Spanish air base layoff plan a PR nightmare for Washington

17th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

In 2009, Zapateros promising relationship with the Obama administration was threatened by US defence cutbacks, a Wikileaks cable reveals. The issue drew the US Embassy closer than it would have liked to Spains notoriously conflictive domestic politics.

In 2009, US diplomats in Madrid warned Washington that planned civilian defence job cutbacks at US military bases in Morn de la Frontera and Rota could put Spanish Prime Minister Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero in an extremely difficult position and would become a public relations fiasco for the United States because some politicians would insist that Zapatero retaliate for the insult.

The summation made by William H. Duncan, who at the time was the US Embassys political counsellor, was part of an effort to get his State Department superiors to convince Pentagon officials not to go ahead with the planned layoffs at these two Spanish air and naval bases.

The principal opposition party, the Partido Popular PP, is likely to make things worse for us by using the job cuts to beat up Zapatero, Duncan wrote on August 28, 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks. President Obama is wildly popular in Spain, and Zapatero has very publicly made a new and closer relationship with the U.S. a centerpiece of his foreign policy. The PP will be quick to use job cuts at the bases to prove that Zapatero has failed in his attempts to improve ties with the U.S.

The US Air Force was planning a reorganisation of contract services at the Morn air base near Seville, which would result in the layoffs of up to 200 Spanish civilian employees. The US Navy also planned cutbacks at the Rota air and naval station located near Cdiz, meaning an undetermined number of job losses there.

As Duncan noted, some 6,000 US military flights passed through Spanish airspace each year with the addition of about 150 US warship port-of-calls annually. Both Morn and Rota played key roles in US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Governed by a bilateral agreement on defense cooperation that dates to the Eisenhower Administration three decades before Spain joined NATO, our defense arrangements with Spain are a cornerstone of the bilateral relationship, the cable states.

The so-called Agreement on Defense Cooperation ADC is automatically renewed each year, with different amendments introduced throughout the years.

In 2008, the United States got a glimpse of how serious[ly] the Spanish government views labour issues at these two bases. When it came time to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with the unions, the US Defense Department agreed on all but two demands. No jobs were at stake, and the outstanding requests bordered on the absurd e.g., being paid 40 hours wages for a shorter work week, wrote Duncan.

Then Interior Minister Alfredo Prez Rubalcaba called the Embassy to find out why the Pentagon couldnt meet the unions demands. Duncan said that US officials were able to explain to Rubalcaba their position and that the discussions quieted the prime ministers concerns. If the government of Spain was that concerned over relatively minor and excessive union demands over working hours, what will the reaction be to a large-scale job cuts? the diplomat asked.

No news is good news

Duncan cautioned that if the layoffs proceeded, Spanish officials could force the United States to pay local taxes and other fees, which they were exempt from under the bilateral treaty. The cutbacks could also jeopardise any special requests we make from time to time driven by unforeseeable operational necessities.

But Duncan said that the most dangerous aspect was the public relations issue.

The two bases get very little media attention and almost all of that comes from allegations U.S. military flights via Spain carried terrorism detainees to Guantanamo. No news is good news in this case, he wrote. Anything that spotlights the bases in the media is probably going to hurt our interests. We can certainly anticipate the unions will go to the press to claim they are being mistreated by the U.S. military, casting our use of the bases in a very negative light.

Last November, Vinnell, Brown & Root VBR, the US private manager that administrates the airbase at Morn, began its negotiations to lay off nearly 300 of the 594 employees, despite the protests by the unions and local mayors. After further negotiations, VBR decided to lay off only 119. A subsequent labour inspection found that 31 names included in the contract buyouts had no connection whatsoever to Morn and a fraud inquiry ensued.

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