THAT the Spanish feel a closeness to Latin America that surpasses anything they feel for most of their much-closer neighbors in Europe is evident every day here.
Posters freshly plastered in cities across the country demand an end to the United States trade embargo on Cuba. Cultural events featuring Peruvian musicians or Mexican dancers are prominently advertised. Recent visits by Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and a group of four former South American presidents seeking Spanish investments in their countries receive prominent coverage. Travel agencies feature special fares to Argentina, Venezuela, and Mexico.
Yet with the European Community, which Spain joined in 1986, on the verge of critical decisions to increase political and economic integration, Spain is about to tie itself even more tightly to the continent on which it sits. With its borders opening progressively to the investors, products, and norms of Europe, and with its political decisions increasingly intertwined with those of its 11 EC partners, Spain's interests are becoming more focused on Europe. Spain bonds to Europe
Still, the Spanish say they want to maintain the historic, linguistic, and cultural ties binding them to Latin America, while at the same time acting as the Spanish-speaking world's advocate and entryway in Europe. As the Spanish economy grows, they want to see their country's involvement grow in Latin America's private and public development.
Yet not all analysts here believe this will be possible. Some believe Spanish ties to Latin America will weaken as Europe consolidates and the Americas develop free trade. Others believe conflicting signals reflecting a sentiment of ambivalence between two directions will continue to mark Spanish actions.
"Our interest is clearly here in Europe," says a Spanish official with the EC in Brussels, "but Latin America is our family."
The treatment of Spain as a near-pariah by the rest of Europe during the Franco dictatorship played a role in Spain's gaze west, according to some analysts, but that influence is fading.
"Part of the problem is sentimental. We felt rejected by the rest of Europe, and accepted by others like us across the sea," says Salvador Giner, director of the Institute for Advanced Social Studies in Madrid and Barcelona. "But now we have to make a decision for Europe, ... we will have to start treating a people so close to us [Latin Americans] like foreigners."
Spain refuses to require visas of Latin Americans visiting Spain, and maintains double-nationality accords with some countries - reasoning that Latin America is an extension of Spain and Europe, in the same way that the US and Canada are considered "European," with membership in NATO and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or that Germany considers ethnic Germans living in Eastern Europe part of Germany.
Giner calls it "nonsense" when Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez Marquez says Spain will never require visas for citizens of Latin America. "We are planning a borderless Europe by 1993, and the rest of [the EC] will not allow this arrangement to continue."
Adds Juan Luis Paniagua, dean of the political science and sociology faculty at the University of Madrid, "Spain has chosen Europe, and if Europe says no to such special arrangements, it will be no."
Beyond the emotional nature of the visa issue, the government has a clear idea of what role it wants to play in Latin America. To maintain a transatlantic dialogue, Spain's King Juan Carlos developed the Ibero-American summits between leaders of Spain, Portugal, and Latin American countries, the second of which will be held in Madrid next July.
Yet with a realism about how much a Spain busy with its own economic development can do on its own, the focus is on reminding the EC and international institutions of Latin America's needs.
"I don't like the term 'bridge,' which is being used so much to describe what Spain wants to be between Europe and Latin America," says Yago Pico de Coana, the Spanish Foreign Ministry's director-general for Latin America. "Countries like Argentina, and Brazil, and Mexico are big enough to represent themselves," he says. "But there is economic, political, and cultural work that can be done together, and Spain wants to make sure it is kept up."
Mr. Pico de Coana notes that much of Latin America "already has the basics of a functioning, productive market, including an entrepreneurial class, that Eastern Europe will take until [the year] 2000 to develop." He says Spain's role can be a catalyst for international public and private investment.
The Spanish have been active investors most notably in Argentina recently - in telecommunications and transportation - setting an example they hope other Europeans will follow. Spain gives more than two-thirds of its development assistance to Latin America, and officials hope private investment will double or triple that sum.
Spain also has interests in the Mediterranean basin, with Spanish officials like Foreign Minister Francisco Fernandez Ordez keen to work with the countries of North Africa on such issues as immigration, trade, and economic development.
In that vein, Spain has spearheaded a drive to hold regular discussions among leaders of southern European and North African nations. One goal is to force Europe to address issues concerning the area, which might otherwise be neglected because of the EC focus on Eastern Europe. Yet Spain's focus remains within the EC, especially as Europeans move toward economic and political union in 1993. With concerns unabated over what effect the EC's single market will have on less economically developed members, Sp ain has become an advocate for the Community's poorer countries. Spain's influence
"The reality of the Community is that Germany and France, together with Great Britain and Italy, form the power core ... says Jose Maria de Areilza, a former Spanish foreign minister. "But Spain follows close behind and has unique position that needs to be expressed."
Spanish leaders insist, for example, that they will only approve closer political union that includes an extension of EC power to new areas - social legislation, the environment, and justice - if money is included so poorer members can afford to meet new demands and higher standards.
With a Spanish veto threat hanging over their head, other EC leaders are likely to listen.