Spanish president, newspaper founder go beyond El Pais

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The longest-serving president of Spain, Felipe Gonzalez, and Juan Luis Cebrian, a founder of Spain’s most-read newspaper El Pais, spoke of the relevance of Europe and Latin America in an age of globalization in half-full Salomon 101 Tuesday afternoon.

The dialogue, held completely in Spanish, was a continuation of their co-authored book, “El futuro no es lo que era,” or “The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be,” and will serve as a starting point for a sequel.

“This talk will be a bit like presenting a book, before it is actually written,” Cebrian joked.

Cebrian said it was first decided to discuss the upcoming book at an American university when an English translation was released of their first book. But the talk served a larger purpose than that, he said.

The dialogue was second in a series of events for an international conference held at Brown from April 9 to 12 to commemorate the bicentennial of the independence of Latin American countries.

The conference is organized by the Brown Transatlantic Project and hosted by the Department of Hispanic Studies.

The dialogue mostly consisted of Cebrian raising topics of discussion and asking for Gonzalez’s reply. The first theme Cebrian raised was how Europe and Latin America were both losing relevance in a continually interconnected world.

Gonzalez said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks both marked the start of the 21st century and the end of Latin America’s relevance.

“Latin America lost its significance when those attacks made politicians shift their focus to other parts of the world – a different enemy,” Gonzalez said.

“The last time Latin America was really relevant was when the U.S. launched the War on Drugs and when the rest of the world placed a greater emphasis on collective security,” Gonzalez said.

“What I want to know is how do we gain back that relevance,” he added.

Gonzalez said Europe lost its significance because it fell behind in the technological boom and because it is no longer the go-to country for intervention.

“When Europe stopped being the first security measure, their position diminished exponentially,” he said.

Both speakers also spoke on issues of cultural, religious and national identity and how they affect politics, especially in the 20 new European nation-states created in the past 20 years.

Gonzalez said the “postmodernism-identity crisis is a step back” in the political realm.

“These new nation-states all have their own culture, wave their own flags, speak their own language, but they have no real mode of governance,” he said.

He did give credit to the nation-states for reinstating true representative democracy again, because all political activity – such as debates amongst candidates – is held at a much more local level.

Gonzalez said this was a rare occurrence in this age of globalization and impressibility, where countries’ economies are increasingly dependent on each other.

Cebrian opted to emphasize religious identity and how integration in Europe is gradually affected more by it than cultural differences.

“Do you think it is rational that students in Spanish schools still learn about the Holy Trinity when there are more and more Muslims and other religious affiliations present in Europe?” Cebrian asked Gonzalez.

Gonzalez answered that it was irrational for religion to still be a part of national institutions such as schools, and religion posed a greater threat to the upholding of democratic values and the distribution of “a package of social rights” inherent to every person.

Cebrian agreed there is a definite tension between democratic values and the religious and cultural ones.

Cebrian then shifted the conversation to one of climate change, energy and the state of the environment, which he said “is almost religious” now.

“Is it another leftist movement or is climate change a real threat?” he asked Gonzalez.

Gonzalez responded that like many global threats, it is easy to see how environmental advocacy can be seen as an ideology, but climate change does pose a real and immediate threat.

Their comments on energy soon moved towards a political analysis of the U.S. occupancy in Iraq.

Cebrian asked Gonzalez what difficulties the U.S. would face in trying to remove its troops, to which Gonzalez answered with an anecdote of a phone conversation he had with former President George H.W. Bush the day the Gulf War ended.

This conversation revealed to Gonzalez that the reason the former president did not remove Saddam Hussein was because “there wasn’t anyone to replace Saddam with,” he said. “The problem in Iraq is that they do not know how to leave or how to stay and maintain stability in the country.”

The presidential story prompted Cebrian to ask Gonzalez what he thought about the lack of communication between President George W. Bush, whom he referred to as “the photocopy of Bush,” and Spain’s current president, who has publicly shown some anti-Americanism sentiments – he was seen remaining in his seat when the American flag was presented at a ceremony, something very rude in their country.

Gonzalez said the current administration has been the most difficult to establish and maintain a relationship with since former President Jimmy Carter was in office.

“I have had positive experiences with everyone who was in office while I served my fourteen years,” he said, citing his first incident with former President Ronald Reagan as proof.

“Reagan would always have his note cards that stated all his talking points. At that meeting, he pulled out the red card on me first – Cuba,” he said. “Reagan said, ‘Gonzalez, how can you maintain a relationship with Castro?’ to which I looked him in the eye and asked, ‘How can you, the leader of such a democratic country, maintain a healthy relationship with the leader of China, perhaps the most communist country in the world?'”

“Needless to say, he placed the card at the bottom of the stack and left it at that,” he said.

The talk gave way to a question-and-answer session, where the audience was able to engage in the dialogue with questions about various topics including China’s emerging role in the world and issues of immigration.

Gonzalez answered the latter with his own question, “How is it possible that in a time of such free flow of information, knowledge and money all in the name of the people it serves, the people themselves cannot pass freely to where they so choose?”

“That comment was just amazing,” said Associate Director of Admission Mercedes Domenech, who was in attendance. “Gonzalez is such an intelligent human being with such a wide scope of knowledge. Thanks to him, Spain has the international relevance it has now.”

Jordi Torres ’10, a Spaniard living in the U.S., said he enjoyed the dialogue a lot and described it as “a very candid discussion of very complicated issues that they managed to present well.”

“As a Spaniard, it was a unique opportunity to see the man who was so influential in bringing democracy to my country,” he said.

Other events in this series include the acclaimed Spanish-writer and current Professor-at-Large Carlos Fuentes, as well as former President of Chile Ricardo Lagos and Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska.

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