Spanish Socialists' Promise for Major Foreign Policy Changes Alters Latin American Political Landscape

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Spanish voters' decision to throw Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Partido Popular (PP) out of power has broad implications for Spain's policy toward Latin America, with the winning Partido Socialista Obrera de Espana (PSOE) promising to renew its ties with countries across the Atlantic. In South America, those changes have become apparent most quickly in Colombia, while in other countries many politicians and analysts are foreseeing future relations with Spain quite differently than they had one month ago.

The elections, held four days after a bombing of trains in Madrid left more than 200 dead and almost 1,500 injured, brought victory to Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Spanish voters resented the attempts by Aznar's right-wing government to portray the bombing as an attack by the Basque separatist group ETA, even as evidence emerged to link the attack with al Qaeda. The election hinged on that issue, since PSOE leaders had previously encouraged negotiation with Basque political groups, while Aznar had led Spain to war in Iraq hand-in-hand with US President George W. Bush, despite the opposition of the overwhelming majority of Spanish citizens. The vote, which saw a huge turnout, seemed to show that Spanish citizens believed the pro-US policies of Aznar had put them at greater risk of terrorist attack, rather than made them safer.

The ripples of Zapatero's triumph became immediately palpable, with the prime minister-elect calling the occupation of Iraq "a disaster" and promising to withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq by summer if the UN did not take political control of the occupation. This led Honduras to say it would also remove its more than 300 troops along a similar timeline (see NotiCen, 2004-03-18) and emboldened the head of Poland to say that he had been "misled" by Bush. The Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, said he felt "uncomfortable because we were misled by the information on weapons of mass destruction." He did not say he would withdraw his country's 2,400 troops, the third-largest force in the region after the US and Britain, from Iraq on the same timeline Zapatero was planning, though he said his troops could leave earlier than planned.

Bush's appearance with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, designed to show that his base of international allies was not crumbling, left many reporters unconvinced as they later grilled White House spokesman Scott McClellan about Balkenende's not-so-resounding endorsement of the occupation. When reporters asked Bush and Balkenende whether Dutch troops would remain in Iraq, neither gave a firm answer.

Uribe loses European ally

Colombia is also scrambling to maintain support for its war policies with the fall of Aznar and the PP. Aznar was Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's most vocal supporter of his hard-line military policy in the civil war there. While many European parliamentarians and human rights groups have pressured Uribe on his draconian security policies, Aznar backed him as a fighter against terrorism. The condemnation from European Union (EU) leaders was so strong that many characterized Uribe's February visit to the EU as a "failure" (see NotiSur, 2004-02-13).

Uribe had at least one firm European ally in Aznar, who helped defend him from the increasing criticisms from the rest of the EU. Colombia expects to continue "anti-terrorist" operations with the cooperation of the new Spanish administration, though Zapatero said he intends to review agreements between the two countries.

The incoming Spanish government will review the contents of the Protocol of Cooperation between the Ministries of Defense of Spain and Colombia. The document, signed by Aznar and Uribe last month, allows Colombia to buy 20 howitzers, 40 tanks, and artillery pieces from Spain. The PSOE said it would honor the commitments the Spanish government had made and said it was pleased with the "donation to Colombia of two medically equipped airplanes, which will allow the evacuation of wounded from remote zones of their territory. …