Deputies.

Ruperez has two daughters from his two marriages: Marta, 26, an art historian whho lives in New York, and 6-year-old Laura, who's in first grade.

As Spain's top diplomat in Washington, Ruperez supervises a staff of 160 people, not including Spanish consulates in New York, Miami, Houston, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Juan.

Ruperez says that since 1953, Spain and the United States have had a mutual defense pact in effect — a factor that influences Madrid's foreign policy.

"Even within the EU, foreign policy is still very much in the hands of individual governments," he said. "We are not bound by any commitment to any European country. We're trying to build up a solid EU, but until now, we have not been able to unify our foreign policies, so we have to take our own national interests into account."

He added: "We believe that relations between the United States and the EU cannot be construed as competition. You can be fully European, and fully dedicated to your alliance with the U.S. When the moment of truth came, we shared the same analysis as did the United States: that Iraq was a serious threat to world peace and stability."

One of Ruperez's priorities is increasing the $5 billion in annual commerce between the two countries.

"Bilateral trade is not what I would consider to be the ideal," he said. "We have to invest more in the United States, we have to sell more to the U.S., we have to be more present here."

One reason for Spain's low profile here is that Spanish investors are much more drawn to Latin America, where they share a common history and language.

"For the last 500 years, there's been a very strong sense of belonging on both sides of the Atlantic. When we as Spaniards visit Latin America, we don't feel alien or foreign. It comes quite naturally because of the common language and historical references," he said.

"Spain has gone through ups and downs in its history, and at the beginning of the 19th century was very isolated. We lost our last colonies in 1898, and we got into a long period of isolation and self-deprecation. That lasted right up until 1975, up to the moment Franco died."

"After that, we started to rediscover Latin America. It was no longer theoretical. All of a sudden, we started to invest in Latin America and sell our products to their citizens."

Spain is today among the largest foreign investors in the region, with direct investment totaling $100 billion. In some cases — notably Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Peru — outranks the United States in investment; Spanish companies such as Telefonica, Sol Melia, Repsol and Banco Santander are household names throughout much of Latin America.

And in Cuba, where U.S. investment is non-existent, Spain accounts for nearly all foreign investment in the island's booming tourist sector.

Which brings Ruperez to one of the few areas in which the two countries disagree: what to do about Fidel Castro.

"The United States and Spain do agree with the idea that Cubans should be able to return to the democratic family of nations, and eventually be able to choose their own rulers and have their own freedoms, which is not the case now. That's one of the reasons we're not very much liked by the regime," he said.

"But we do not see the point in keeping the embargo," which was introduced by President Kennedy in 1962 and has been supported by every president since then. "It has not produced any significant change in the Cuban population in terms of democracy. We feel that a more open approach would be better. Regardless of whatever administration was in place here, it's been our very firm conviction that the law should be abolished."

Other than that, he said, "we are in 100% agreement with the United States" that Castro's recent arrest and jailing of 75 dissidents — and his government's execution of three men who tried to hijack a ferry to Florida — were outrageous acts worthy of international condemnation.

In June, the EU decided to curtail official visits to Cuba, limit cultural exchange initiatives and invite Cuban dissidents to national day celebrations at European embassies. Castro responded by comparing Aznar to Hitler and leading 500,000 demonstrators in a march past the Spanish Embassy in Havana.

"The Cubans think we were behind the common position of the European Union," he said. "One thing we're not going to do is engage in that sort of name-calling. Absolutely not. Whenever you get into that, it's provocation. It doesn't help our relations with the Cubans or anyone else."

Ruperez said he's very much concerned with the Helms-Burton Act, which punishes third-country nationals from doing business with Cuba and in some cases deprives foreigners from visiting the United States if they've invested in confiscated properties.

"We've been discussing this with the U.S. for quite some time," said Ruperez, though he added that "no one in Spain has been deprived of his American visa because of that law."

In September, Aznar visited Florida — stopping in Miami, Tallahassee and Orlando — and met with Gov. Jeb Bush and a number of Cuban exile groups. Ruperez called the prime minister's visit with the Florida governor "a very positive and open meeting," and said it shows that while Spain is opposed to the embargo, it clearly sympathizes with Cuban exiles who dream of democracy for their long-suffering homeland.

"I think Spain will be called upon to play a significant role in the transition to democracy in Cuba, whenever Fidel Castro disappears," said the ambassador. "We've gone through the same experiences. We had a dictator, and we were able to become a democracy in a peaceful way. I wouldn't say we're trying to export our own model of transition — you cannot transport those circumstances from one country to another — but we know it is possible."

The visit to Florida was one of several Aznar has made to states with large Hispanic populations. In July, he visited California, New Mexico and Texas; the prime minister will soon visit Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island that was a Spanish colony until it was captured in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Since 1917, Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens, and since 1953, the island has been a U.S. commonwealth — though nearly half of the island's 3.9 million inhabitants would like to see Puerto Rico become the 51st state. A small but vocal minority favor complete independence.

"Spain doesn't take any position on Puerto Rico's political status. We consider it part of the United States, with special arrangements," said Ruperez, noting that Aznar's visit will focus on Puerto Rico's economic and cultural links with its former colonizer.

"We try to keep very smooth relations with the Hispanic community in the United States. That's a very recent phenomenon, which coincides with the fact that Hispanics now constitute the largest minority in the country," he said, though he stressed that "in the last year and a half, Iraq has been one of my main concerns. I've dedicated quite a lot of my time to questions of defense and security."

Another issue that concerns Ruperez is the influx of foreigners — not only Latin Americans but also Eastern Europeans, Africans and Arabs — into Spain, which has enjoyed economic growth of 2-3% a year for the last 10 years.

"Spain has the best-performing economy in Europe," he said, attracting hundreds of thousands of immigrants in search of jobs. Today, around 5% of Spain's 42 million inhabitants are from somewhere else.

"Up until 20 years ago, we were exporting migrant workers. Now, we import massive numbers of migrant workers to Spain. Our perspective has changed completely," he said. "There are positives and negatives to this. After all, we need workers from all over the world. So while the number of foreigners in Spain is not as high as in France or Germany, compared to 20 years ago it is extremely high."

On the down side, he said, "many of those people trying to reach Spain do so thanks to the mafias that organize illegal immigration, mainly from Morocco. We are trying to control the presence of migrant workers in Spain, and within all of Europe. Our own unemployment rate is 9%, so that's clearly one area where we have to improve our own performance."

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