Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bravo, Zapatero!

It is very rare in my experience as an international correspondent that one can speak with unhesitating praise about the actions of the world’s political leaders. However, the performance of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at the Ibero-American summit in Santiago, Chile yesterday deserves such positive words.

Faced with the ranting invective of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who looked every bit the self-aggrandizing, despotic egomaniac that his most vituperative critics accuse him of being, Zapatero displayed a rare trait in today’s political firmament: Class

The trouble began when Chávez, who seems rather inordinately fond of the sound of his own voice, began excoriating Zapatero’s conservative predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar, as a "fascist” who was “not human.” Zapatero, a Socialist who made one of his first acts as Prime Minister bringing home Spain’s troops from Iraq , legalized same-sex marriage in his country and has been locked in a fierce political struggle with Aznar’s Partido Popular opposition party back in Spain, felt the need to respond.

“I am not close to Aznar’s ideas, but former President Aznar was democratically elected by the Spanish people and I demand that respect for only that one reason,” Zapatero said calmly.

Chávez’s continued to rant and interrupt until his microphone was finally cut as would happen to a local crackpot at a town hall meeting. Though Spanish King Juan Carlos’ angry demand that Chávez “shut up” has received far more attention, I believe it was Zapatero’s calm and respectful demeanor in the face of an ugly and unprovoked attack against his countrymen and women and their democratic choice that deserved the most praise.

To fully appreciate Zapatero’s gesture, one must also think back to March of this year. At that time Zapatero’s decision to allow the hunger striker José Ignacio de Juana Chaos (aka Iñaki de Juana Chaos), a leader of the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) Basque separatist group convicted of killing 25 people, to serve out the remainder of his sentence under house arrest lead to a huge political uproar in Span, which Aznar’s Partido Popular effectively and a trace cynically exploited to their political advantage, calling hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into the streets of Madrid.

I did not support Zapatero’s action at the time, given ETA’s more than 800 victims and its attack against the Madrid airport last year that killing a pair of Ecuadorian immigrants (despite supposedly having initiated a permanent ceasefire, which has since been rescinded), but ultimately, it was within his rights as Spain’s Prime Minister to commute De Juana Chaos’s sentence if he saw fit, and within the rights of the Spanish people to deliver their verdict on the wisdom of that action in the country’s next general election.

The difference between a political leader like Zapatero and a political leader like Chávez can be summed up in one concept, I believe: The belief that a country’s institutions are always more fundamental to the health of democracies than the egos and grand designs of individual politicians. Unlike Mr. Chávez, who in my reading has sought to politicize every element of Venezuelan government and civic life to his own ends with little regard for such precepts as the separation of powers or the autonomy that grants bodies such as courts and educational systems their authority, Mr. Zapatero has been scrupulously faithful to the concept that a country’s institutions are at least as important as its politicians and also to the idea that inclusion and persuasion, rather the confrontation and vilification, are the true paths to progressive political change.

For that, and for his eloquent defense of that concept in Santiago, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero deserves our respect and, in my view, a round of applause.


Unknown said...

Absolutely Agree! I was one of the students listening to you at the American University of Paris, and I started reading some of your blog. I was very proud of my Prime Minister Zapatero, but equally proud as well of my King. I just wrote an article on this for my school newspaper. Hope everything is goign well!

Unknown said...

The problem with your post is that Aznar was actually a fascist. Not in some insult-slinging way but in the sense that �fascist� is an actual word with a real definition. Under Franco�s rule he was a member of the fascist party and opposed the constitution that would reinstate democracy in 1978.

Of course, Aznar also publicly supported the coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002, which the Venezuelan president (not to mention the voters) is legitimately torked by. You talk about �ugly and unprovoked attacks,��and Chavez certainly goes on the rhetorical offensive�but you seem shocked by uncouth words rather than Aznar�s undemocratic behavior. That strikes me as a serious problem with priorities.

Michael Deibert said...

Thank you, Ignacio. Yes, I do think Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero made his countrymen proud. And it is always enjoyable to speak with young students and to hear their ideas about journalism and the world at large. Hopefully you found my little talk interesting!

To“Bo Rev”: Webster’s defines fascist as “a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition“ OR “a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control.” Neither of these definitions characterized either the first or the second governments of José María Aznar.

In the 1996 election, the Partido Popular (the political party Aznar was affiliated with) won 37.6% of the vote, and ruled in concert with three other political parties. In the 2000 election, the PP won 44.5% of the vote. Far from economic regimentation, in several controversial decisions, Aznar jettisoned the Spanish government’s shares in Telefónica, Repsol and other state industries. Because of Aznar’s support of the Iraq war, virtually all of Spain’s major cities saw huge demonstrations in 2003, none of which were suppressed by the government.

Being sympathetic to social- democratic ideals, much like Zapatero, I am not close to Aznar’s philosophy of government, but, like it or not, he was the legitimate electoral choice of the Spanish people. You also seem unaware of the progressive nature of Zapatero’s government, which has shown itself able to effect progressive change in Spain without resorting to the gaseous bluster and anti-democratic moves that seem to have come to characterize the Chávez regime in Venezuela.

Michael Deibert said...

Also, "Borev," I think when you write that "Aznar was a member of the fascist party" what you really mean is that he was a member of the Frente de Estudiantes Sindicalistas when he was a teenager, which was affiliated with the Falange Española Tradicionalista (Franco's party).

Though Aznar did join the Alianza Popular conservative party to contest electoral political following Franco's death, along with Manuel Fraga, Aznar bolted to move the political current towards the centre and helped found the Partido Popular (PP). All of which is as irrelevant as Chávez's illegal 1992 coup attempt when it comes to respecting the fact that both Aznar and Chávez were/are duly elected leaders, though it could be argued that Aznar showed more commitment than Chávez to governing by the rules of a democracy (separation of powers, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, etc).

Of course, being elected does not give a leader the right to do whatever they want irrespective of the law or constitution (as we saw in Aristide's Haiti or Bush's United States, to name two examples I am familiar with) but it is a step in the right direction.

For his part, King Juan Carlos officially dissolved the Falange Española Tradicionalista in 1977 and rushed to the defense of Spain's national democracy during the attempted coup of 1981.