Is Spain on its way back to Latin America? – J-J. Kourliandsky

In January 2020, Spain was finally able to put an end to a long governability crisis. Most of it had to do with domestic reasons. Nevertheless, the fact that a functional government was absent for too long also had consequences on Spain’s foreign policy. In Latin America, for instance, Madrid lost ground during this period.

In the period between 2014 and 2018, former Prime minister Mariano Rajoy from the Partido Popular (Popular Party, right-wing) used to deal with political affairs on a day to day basis. Then, Pedro Sánchez (PSOE, Socialist Party) would succeed him starting on the 1st of June 2018, but with limited powers. It is only starting from the 7th of January 2020, when a new parliament entered into force, that Sánchez was able to rule in normal conditions.

Do we have to understand then that the ongoing alliance between the PSOE and Unidas Podemos, backed indirectly by the Partido Nacional Vasco (PNV, Basque National Party), could favor the return of Spain in international affairs in general and in Latin America in particular?

In theory, yes. But Spain also has to deal with domestic social priorities, some of them very urgent. Among these, we can mention the reform of the judicial power, energetic reconversion, as well as the Catalonian issue. It is telling that Prime minister Sánchez did not focus on any international point in particular when he gave his first aired televised interview on the 20th of January 2020.

Despite that, when looking back at some initiatives launched from July 2018 onwards, it seems as if Spain would be willing to come back to Latin America and to be more coherent with the policies that it is meant to favor. Since this date, Prime minister Sánchez made several trips that we can deem as “ecumenical” politically speaking. He visited Bolivia (when Evo Morales was ruling the country), Chile (Sebastián Piñera), Colombia (Iván Duque), Costa Rica (Carlos Alvarado), Cuba (Miguel Díaz-Canel) and Mexico (Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO).

On his side, Spain’s King Felipe VI visited Peru on the 12th of November 2018. On the 1st of December, he assisted to AMLO’s swearing-in ceremony in Mexico. One year later, he was in Cuba to participate in the celebration of Habana’s 500 years of foundation.

Additional facts would soon back this unconditioned openness of the Spanish diplomacy. In December 2019, due to social unrest in Chile, the climate conference (COP25) would end up being organized in Madrid. Despite this, Spain will maintain the name of COP-Chile. This decision will even give more impact to the organization of the two coming Ibero-American summits in Andorra (2020) and then in the Dominican Republic (2022).

Prime minister Sánchez and King Felipe VI’s visits to Latin America were meant to remind people of another critical issue: how important it is to defend laws. For instance, the King, the Prime minister, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs regularly advocate in favor of the freedom of trade and exchanges; all three condemned the sanctions that have been adopted by the USA towards Cuba and its economic partners. In Venezuela, the situation that prevails when it comes to human rights and democratic rules earned president Nicolás Maduro repeated remonstrances. But at the same time, Spain regularly insists on the importance of favoring dialogue and negotiations at the time of dealing with international crises, including the one that prevails in Venezuela.

The fact that Prime minister Sánchez had been heading a provisional government from June 2018 to January 2020 has most certainly defined the nature of Spain’s attitude towards Venezuela during this period. Pedro Sánchez did not participate in the Montevideo process that had been launched by Mexico and Uruguay in February 2020 to help dialogue prevail. By recognizing opponent Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s provisional president, Sánchez tried to combine pressure with discussion. Sánchez was probably trying to keep close from those important European countries that had backed the US sanctions on Venezuela. At the same time, he was trying to avoid any criticism from Spain’s opposition parties (Popular Party, Ciudadanos, Vox) regarding the way he was dealing with the issue of human rights.

Today, the Spanish government calls for dialogue in Venezuela. Spain feels strengthened by the fact that former Spanish MFA Josep Borrell now holds the position of High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. In this context, it is the new Spanish MFA, Arancha González Laya, that received Juan Guaidó on the 25th of January 2020 in Madrid. González Laya, together with Mr. Borrell, pointed out the fact that Spain was ready to host the next meeting of the Montevideo process.

It may be worth remembering here that, on the 6th of November 2018, Spain had already framed the prominent orientations related to its coming back to Latin America. That day, as he was speaking before the Ibero-American commission of the Spanish Senate, then-MFA Josep Borrell reminded his audience of Spain’s actions and “state policies” towards the continent. As for the Ibero-American summits per se, their importance was stressed further on the 26th of November 2019, with the announcement of the creation of meetings for Ibero-American MFAs.

Beyond these aspects, there is a critical question that remains: is the EU still interested in Latin America? The majority of the EU meetings on Foreign Affairs have been dedicated to the Iran issue lately. At the same time, France seems to be more focused on the Sahel, Libya, and Ukraine, while Italy is interested in Libya, and Germany has a close eye on both Libya and Ukraine. In Latin America, all we hear from European countries are repeated condemnations of the situation in Venezuela.

Besides, it may also be essential to try and wonder about the extent to which Latin America in itself is coherent in its attitude towards Spain. Two events are worth mentioning in this context. In March 2019, Mexican president AMLO (left-wing) officially requested that Spain apologizes for past colonial abuse. While in Bolivia (right-wing), authorities proceeded in December 2019 to the expulsion of three Spanish diplomats that were suspected of trying to exfiltrate people close to Evo Morales.

Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky is a researcher on the Iberic world at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS). He is also the director of the Observatory of Latin America at the Jean Jaurès Foundation.

This article was originally published in French on the website of IRIS (The Institute for International and Strategic Relations), one of France’s leading think tanks:

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

J. Kourliandsky (2020). “Is Spain on its way back to Latin America? ”, Observatory on contemporary crises, February 18, 2020, URL: