Has Spain done a U-turn on Venezuela?

The government has refused to clarify why, within a year, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has gone from recognizing Juan Guaidó as the interim Venezuelan president to avoiding meeting with him

Government spokesperson María Jesús Montero.
Government spokesperson María Jesús Montero.Marta Jara (EP)
Lucía Abellán

In February 2019, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez officially recognized Juan Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela. But when Guaidó visited Madrid on Saturday, Sánchez was noticeably absent. The Venezuelan leader was instead received by Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya – a telling sign that Spain’s foreign policy on Venezuela has changed.

The Foreign Ministry has refused to officially explain what is behind this shift, and maintained that González Laya was the most appropriate person to meet with Guaidó because she is in charge of Spain’s foreign policy. But this rebuff from the leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE) is, in fact, the culmination of a progressive change in strategy that has been developing in the year since Sánchez recognized Guaidó as the interim president. One of the keys to this evolution lies in the fact that Guaidó was tasked by Sánchez, and the other EU leaders who recognized him, with holding new presidential elections as soon as possible. But it soon became clear that without representatives from the regime of President Nicolás Maduro, it would be impossible to call elections or begin any kind of dialogue.

The situation led to the creation of the International Contact Group on Venezuela, an idea promoted by the European Union to address the political crisis in Venezuela. This group has always represented the position of Spain’s Foreign Ministry. A source with knowledge of Spain’s Latin American policy called this traditional diplomacy: trying to influence everyone who has power. What is different is the change in Sánchez’s actions. According to diplomatic sources from an EU country, last year the Spanish prime minister called the leaders of the large EU states to try to convince them to recognize Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela. Sánchez has gone from appearing at La Moncloa, the seat of government, and announcing that he recognized Guaidó at the end of January 2019, to avoiding meeting him in Madrid a year later.

Our position has not changed an inch
Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya

The only other major change to have happened in Spanish politics has been the entrance of the leftist anti-austerity party Unidas Podemos in government. This party, which reached a coalition deal with the PSOE after last year’s repeat election in November, has been reluctant to recognize Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela. Without addressing this point, sources close to Sánchez said last weekend that the prime minister was trying to “protect Spain’s role as a country that helps everyone as much as possible.”

Sources from the Foreign Ministry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, denied that there has been a shift in Spain’s policy on Venezuela, but admitted that it had been adapted to the changing circumstances throughout the year. “The change is rather a nuance toward reality,” explained a person familiar with these policies. “There is awareness that there must be negotiations with the Maduro regime, and that Guaidó must try to do this while maintaining a united opposition, and at the same time, external actors are continuing to pressure [Maduro], also via sanctions.” Other sources say that Spain’s role should be to facilitate dialogue. According to this interpretation, if Sánchez had met with Guaidó it would show that Spain had taken sides.

Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya.
Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya.JOHN THYS

Foreign Minister González Laya denied last Friday that Sánchez’s absence during Guaidó’s visit indicated a change in Spain’s policy. “Our position has not changed an inch,” she said in a short interview with the radio network Cadena SER, adding that Spain wanted “to find a solution so that Venezuela can celebrate clean and democratic elections.”

The debate over Spain’s position on Venezuela comes amid ongoing controversy over the Venezuelan vice-president Delcy Rodríguez’s layover at Madrid airport last week. The second-in-command to Maduro landed in a private plane in Spain, despite European Union sanctions prohibiting her from entering the bloc. Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos met with Rodríguez “for 25 minutes,” triggering criticism from Spain’s opposition parties. Sánchez defended Ábalos, arguing the minister had done “everything he could to prevent a diplomatic crisis, and he managed it.”

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