US sizes up Spain's leading officials

Envoy gives Washington candid portraits of Zapatero and his Cabinet chiefs

The US Embassy in Madrid gave Washington a candid lowdown of the temperaments and personalities of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his Cabinet members in a batch of secret diplomatic cables that form part of the Wikileaks releases.

The US mission offers descriptions - sometimes distinctly un flattering - of Public Works Minister José Blanco, then-Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, who is called "egotistical" and Defense Minister Carme Chacón, who is described as "politically immature." Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba and Bernardino León, secretary general of the prime minister's office, who is called "the government's golden boy," gets good reviews from US Ambassador Eduardo Aguirre, who served in Madrid from 2005-2008. Aguirre is the author of most of the dossiers that were sent to his superiors in Washington as his "departing insights" before leaving his post. The compiling of the assessments was passed along by US Chargé d'Affaires Arnold A. Chacón, who signs the cable.

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"Zapatero is a wily politician with an uncanny ability - like a cat in a jungle - to sense opportunity or danger. It is dangerous to underestimate him, as many former rivals have found out too late," the cable states.

"In making decisions and formulating policy, he plays to his domestic audience, especially voters outside the Madrid region, which he looks down upon for a kind of 'inside the beltway' insularity that he perceives as detached from the concerns and views of most Spaniards. He is playing to the peanut gallery rather than to the front row.

"Zapatero, who is heading his second minority government, is constantly fighting for the support of the 1-2 million swing voters and traditional non-voters. In the ambassador's judgment, there are no issues that Zapatero would fall on his sword over; all options are always on the table in order to achieve his immediate political goals," the cable states.

In his assessment of King Juan Carlos, the ambassador calls him a "formidable ally" and urges incoming Obama administration diplomats "to engage" with the monarch.

"Juan Carlos is well-disposed to the US but he will always act in what he perceives to be the best interests of Spain," Aguirre concludes. "In meetings, the king will try to charm interlocutors and will bring down the level of formality and protocol to make them feel comfortable, thereby seeking to guide the relationship. It is best to stay at the king's level of banter and not be cowed by his aura. If you push back with joviality at any verbal jousting, you will win his respect."

Aguirre says that he is "convinced" that the king was the driving force in naming Jorge Dezcallar, 65, as Spanish ambassador in Washington over Foreign Minister Moratinos' objections. Dezcallar, who was appointed in July 2008, had served in the previous Popular Party government of José María Aznar as National Intelligence Center (CNI) director. Aguirre stated that the king had told him that Dezcallar was going to be the next envoy to the United States, six months before the decision was announced.

"The ambassador believes that Juan Carlos chose Dezcallar because he believes Dezcallar will do the best job for Spain in that position. Of course, it also helps that Juan Carlos likes Dezcallar and that Dezcallar has some personal allegiance to the king." As for Moratinos, the US envoy described him as "not the most impressive person" in the administration, and "well-meaning. albeit egotistical."

"It is fairly well known in Madrid among the ambassadorial corps that Moratinos is given to screaming at foreign ambassadors and chastising them at the first opportunity to put them in their place. It is a tactic that has caused many Ambassadors to leave with their tail between their legs," the cable states.

Aguirre also describes then-Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega as having an "icy personality," and who brings a "sterile, surgical approach to her work." The ambassador predicted that Fernández de la Vega won't last long in government because when she "ceases to be useful to Zapatero, he will let her go at the first politically convenient moment." Fernández de la Vega and Moratinos were dropped from the Cabinet during a government reshuffle in September.

Rubalcaba, the interior minister who moved up to the deputy prime minister's post after Fernández de la Vega was removed, topped Aguirre's list of the "the most impressive" government officials. "Rubalcaba is feeling the weight of power and is looking for an opportunity to leave" government, according to Aguirre. "Rubalcaba is extremely loyal to Zapatero, who understands that he needs Rubalcaba and will make it difficult for him to step down," the cable said.

In describing Defense Minister Carme Chacón, the ambassador called her "politically immature" but predicted that "she will grow with her job" and advised US diplomats to keep an eye on her. In another cable dated June 18, 2008 Aguirre reveals that following a lunch with her he presented Chacón with a stuffed toy Bald Eagle chick for her newborn son.

Aguirre had some words of warning over José Blanco, the Public Works minister who is also identified as one of Zapatero's closest advisors. The ambassador said that contact with him had to be maintained to ensure that Zapatero was getting the US government's messages.

"However, Blanco leaves a bad taste in the mouth of some past US interlocutors, whom he strikes as particularly untrustworthy. Blanco has an unfailing idiosyncrasy of never looking interlocutors in the eye when he shakes hands. Furthermore, he has a reputation for being especially ruthless on political issues, which he appears to relish."

Zapatero and Rubalcaba after the murder of a Civil Guard by ETA in 2008.
Zapatero and Rubalcaba after the murder of a Civil Guard by ETA in 2008.AFP

Zapatero helped GE win bid, embassy says

The US Embassy believed that Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero personally intervened in 2007 to help US giant General Electric obtain a lucrative Spanish military contract over Britain's Rolls-Royce.

That perception made by US Ambassador Eduardo Aguirre is contained in a cable dated January 21, 2009, which was signed by the US Embassy's charge d'affaires Arnold Chacón.

However, a former economic advisor to Zapatero, who was in government at the time the contract was awarded, has denied that version.

In the cable, Aguirre, who was giving incoming Obama diplomats insights on the Zapatero administration, gave an example of how the prime minister can be "amenable to working with us" on any particular issue that the US government deems important. "For example, at one point the ambassador informed Zapatero that US CEOs might decide to stop bidding in Spain due to a growing perception that the [government] was not welcoming US bidders on procurement contracts. Zapatero had told the ambassador to let him know if there was something important to the US [government] and he would take care of it."

In 2007, GE wanted to bid to supply and maintain 45 motors for NH-90 helicopters that Spain had recently purchased from Eurocopter for 1.2 billion euros. The Defense Ministry elected GE motors over the Rolls-Royce brand after GE told the ambassador that failure to win the contract would mean that the US company would close up shop in Spain. Aguirre relayed this to Zapatero's then-economic advisor, David Taguas.

The cable said that various sources had indicated that the Defense Ministry was set to award the contract to Rolls-Royce, but Moncloa overturned the decision in favor of GE. "The Ambassador is convinced that Zapatero personally intervened in the case in favor of GE," the cable says.

Calling the version "not credible," Taguas told EL PAÍS that such contracts are not negotiated at Moncloa.

Government sources say that Aguirre was perhaps trying to impress his superiors in Washington with such a story on how he helped GE win a contract.

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