“Spain’s negative image is too visible,” says US commerce chief

Jaime Malet is worried about perceptions of the country abroad

Jaime Malet.

Jaime Malet spends half of the week in Madrid and the other half in Barcelona. Besides the hassle of living in two cities at the same time, he also travels to the United States around 15 times a year (although last year it was "only" six times, he notes).

He's been doing this for 12 years, as many as he has been at the helm of the US Chamber of Commerce in Spain, which defends the interests of Spanish and American multinationals in both countries. This period of time has encompassed both "the best" relations between Washington and Madrid, under the administrations of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister José María Aznar, and "the most tense" of times, also under Bush and the Socialist PM José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Malet's pleasant attitude lies somewhere between the forcefulness of someone who is representing collective interests and the prudence of a diplomat. He does not hesitate to state that Spain must keep making reforms, yet fails to show the same kind of assertiveness when he is asked to name his favorite US city. He does, eventually, but clearly would not want any mayor or businessperson to feel offended by his choice.

"It's New York," he confesses. "It has a very special kind of energy. It makes you feel like you're in the center of the world."

Malet notes that he has worked under all kinds of political tendencies, yet has not participated in any presidential trips. Yet. "There will be one soon. Most likely from Madrid to Washington. I can't imagine four more years without a trip of that kind."

We were too arrogant and vain. We should be more humble"

He has, however, organized several trips for Spanish prime ministers — one for Aznar and two for Zapatero — to address top executives from leading US corporations. One of those trips — which was Zapatero's first time meeting representatives from America's top 30 corporations — came just eight days after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, in September 2008. And there, standing before the heads of IBM, Microsoft and Philip Morris, Zapatero claimed that Spain would soon return to the path of growth, and that the country had "the most solid financial system in the world."

One of Malet's priorities right now happens to be "the improvement of the country's image."

"The Spain brand is not good," he explains. "We often make headlines in the English-language media. Before this, Spain's image was very poor, but now there is too much visibility, and it is negative. Changing perceptions is a complicated thing, but we are working on it."

Corporate bigwigs, he says, are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. "We need to gain credibility."

Malet also says that Spain should not make "the same mistakes of the past. We were too arrogant and vain. We should be more humble."

In short, says the expert, Spain should make good use of its people.

"On a business level, Spain is a very Americanized country, partly because of the business schools. As for companies and executives, there is a lot of good chemistry between both countries."

At the same time, the Hispanic population in the US continues to grow and gain influence. "It is an opportunity for a country that has lacked the kind of ally that Italy had, with all its immigrants and descendants."

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