This week, on October 12, Spain
joins with Latin American nations to celebrate its Fiesta Nacional de
España, the anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the New World on October
12, 1492. Today, the spotlight is on Joaquín de Arístegui Laborde,
Ambassador of Spain to T&T, who speaks of Spain’s special relationship
with our region:
Tell me about yourself.
My first conscious notion of landscape when I was a child is a blurry
Honduras and as I got older, a more precise Mexico where I spent my
early childhood, followed by Spain and Greece and Spain again. Moving
from Central America to Spain, I understood on a deeply personal level
that Latin America and Spain are part of one family in our shared
history, humour, festive traditions, world view, culture and art. I grew
up curious and passionate about the world. When my parents introduced me
to Spain I fell in love with my own country.
My father and grandfather were
diplomats. I was born and studied law in Madrid after which it was a
natural progression to become a career diplomat combining my love for
travel with the desire to engage Spain with the world in a meaningful
way through political and bilateral relations. I have served in Romania,
El Salvador, The Netherlands, Thailand, Switzerland, and twice back at
headquarters in Madrid. I am married, and my wife China and I have three
In Spanish, Trinidad refers
to the three hills Columbus first saw on his arrival. Our capital city
is called Port-of-Spain. How strong are the links between our two
Trinidad was an integral part of
Spanish history and the Hispanic world for three centuries, until 1797.
Columbus sailed to the Americas from here. The name of your capital
city, the fact that Spanish is taught in schools here, ongoing
traditions such as Parang brought here by Spanish priests, bear
testimony to our collective history. Over three centuries Trinidad has
not renounced its Spanish legacy but embraced it.
Part of my mission is to deepen and
revive our historical connections in this region. Spain established a
long overdue mission here in 2006. In the past 20 months, we re-launched
bilateral relations in tourism, energy, infrastructures, naval
construction, fashion, sport and cultural cooperation. By 2012, we want
to establish Instituto Cervantes, the most advanced Spanish language and
Hispanic cultural institution in the world (already established in over
70 non Spanish speaking cities worldwide), in Port-of-Spain as a
permanent cultural platform for language literature, films, media
interaction, civil society debate and business collaboration for the
benefit of all Caricom countries.
Spain reportedly has
Europe’s worst jobless rate of 21 per cent. 4.2 million people are
unemployed of whom 40 per cent—almost two million people—are the young
people. How did Spain, once considered “miracle country” come to this?
What are you doing about it? Has this increased crime?
Yes, we agree unemployment levels
are unacceptable. By the late 90s, Spain had taken its place as one of
the leading economic powers in the world hailed as one of the ten
largest economies. We also made mistakes which we acknowledge, do not
deny, and for which we do not blame others. This sounds simple but many
countries and institutions find it difficult to acknowledge their
mistakes so it’s difficult for them to move ahead. Ours is a service
economy. When two of key strategic labour intensive sub sectors, one
cyclical (construction) and the other seasonal (tourism) were affected
people lost jobs.
A construction bubble merged with
the so called “perfect economic crisis” worldwide, leaving many of our
young workers jobless and sinking small and medium-sized companies. We
could have doubled growth, artificially maintaining the construction
activity, and improving other figures by cutting corners, at a clear
social cost. Instead, we took the rocky path of maintaining a good
quality of life for all. For decades, Spain has invested in health,
education and infrastructure and transport (among the best in the
world). We have no intention of cutting back on any of this. Neither did
we cut our quota of aid to developing countries.
We took the bull by the horns by
restructuring the economy which requires great sacrifice from all our
citizens. Public servants took a salary cut, the banks and private
sectors restructured, there was constitutional reform to control public
expenditure, and labour reforms have begun. We didn’t need anyone to
tell us we need to spend less. Our deficit has been under control for
some time. Our citizens can see we are working towards creating
sustainable jobs, that we are fixing our mistakes. This is perhaps why
despite high unemployment there is no upsurge in crime or social unrest.
Even angry Spaniards, like the indignados who were hotly debating on how
the country should be run remain despite the current downturn, fiercely
committed to our country.
Your present government
despite knowing that austerity measures will most probably cost them the
upcoming election went ahead with them?
Yes. It takes political will to
take unpopular measures right before general elections. But Spaniards
see the economic crisis as an opportunity to fix past mistakes and move
ahead. Instead of tearing us apart it has triggered basic political
understanding between the main opposing political parties. Austerity
measures are likely to damage the ruling political party but it’s good
for the country and our politicians are willing to make that sacrifice.
It’s good for potential partners to
see us doing our homework, taking tough decisions, quickly not based on
political expedience but on a clear sense of responsibility. The Spanish
people are seeing sacrifice from their leaders, and understand that we
are in for a long and difficult period and all of us needed to join the
Where does Spain stand in the midst of the European debt crisis
when the Euro and indeed the EU (European Union) appear at risk of
Disintegration or unilateral exit
strategies are not options for Spain, a staunch EU member. The EU as an
economic and political unity of 27 member states is made up of many
different components and sensitivities. Not all EU states are equal
economically. Not all EU countries face the same challenges, in size,
risk and importance (my country has a good share of these). Spain, once
a recipient of European funds, has for some time now been a contributor
to the EU.
In the past months Europeans have
had to put up with unfair criticism from all directions. Greed,
speculation and gossip have been at the root of the present
international crisis. The EU’s strong solidarity will overcome this
crisis as it has in the late 70s and 1992. My hope for the people
unfairly losing their jobs now, the true victims of this crisis, is that
someday the individuals and institutions responsible for the crisis are
held accountable for their imprudence coupled with early warning
mechanisms so this doesn’t happen again. We will remain a global
economic force but this shake up should perhaps lead to a new world
order, more inclusive and democratic.
Spain has been at the crossroads of
many cultures and religions. You’ve been a great empire, opened America
to the world but you’ve also endured recurrent and terrorism. The
world civil wars, General Franco’s dictatorship (1936-75), associates
you with grandeur—passion, blood, death, art, dance, depicted in the
magical realism writings of great Spanish and Latin American writers,
from Federico García Lorca to Mario Vargas Llosa, from Gabriel Garcia
Marquez to and Pablo Neruda. Whatever it is, Spain fascinates the Octavio
Is that an accurate portrait of the Spanish psyche?
We are that. And more... Our past
has given us the confidence to make decisions quickly.
After Franco’s death in 1975,
Spaniards agreed on a new constitution, established a modern and
progressive democracy, contained radical forces, redefined foreign
relations with the world, joined the EU and became an economic force.
Our past is rich and complex, with shadows and splendour equally. Spain
has made major contributions to civilisations, throughout Europe, the
Mediterranean, the Americas and the Pacific region. Creative and
passionate, we have learnt to be pragmatic and conciliatory; very
European, yes, but also profoundly Mediterranean and Iberoamerican; a
very advanced nation, certainly, but deeply rooted in old traditions.
Perhaps this is why my country continues to fascinate the world, drawing
in over 45 million visitors a year.