Trinidad embracing Spanish legacy


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Category: International 09 Oct 11


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:

Q: Tell me about yourself.

A: 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 children.

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 countries?

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 effort.

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 disintegrating?

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 Paz world.

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.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur