The Trail of Failures In Zapatero’s Wake

José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s horrible performance as a mediator will have surprised no one in Spain. Made Prime Minister by an accident of history, he badly divided the country and made mindless leftwing posturing his calling card.

Photo: Reuters, retrieved

José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s letter publicly asking the Venezuelan opposition to sign the negotiation agreement that chavismo unilaterally drafted puts him again front and center on Venezuela’s political war. For many observers, it confirmed that his role in the Santo Domingo talks was to lead the opposition into a trap that would have legitimised a fraudulent and unfair election, with the regime choosing not only the date, but also its rival.

Suspicions on Zapatero’s motives are nothing new, and are well founded; he has avoided open criticism of the regime, even when the brutal repression and the attacks on democracy intensified to unseen levels, and had no problems with paying much needed visits to el presidente obrero at a time when only Caribbean oil-beneficiaries, second-rank anti-imperialist apparatchiks and a certain Portuguese diplomat were willing to be photographed with an increasingly isolated and grotesque tyrant.

Why would a former head of government smear his name like this? Why use one’s institutional prestige and weight to help clean the image of this kind of regime when even some of its traditional allies abandoned ship? Is it ideological affinity, or are we looking at a secret craving for a Nobel Peace Prize?

When he was surprisingly elected to lead the opposition, Zapatero was an unknown — a backbench member of Parliament with no legislative work and a mediocre university career as background. According to all polls, he was set to lose against Aznar’s chosen successor, Mariano Rajoy, but then the 11-M massacre came, the Popular Party (centre-right, by then in power) blundered badly — insisting ETA was responsible, when all available evidence pointed to islamist terrorists — and PSOE’s Zapatero took advantage by blaming Aznar (instead of the terrorists), and his support of Bush’s Iraq adventure.

Why use one’s institutional prestige and weight to help clean the image of a regime when even some of its traditional allies abandoned ship?

He was elected, in other words, in the flukiest of flukes.

Opportunistically or following a well thought plan, Zapatero completely abandoned his moderate persona as soon as he reached power; cashing in on the political tension that polarised Spain, he played on an agenda seemingly drafted by a high school leftist political assembly, and pulled the Spanish stabilization troops out of Iraq even before the date he had agreed for doing so.

In Madrid, at a military parade where American soldiers symbolically took part, Zapatero decided to show despise by staying seated when the bars and stripes flag passed. Spain had no relationship with Washington, but an excellent rapport with Chávez (through Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, while cashing in on shady deals) and a great policy of hugging Islamist dictators. The Eastern half of that project was headed by no one other than today’s Turkish dictator Erdogan (Endrogán, for their mutual friend Maduro).

At home, he changed Aznar’s Uribe-like policy with ETA and started a negotiation that ended with the group stopping its activities (but not disbanded) and their political branch was democratically elected at many basque institutions. To safeguard that dialogue (that wasn’t called off when ETA bombed Madrid’s airport, killing two Ecuadorians), Zapatero silenced and sidelined the most critical voices at the Socialist Party, presenting them as hysterical freaks and right-wingers.Their principle-based positions and unwillingness to make any compromise with the terrorists that killed hundreds of Spaniards were not convenient for a government that needed to humanize them and justify the negotiation.

Another one of his brainchilds was the Memoria Histórica project, a questioning of the  national reconciliation that allowed a smooth transition to democracy, after civil war and almost four decades of dictatorship. Presented as an even-handed attempt to give back dignity to the victims, it was really state-sponsored partisan revisionism, only considering the victims killed by Franco’s regime, and ignoring those who suffered the well documented abuses by communist and other leftists during and even before the war. In that new official discourse, the civil war was a battle between democracy and fascism that ended up with the latter’s victory. The bando republicano victims simply didn’t exist, and Zapatero deleted them from the picture as he deleted his franquista grandfather from his bio.

Zapatero appears to be highly ideological, with a holier-than-thou attitude who puts political allegiances and party interests before any personal loyalty, facts and principles.

Zapatero’s plans (which included adding fuel to the Catalonian fire and isolating and delegitimizing the PP) didn’t go unchallenged, with hundred of thousands accusing his sectarianism and compromises with ETA. The strongest opposition came from the most conservative parts of society, often with “undesirable” class origins or “too vulgar” ways to fit the strict aesthetic and moral canon of the new Spaniard.

Anyone raising the alarm about the aggressive culture war Zapatero was waging on every corner of Spain’s life was dismissed as a sower of “crispación”, the worst sin in the times of sonrisas and talante.

But the economic crisis came, and idealism has a limit in old, placid Europe. Zapatero refused to acknowledge the mere existence of a crisis (again, decrying critics as pavosos catastrofistas), delaying the necessary adjustments as much as he could. His calculated inaction made the problems worse than they should’ve been, and he fooled the country to win his last election.

But you can’t fool reality. The economy painfully came to the rescue, and he just had to go.

His record as president gives the picture of someone highly ideological, with a holier-than-thou attitude who puts political allegiances and party interests before any personal loyalty, facts and principles. In one of his most defining phrases during his tenure, he said: “las palabras deben estar al servicio de la política, y no la política al servicio de las palabras”. That is, the meaning of words, our only way to represent reality, is so malleable that you can deform to fit your (changing) political interests.

We don’t know what Zapatero is looking for in Venezuela, but he’s a proud and convinced relativist, and we won’t see him tracing a clear line between thugs and victims — those humiliated, oppressed and killed he’s too happy to ignore.

Marcel Gascón

Marcel is a journalist from a town near Valencia (the one in Spain), he worked for EFE in Bucharest, Johannesburg and Caracas. He's currently back in his hometown.