Most Spaniards are pro-American " for now |

Most Spaniards are pro-American " for now

Morgan Smith

BARCELONA, Spain ” Two months have passed since the terrible bombings in Madrid that killed almost 200 people and injured hundreds more. On May 11, small ceremonies took place all over Spain, commemorating those who were killed or injured.

This has been a tragic and tumultuous period, one that has signaled major change for not only Spain, but the United States as well. Three days after the bombings, national elections were held and the ruling party of Jose Maria Aznar, who had supported the United States in Iraq, was defeated. Then, almost immediately after taking office, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the new prime minister, announced that he would pull Spain’s troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible and that Spain would turn its focus back to France, Germany and the rest of Europe.

Spain is an important ally that the United States doesn’t want to lose. It is also a country with enormous good will toward the United States and individual Americans. The music scene is dominated by jazz and blues. Bruce Springsteen draws larger crowds than any other musician, including Spaniards. Lance Armstrong is a hero, Bill Gates is revered as a business leader and Bill Clinton is still very popular.

As part-time residents of Spain, we’re always asked by young Spaniards to help them find homestays or jobs in the United States. And for skiers, an Aspen vacation is their dream.

So, I was anxious to get back here from Colorado in late April, talk to people face to face, instead of just via e-mail, and get a clearer answer as to what this might mean for U.S.-Spain relations. In the last three weeks, I’ve asked dozens of people, mostly but not all Spaniards, questions like the following.

– Why did Spanish people vote out the ruling Aznar government that had supported the United States in Iraq and that had been clearly favored to win?

– Was it because the March 11 bombings were caused by Islamic terrorists, suggesting that this was punishment for Spain having supported America? Or was it because the government insisted the bombings had been caused by Basque terrorists, when all the evidence pointed to al-Qaida?

– Do Spaniards see this as a victory for terrorism, as it has seemed to many in the United States?

– Has this changed U.S.-Spain relations and the attitude of Spaniards toward Americans?

– How did Spaniards feel about Zapatero’s promise to pull their troops out of Iraq so quickly?

Here is a composite of some of the many answers I’ve received.

“The U.S. has lost the propaganda war,” says Alex, a young professor in Barcelona who has just published a book about U.S.-Spain relations. “A new generation is coming up that will hate the country, not just the U.S. government. It’s really sad.”

“Detonante,” says Gustavo, who now works for the Catalan government ” “Explosive. The way Aznar’s government distorted the news about the bombings [by blaming them on Basque terrorists, when the evidence increasingly pointed to Islamists] reminded us of a series of earlier distortions like the mishandling of the Prestige oil spill in November 2002. This all came together and detonated or exploded.”

Gustavo pauses, then continues, “It was a question of honesty, not al-Qaida or Bush or the United States. If the government had been honest about who caused the bombings, it would have won the election.”

Jordi, a young computer entrepreneur and Barcelona native agrees. “We were lied to. That was the issue. It doesn’t have anything to do with America as a country or Americans as individuals. That friendship continues unchanged.”

Taylor is an 11-year-old student from Colorado, one of only three Americans in a private Catholic school in Madrid. Speaking of his fellow students, he says, “They make fun of George Bush, but not of Americans or the U.S.” Sheila, a Canadian artist who has lived here for six years, agrees. “This was an internal issue.”

Pablo, a waiter, says, “Iraq is like when Napoleon tried to conquer Spain hundreds of years ago. You can’t defeat the local people, you can’t win at house-to-house fighting.” Then he shrugs. “But for us to take sides with the French? We’re just pulling our pants down for them.”

Bartolome, a Madrid native with a home-renovation business in Barcelona, argues that terrorism will continue to be a problem for Spain, no matter how quickly Spanish troops leave Iraq. “Zapatero doesn’t understand that no democratic country is free from terrorism,” he says.

“Bush opened the box of Pandora,” Cristina tells me. She is half-French, half-Spanish and runs a successful relocation business. “But still,” she adds, “I just saw a panel of French journalists on TV and even they agreed that it was a victory for terrorism.”

A recent article in the International Herald Tribune indicated that many Spanish soldiers, even those who had been opposed to the war, regretted being pulled out so precipitously. Carlos Royo, who was opposed, said, “America’s reason for going to war was cynical …” but then added, “the work we were doing seems justified. It had valor.”

When a cab driver realizes that that I am American, he twists around and says, “Look, maybe this Iraq thing has all been a mistake, but we shouldn’t pull our troops.”

An older woman tending her store in Segovia puts it more strongly. “This is a disgrace to Spain. We should stick it out like the rest of you.”

These conversations don’t qualify as a scientific poll. They may, however, offer some insights that haven’t been seen in the U.S. press.

First, while we in the United States see the “result” of the March 14 elections as a victory for terrorism, people in Spain are focused on the “cause” ” anger at Aznar’s misleading comments about who was to blame for the March 11 bombings. It wasn’t about George Bush, the United States or even Iraq.

Second, good will toward Americans is still strong, despite Alex’s comments. (That may erode quickly, thanks to the photos from Abu Ghraib. I frankly haven’t had the nerve to ask people about that.)

Third, Spaniards understand that the threat of Islamic terrorism remains here, as it is in every democracy.

The real question is, what next for the United States and Spain? Despite our historical ties, we really aren’t that close. For example, this is one of the most business-friendly countries in Europe, yet U.S. exports to Spain on a per-capita basis are way below those to France, Germany, the United Kingdom or the Netherlands. You simply don’t see American appliances and other products in the stores.

The United States is a highly desirable destination for Spanish tourists, but we’re making little effort to promote ourselves. The U.S. booth at the huge Barcelona tourism show in mid-April, for example, was an embarrassment.

The major issue, however, is terrorism. Spain is an entry point and bridge between North Africa and Europe for terrorists. Mohammed Atta, the 9/11 leader, was in Spain shortly before 9/11, and the Spanish government has made numerous arrests. It’s essential, therefore, that police in Spain and the United States maintain a strong working relationship.

The last issue is Abu Ghraib and the revulsion over the treatment of Iraqi prisoners. How much additional damage will this do to our image? How long before that will seep down and infect relations with ordinary Americans? That’s what worries me now.

Morgan Smith is a former Aspenite and part-time Barcelona resident. He can he reached at

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