Spain: European gateway to Latin America

Article published on June 5, 2006
Article published on June 5, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

There is no need for Europe to look for gateways to Latin America. Through immigration, culture and diplomacy, Spain is preserving a very special relationship with Latin America.

In Spain, Latin American immigrants do not find it too hard to keep their customs. They can find almost the same products as in their home countries; practice their religion or go to cultural events that are very similar to the ones they are used to. Latino artists such as Juanes, Shakira or David Bisbal are very popular in Spain.

In the last decade, it has been quite common to see a couple where one is Latin American and the other, Spanish, or vice versa. Vanessa Medrano, coordinator of immigration projects for the Spanish NGO Movement for Peace, Disarmament and Freedom (MPDL), says that there are adverts for these mixed marriages in magazines for the homeless in Barcelona or Madrid. She adds, somewhat sarcastically, “now homosexual marriages can get you citizenship as well!”

Vanessa Medrano, says that “the majority of immigrants don’t come to Spain for fun, but because they are looking for better living conditions. Many of them, up to about 70%, have to survive doing less-qualified jobs than in their home country, and economics graduates end up doing the household chores.” Nevertheless, it is worthwhile. In 2005, the 986,178 Latin Americans surveyed in Spain by the Permanent Immigration Observatory, part of the Foreign Ministry, sent home remittances to the value of 3,844 million euros.

Colombia is one of the countries that provide the most immigrants. Many, such as Camilo, a 25 year old engineering student, came to Spain as teenagers, giving them the time to do a degree. “It was quick and easy to integrate on a social level; there’s no doubt that university helped, because I joined almost as soon as I arrived and made many friends,” says Camilo.

The Spanish colonisation of South America created a strong, common cultural base that still exists today. Spanish customs were imposed and its domination has taken a long time to go away. Since decolonisation ended, cultural exchanges have been intense, particularly in the twentieth century, due in part to intellectuals exiled during the Civil War. Nowadays, Spain and Latin America share successful writers and artists united by a common language, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Iglesias or Gael García Bernal.

Opportunities to be made and problems to solve

Spain and Latin America have established various economic agreements since democracy arrived in Spain, strengthening its relationship, and by extension, that of Latin American countries with the EU. Nevertheless, the majority of these are bilateral and not regional, which causes distrust in the Latin American countries. Education, terrorism or human rights are topics on which they work in common.

Today’s biggest challenge is a free trade agreement for the whole area and Spanish and European diplomats are constantly working on this issue, particularly given the failure of US-Latin American negotiations.

On a business level, there are many Spanish companies operating in Latin America, particularly in the energy sector – though they too are faced with problems. For example, the recent announcement that gas would be nationalised in Bolivia sent shockwaves through the Spanish multinational, Repsol, and Zapatero’s government, which is operating on various fronts in the area. Regimes such as those in Cuba and Venezuela, and their lack of respect for human rights, are other key diplomatic issues that are making the relationship between Spain and Latin America somewhat tense.

Despite this, both parties are trying to solve problems through summits, such as that held in Vienna two weeks ago, since good relations help out everyone. Emerging powers such as China are already looking to Latin America, but they lack that safe and constant special relationship enjoyed by Europe. It is time to take full advantage of the fact that Spain is the reference point for many Latin Americans.