Spain set to change world’s perception

Spain set to change world’s perception

30th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

Say goodbye to Spanish stereotypes of sun, sand and sangria as the government invests EUR 44 million to promote technology of local companies.

MADRID – One year into its second term, Spain's Socialist government is taking steps to boost the country's international status – and prove it has more to offer than its traditional image of sun, sand and sangria.

"There must be an effort to convey the notion that Spain is something more than just a tourist destination," said Julian Santamaria, a professor of political science at Madrid's Complutense University and a former ambassador to Washington.

The campaign has been given added stimulus with the election of US President Barack Obama after years of icy relations with the Bush administration, by Madrid's presidency of the European Union in the first half of next year, and by the economic crisis that has plunged the country into recession.

In New York this month, the government launched a plan called Made in/Made by Spain that highlights Spanish innovation in a bid to benefit from Obama's 787-billion-dollar economic stimulus plan.

The two-year 44-million-euro Spanish plan will "make known the quality and the technology of Spanish companies," said Industry, Tourism and Trade Minister Miguel Sebastian.

The United States "is a gigantic market and in which Spain is not sufficiently represented, even though we have companies that are world leaders," he said, referring to such giants as Telefonica, Banco Santander, energy group Iberdrola and Inditex, Europe's largest clothing retailer.

He blamed a misconception in the United States about Spain, the world's second most popular tourist destination.

"The American media has a very stereotypical idea of Spain as a sympathetic country, happy, enjoyable, with good food and nice people, but is unaware of that we are a very advanced country technologically and that we have many products to offer Americans," he said.

"It is not by accident that we are the eighth largest economy in the world, but by the work of Spaniards and the creativity of its companies."

But the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero feels this growing economic weight is not matched by its international status.

Strenuous lobbying led to Spain gaining a seat at the Group of 20 developed and developing nations conference in Washington in November and an invitation to join the next G20 meeting in London in April, even though Madrid is not a member.

Madrid feels its has a lot to offer the G20, as the country's more rigorous banking regulations have helped Spanish banks escape the worst of the crisis that has swept financial institutions worldwide, even though Spain's economy has collapsed as the bubble burst on its property market.

Zapatero was re-elected in March, 2008 after four years in which he transformed the country with a series of sweeping liberal social reforms.

Despite the concerns over the slumping economy, in his second term Zapatero "is shifting a bit toward international affairs," Santamaria told AFP.

And in Obama, the Socialist leader appears to have found a soulmate.

"I think there will be a clear understanding between Obama and Zapatero, not just based on personal feelings but because they might share a number of common values and purposes," said Santamaria.

Zapatero angered the US administration of George W. Bush by withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq immediately after being first elected in 2004.

Ties between Spain and the United States were further strained by Madrid's policy of holding political dialogue with Cuba. But Obama has been more open to dialogue with Havana than Bush.

Revived ties with the Washington mean Spain "is in a good position to resume the bridging role it played years ago between the US and a number of Latin American countries," said Santamaria.

Obama has also agreed to attend a meeting in Istanbul next month of the Alliance of Civilizations, a Zapatero initiative backed by the UN aimed at fostering greater cross-cultural understanding between the Islamic and Western worlds.

However, the United States said it was "deeply disappointed" by Spain's decision to withdraw its forces from the NATO-led force in Kosovo.

Madrid's reluctance to send more troops to Afghanistan is also likely to rankle, as Obama seeks to build troop numbers in the country. However, the Spanish press has speculated that Spain may reverse this decision, and up its presence in the war-torn country.

King Juan Carlos, who is credited with helping restore democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, has now called for Spain to make its voice heard around the world "to ensure our growth, well-being and security".

30 March 2009

text: AFP / Denholm Barnetson / Expatica
photo credits: Tim_Brakemeier, cesarastudillo and AFP

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