In 2008 it was the culture and foreign ministers of the Socialist government who fought it out between themselves. Now it's the turn of the culture and foreign chiefs of the center-right Popular Party (PP). The political colors may have changed, but the object of dispute remains the same: the Cervantes Institute, the country's flagship for the dissemination of Spanish culture abroad.
Spain's equivalent of the British Council, the Alliance Française or the Goethe Institut handles an annual budget of 100 million euros, and runs 80 outposts in five continents. For years now, Spain's culture chiefs have yearned to bring it under their department's control, but the Foreign Ministry has held on to it steadfastly, arguing that this is the way it is done in other countries.
It is no coincidence that in his two first public statements, Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo underscored the need to boost the Cervantes Institute as a key instrument in Spain's foreign policy, given the global reach of both Spanish language and culture.
But the secretary of state for culture, José María Lassalle (the PP has eliminated the stand-alone Culture Ministry and merged it with Sports and Education), is now brandishing a bill that his party put to Congress in July 2010. This text stated that "The Cervantes Institute will be organically attached to the Culture Ministry, since this is the ministry with the best experts in the area of culture and it will be able to grant the institute greater capacity to evenly develop all of its assigned goals."
But by the time the PP had won the general elections of November 20, it was sounding somewhat less emphatic and simply promising "a redefinition of the role of the Cervantes Institute."
Then, on December 21, with the PP government's restructuring of all ministries and departments, some people in the know suggested that the new secretary of state for culture would have "power of decision over foreign cultural action," a clear reference to the Cervantes. This added power was meant to represent partial compensation for the loss of the Culture Ministry as such.
When he walked into the Cabinet meeting, Foreign Minister García-Margallo brought along a report noting that the Goethe Institut, the British Council and the Alliance Française all depend on their own foreign ministries. He also argued that keeping the Cervantes under his wing is the best guarantee of unity of action abroad and of coherence among cultural, trade, diplomatic and development policies at a time when the state is busy focusing on combating the economic crisis.
Although the debate is still open, for now García-Margallo seems to have the upper hand: government sources said that the Cervantes will remain attached to his ministry, among other reasons because a transfer to culture would necessitate modifying the institute's foundational legislation, and the government has more pressing concerns right now.
What is clear is that change is afoot in terms of the leadership of the Institute. The PP government this week offered the presidency of the Cervantes to Nobel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa. The writer, who was offered the position by former PP Prime Minister José María Aznar but declined, again rejected the offer.
Currently, the Institute is headed up by the director, Socialist-appointed Carmen Caffarell, who has been in the job since July 2007. Under current plans, that role would remain an executive position, but the occupant would report to the new president.
The offer made to Vargas Llosa reflects the weight that the new PP government is giving to the Cervantes Institute, within an ambitious strategy of cultural activity abroad. The new chief will be charged with redefining an institution that has been criticized for focusing too much on teaching the Spanish language and not enough on the promotion of Spanish culture abroad.