Obama, the Spanish perspective
June 18, 2010
In March 2008 I wrote an article for the Aspen Times Weekly titled, “In Spain, Obama is ‘Kennedy with Music,'” quoting a journalist named Jordi Soler. It was three weeks before their national elections, but Spaniards at all levels were more excited about Barack Obama than their own drab candidates, Jose Luis Zapatero and Mariano Rajoy.
The same was true on subsequent visits, both after Obama had won the primary and after his election.
However, unemployment in Spain is now at least 20 percent, the Zapatero government has been inept, the opposition has been rocked by scandals and the real estate market continues to crumble.
In this gloomy climate, one would expect Spaniards to be totally focused on their internal problems, not the American president. Nonetheless, I took my Obama postcards along on this recent trip and asked many Spaniards (some of whom I had interviewed before) for their reactions to him. These were working people – cab drivers, shop keepers, farmers, restaurant workers – not government officials or politicians.
The results were encouraging, from an international relations standpoint. Uniformly, these Spaniards were excited to discuss these issues and allowed me to photograph them with the Obama card. Then, most of them prominently displayed the cards in their places of business.
First, unlike in years past, not one Spaniard blamed Spain’s current problems on the United States. They realize that their problems result from an excessive reliance on their construction and real estate boom, overly restrictive labor laws that discourage hiring new workers, a failure to make Spanish workers competitive through educational and training programs, and weak and often corrupt political leadership.
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Second, Obama remains very popular, especially because of the passage of the health care reform bill, which is perceived as a huge and long overdue victory. Spaniards, like citizens across the developed world, have long had universal health care and believe it is a basic human right. Although there can be long waits for surgery and little choice of doctors in Spain, most are very satisfied.
So while they are proud that Obama nailed down this victory, they are also puzzled as to why there was so much opposition and why it took so long.
In many other ways, Spain’s problems are similar to those Obama is facing. Here are some examples.
Immigration: The shortage of work has driven many immigrants out of Spain, especially Africans, mostly from Senegal. At the same time, many Latin Americans (Ecuador, Peru and Colombia, mostly) have integrated into steady but lower-level jobs in Spain. Nonetheless, we did not encounter the virulent hostility to immigrants is often seen in the U.S.
One similarity between Spain and the U.S.: Spaniards are migrating away from hard manual labor, such as working in the olive orchards, just as Americans won’t go to places like Palisade, Colo., to pick fruit, no matter how much they need the money.
Renewable energy: Thanks to government subsidies, the solar industry exploded in Spain. Now subsidies have been reduced and there has been a painful retrenching. Nonetheless, some very strong companies are surviving and will provide leadership in an area where Americans are moving slowly. Spain has also been a leader in wind energy for some years.
This could be significant for Colorado because Governor Ritter has been a leader in encouraging those companies to invest in Colorado.
Corruption: The speculative real estate and construction boom brought with it enormous corruption, not unlike the U.S. banking scandals. That is slowly being unearthed. How much is real and how much is political retribution is unclear and will depend on the abilities of Spain’s unimpressive judicial system.
The Roman Catholic Church: Although Spain is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, Spaniards, in fact, have a much lower level of church attendance than Americans and the Church has seen its political influence decline dramatically. For example, Spain legalized gay marriage at the beginning of the Zapatero years and Spaniards seem to have accepted that.
Nonetheless, Spaniards are now having to face what they had once thought was an “American problem” – the sexual behavior of many clergy members.
Innovation: The Financial Times recently wrote about a 40-year-old Spanish businessman named Carlos Barrabes, whom it called The Father of the Spanish E-commerce Revolution. Many years ago we visited his mountain climbing store in the tiny town of Benasque on the Spain-France border, and asked why he had such a huge inventory for such a small area. The reason was he had developed an enormous Internet business and was actually selling American climbing gear to Americans cheaper than they could buy it in the United States, he said.
The question for Spain – and the United States as well – is how create more innovators like Barrabes.
After having lived in Spain during the Bush years, it’s exciting now to see a new respect and affection for our president. International good will is intangible and hard to measure but, in my opinion, important. We have it now with Spain. Let’s keep it.