Like most countries, Spain expressed sympathies Wednesday to Venezuelans over the death of President Hugo Chávez. But Mr. Chávez's passing also offers an opportunity to turn the page on Spain's close, but often contentious, relationship with Venezuela – and could even improve Spain's diplomatic and economic ties across South America.
History ties Spain and Venezuela together, dating back to the latter's days as a Spanish colony in the 16th century. Spaniards have migrated to Venezuela in massive numbers over the centuries, the most recent wave coming after the Spanish Civil War. Today, Venezuela is home to the world's third largest Spanish expatriate community (trailing only Argentina and France), many of whom hold dual citizenship.
Spanish companies are also among Venezuela's biggest investors: $500 million in 2011. The accumulated Spanish-owned stock – mostly in the banking, telecommunication, and energy industries – is second only to that of US companies. And bilateral commerce, while not vital for either country, is particularly important for Spain in this juncture, with exports to Venezuela reaching more than $2 billion in 2010.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy offered condolences in a statement Wednesday and offered to strengthen the “profound friendship.”
But the truth is that under Mr. Chávez, Spanish-Venezuelan relations have been bipolar. Spanish intellectual and institutional contributions were critical to the revolution at the beginning, but as Chávez turned authoritarian, ties worsened.
Chávez accused Spain of supporting a coup in 2002 that deposed him for a few hours and he “froze” ties. In 2007, King Juan Carlos famously told Chávez to "shut up" during a press conference of the Iberoamerican summit. Venezuela has expropriated several Spanish-owned companies and sidetracked trade negotiations between the European Union and Andean countries.
“Our relations are superseded by who governs either country. They are solid relations,” said Spanish Foreign Minister Jose García Margallo during a radio interview. Madrid and Caracas agreed to “normalize” economic ties in January. “They committed themselves to having good relations and I don’t think that is going to change much” with Chávez’s death.
But pressed about whether it could improve vital ties to Venezuela, Mr. Margallo conceded the Venezuelan president was an obstacle.
Referring to pending free trade negotiations between the EU and the South American Mercosur trade block, Margallo said Chávez had enormous influence. “Honestly, I think that a Venezuela with the parameters Chávez defended would have made negotiations impossible," he said.
“I don’t know what is going to happen, but it’s very important to us,” he added.
Spanish ties to Latin America are also politically crucial. Spain manages EU relations with the region and diplomatic relations to Venezuela are the second most important after those with Brazil, says Gustavo Palomares, a professor at several universities, including Spain’s Foreign Ministry Diplomatic School, and an expert in European-Latin America ties.
“Chávez's death could mean stability for diplomatic relations, not just between Spain and Venezuela, but between Europe and Iberoamerica,” Dr. Palomares says. “Under Chávez’s charismatic leadership, relations have changed with the weather.”
And in this context, Spain could also play a crucial role in helping Venezuela through this transition as it has in the past, he said, recalling how the pillars of Chávez's revolution had a big contribution from Spanish intellectuals and institutions, all the way up to helping write its constitution.