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Spain’s new foreign minister led swine flu battle

Spain’s new foreign minister, Trinidad Jimenez, is a close ally of the prime minister who gained popularity as health minister for her leadership in the battle against swine flu.

Widely known simply as “Trini,” she is one of the most popular members of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s government.

Jimenez, 48, became health minister in April 2009 just as the world was grappling with the swine flu outbreak.

Soon, her face was all over the television screens as she explained the steps her ministry was taking. She gained the support of all Spain’s regional governments for her strategy, a considerable achievement.

Jimenez has a reputation as an industrious politician.

Before taking the health portfolio, she had worked for three years as secretary of state for Latin American affairs under Foreign Minister Angel Moratinos, whose office she is now taking over.

Her appointment comes amid tensions with Morocco over Spain’s disputed North African enclaves, with Britain over Gibraltar and with Venezuela over allegations that Basque separatists received weapons training in the Latin American country.

She will make her international debut as foreign minister at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers on Monday in Luxembourg which will discuss the bloc’s common policy on Cuba.

Moratinos had been a staunch advocate of softening the EU’s position on Cuba.

He had been scheduled to lead a trade delegation made up of representatives of 18 Spanish firms on a tour of Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates between October 31 and November 4.

It was not immediately clear if the trip would go ahead with Jimenez at the helm or if it would be postponed.

A member of the Socialist Party since 1984, Jimenez helped get Zapatero elected as leader of the party in 2000 and has remained one of his staunchest defenders even as his popularity has plunged in a severe economic downturn.

“Zapatero will get Spain out of the economic crisis, he is the best leader we have and a winning option,” she said in an interview published in centre-right daily newspaper El Mundo in February.

Her new appointment comes just days after she lost a vote to represent the Socialist Party in 2011 Madrid regional elections to a little-known former mayor of a dormitory town near the Spanish capital.

In a sign of the high level of confidence Zapatero has in Jimenez, her candidacy was supported enthusiastically by the prime minister and the big guns of his government.

Her defeat in the Madrid vote was widely interpreted as a set-back for the prime minister.

A lawyer by training who was born in the southern port of Malaga, under her short term as health minister Jimenez made the “morning after” contraceptive pill available without prescription in Spain for the first time.

She was also charged with applying a law which allows people with severe disabilities or illness to obtain daily help or in severe cases their own full-time carer paid for by the state.

Jimenez was married to a Spanish diplomat who she divorced in 1995 after following him to posts in Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and Israel. She has no children.

As a Madrid town councillor, she officiated the wedding of Spanish politician Pedro Zerolo and his male partner in October 2005, just three months after Spain became the third member of the European Union to allow same-sex marriages.

“It is not just another wedding, it is a dream that has been cherished for a long time, a conquest which is a symbol for many people,” she said at the time.