By Andres Oppenheimer

The widely expected victory of the center-right People's Party in Spain's next presidential elections is drawing growing attention to statements by party officials that they plan to change this country's foreign policy, and become much more critical of Cuba, Venezuela and other authoritarian regimes.

If that happens, it would make a big difference in the Latin America diplomatic arena. Despite its economic crisis, Spain is a major investor in Latin America, and a leader on Latin American initiatives within the 27-country European Union.

But will the PP win, and will it change Spain's foreign policy? Let's look at the facts. A June 5 poll by the daily El País shows that PP leader Mariano Rajoy's party leads by a record 14 percent in voters' preferences over its nearest rival. In the May municipal elections, the PP won by nearly 8 percent of the vote.

On a week-long visit here, I've found the country as beautiful as ever -- Madrid's streets are clean, and sidewalk cafes are teeming with patrons until the wee hours -- despite the economic crisis that has resulted in 20 percent unemployment. But in conversations with friends across the political spectrum, widespread disenchantment with the current government of Socialist Party leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is evident. Few doubt that Rajoy will be Spain's next prime minister.

Rather than a symptom of Rajoy's popularity -- he has zero charisma -- the polls reflect widespread disappointment with Zapatero and his party. According to a June 28 editorial by the daily El Mundo, Zapatero's "has been the worse government the nation has had in thirty years of democracy."

Elections are scheduled for March 2012, but the conventional wisdom here is that -- if things deteriorate further -- they could be held as early as November.

Congressman Gustavo de Arístegui, the People's Party congressional spokesman on foreign affairs, told me that Zapatero's government has been "absolutely complacent with the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes," because "the president's foreign policy has been aimed at attracting votes from the extreme leftist wing of the Socialist Party."

By comparison, if the People's Party wins the next elections, "we will start a firm, demanding dialogue, without breaking relations" with Cuba, Venezuela and other countries that violate democratic rights, he said. Spain's foreign policy "should have among its key guidelines the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights," he added.

Regarding Cuba, for instance, the People's Party would not support Spain's current demand to the European Union that it drop its so-called "common position" linking an improvement in ties to concrete steps toward a political opening on the island, he said.

In addition, a People's Party government would be much more aggressive in defending the rights of Spanish companies in Latin America, he said.

"When some Spanish companies have had problems in Argentina, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the Spanish government has looked the other way," he said. "Spain must defend its companies. There are 8 million Spaniards in Spain's stock market, and the government cannot ignore their interests."

But Carlos Malamud, a Latin America analyst with Spain's Royal El Cano Institute, a Madrid-based think tank, doubts there will be much change in Spain's foreign policy. "Beyond differences in rhetoric, there will be continuity, because Spain has state policies, and interests," he said.

My opinion: Spain has already begun changing its foreign policy rhetoric under the current government, since the appointment late last year of Trinidad Jimenez as foreign minister.

Unlike her predecessor Miguel Angel Moratinos, who came across as an apologist for Cuba's military dictatorship, Jimenez has built bridges with human and civil rights groups. Having interviewed both, I found Jimenez to be much more open-minded than Moratinos.

Also, even if Spain shifts to the right, Rajoy will want to differentiate himself from former right-of-center Prime Minister Jose María Aznar, whose embrace of George W. Bush's ill-fated invasion of Iraq does not sit well with most Spaniards.

The good news is that Spain's return to a more principled foreign policy -- in the tradition of former Socialist President Felipe Gonzalez -- has already begun, and is likely to intensify no matter who wins the next elections.


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