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As Venezuela's Mess Roils Madrid, It's Time To Add Spain To The Reparations Roster

NO PM PHOTO OP Venezuelan interim President Juan Guaido in Madrid last Saturday, but not at the Prime Minster's palace.


Reparations are a big – and valid – debate today. Should the U.S. compensate African Americans for centuries of slavery? Should France pony up for the billions of dollars it extorted from Haiti in the 19th century?

Yes and yes, by the way. But recent events remind me we should add another historical world power to the reparations roster: Spain.

Spain owes Latin America not just big-time financial restitution for its more than three centuries of colonial rapacity, but something just as important: institution restitution.

Last weekend Spain found itself in the middle of Venezuela’s gothic political crisis. Good, I thought: Venezuela’s mess is the sort of implosion of democratic institutionality that’s so chronic in Latin America largely because Spain left the continent with no democratic institutionality to speak of in exchange for all the gold and silver it took.

READ MORE: A Year On, Venezuela's Guaidó Is Trying to Find His Mojo. A Bad Movie Might Help

Spain's squabble erupted after a top minister in the socialist government met with Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez at Madrid's international airport. Venezuela’s regime is also socialist; but Spain — like the U.S. and almost 60 other countries — does not consider Rodríguez’s boss, authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro, to be Venezuela’s legitimate head of state. It instead recognizes Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president.

So Spain’s political opposition was angry that Rodríguez — who like most top Venezuelan regime officials is barred from entering Spain under current E.U. sanctions — got a cabinet-level meet-and-greet while Guaidó, who visited Spain on Saturday, couldn’t get a photo op with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. The question hanging over Madrid: Are Spain’s true sympathies with Guaidó’s democracy-building plan, or with Maduro’s democracy-trashing plot?

The collapse of democratic institutionality is so chronic in Latin America because Spain left no real democratic institutionality there in exchange for all the gold and silver it took. It's time Madrid paid reparations: institution restitution.

Spain could put our minds at ease with reparations — investing in a massive mission to help Latin American nations build the reliable democratic institutions that keep eluding them generation after generation. And if that elusion has eluded your notice, let's take a brief tour.

In Mexico, the country’s feeble, dysfunctional judicial system — a showcase of the lawless legacy of Spanish conquistador rule — looks as powerless as ever to do a damn thing about drug-cartel violence. Mexico’s homicide rate hit a record high last year.

Yet that same judicial system this week is making one of Mexico’s most respected human rights activists, Sergio Aguayo, pay 10 million pesos (half a million dollars) to former Coahuila state Gov. Humberto Moreira. He’d sued Aguayo for writing that Moreira had a “corrupt stench." But there’s just one egregious hole in the Mexican court's ruling: Aguayo wrote that in 2016 after Moreira was arrested in Spain for embezzlement and drug-money laundering. (Wednesday night Mexico's Supreme Court agreed to review the astonishing decision.)

Then travel to the Andes and South America’s poorest country, Bolivia — where the Spanish empire extracted some 50,000 tons of silver but established squat in terms of constitutional governance. Bolivia looks set to trade a messianic left-wing nut for a messianic right-wing nut.


Former leftist President Evo Morales, who ruled the country for 13 years, was recently forced into exile after getting Bolivia’s own laughable judiciary to aid his constitution-trashing scheme to rule for life. Who could now take his place? A quasi-racist religious reactionary, interim President Jeanine Añez. Last Friday she broke her promise not to run in this year’s special presidential election because, like Evo, she’s come to the savior's conclusion she’s indispensable.

Credit Juan Karita / AP
RIGHT-WING REDUX Interim Bolivian President Jeanine Anez holds up a Bible after taking office last fall in the Congress in La Paz.

Should Añez win, it would just perpetuate Latin America’s political Groundhog Day. An incessant see-sawing between ideological extremes. An addiction to demagoguery instead of democracy — thanks to the void of any historical tradition of the latter that Spain could have planted there. But didn’t.

So why not call on today’s Spain (and Portugal, vis-à-vis Brazil) to do its bit to redress this awful cycle — to help develop stronger rule of law, bipartisan civics, effective tax collection and, most important, credible education?

Before the lefties scream about the U.S.’s abuses in Latin America, which I won’t deny, they should consider the region might not have been so vulnerable to los yanquis in the 20th century if los españoles hadn’t made it such a socio-economic basket case in the 16th-through-19th centuries. And before the Iberophiles argue Spain invests billions in Latin America today, please remember the region is still home to some of the world’s worst inequality. Foreign direct investment alone doesn’t fix that; fair and functioning institutions do.

If Spain wants to avoid future headaches like its current Venezuela imbroglio, it might consider what more — much more — it can do to help its former colonies build those institutions for once.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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