The Former Prime Minister in Spain Who's Going Rogue

The Former Prime Minister in Spain Who's Going Rogue

Why you should care

Because sometimes a second wind can be even better than the first.

You can’t exactly call former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero beloved. After leaving office less than four years ago, at best he’s mostly overlooked. Kinda the Millard Filmore of Spain.

Except that instead of fading into absolute oblivion, he’s trying to pull off a comeback, and in a very realpolitik manner. Example: by sitting down with Raúl Castro of Cuba for a private chat in February, smack in the middle of one of the most important geopolitical summits of this decade — the U.S.-Europe-Cuba glasnost. For four hours. What on earth is an obsolete leader doing, grabbing that kind of time? For one, the 54-year-old is flicking off his home government — who labeled his unapproved rendezvous “extreme disloyalty.” And for another, he’s setting out as a kind of one-man-band statesman. Representing who, exactly? We’re not sure.

When we catch up with Zapatero, it is at the unassuming, historic Rafael Alberti bookstore in Madrid. Perfectly groomed with a jazzy red tie and blue suit, Zapatero seems way happier — even sprightlier — than he did in his presidential days … though his hair has whitened a tad. “The only thing I don’t miss,” he reflects, “is power.” Power of a certain sort, we’ll venture. Zapatero’s do-it-alone forays as a statesman began innocently enough, as he set out on a world tour in the manner of many a former leader. But instead of doing the diplomatic equivalent of baby-kissing, philanthropy and the like, he’s chosen to irk some Western diplomats by pulling a veritable Dennis Rodman and heading to unpopular spots: Bolivia, Western Sahara (occupied by Morocco) and Equatorial Guinea, governed by a ruthless dictator. “This is a completely different Zapatero from when he was in power. It’s like he has remade himself,” says Gustavo Palomares, a political science professor in the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia.

Zapatero’s argument? Free from politics, the real diplomacy can bloom. (“I just want to contribute to debates!”) We figure there’s an extra gleam of fame in it. But former leaders can have more impact than you might think: Take Jimmy Carter, who made a humanitarian rep for himself post-presidency, and Spain’s own Felipe González. Zapatero, for his part, is “beloved” in Latin America, Palomares says. And in Cuba or Bolivia, he could make some inroads, says José Ignacio Torreblanca, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “I can see him building bridges, especially in places where Spain has troubled relations because of its own errors.” Palomares, who toured with Zapatero in Colombia as he mentored newly elected congressmen, says he was impressed at the leader’s sway.

José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (462654848)

Former Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is trying to stage a comeback.

Source Josep Lago/Getty

Indeed, this is a man who’s always enjoyed painting himself as a maverick. Ask about his first four years in office and he’s gleeful to recount. He upended conservative Spanish society by approving gay marriage, easing abortion restrictions, secularizing education, regularizing illegal immigrants, passing legislation like the Historical Memory Law that reopened scars from the taboo Spanish Civil War and seeking peace talks with Basque terrorist group ETA. He withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq in 2004, only days after starting his first term, pissing off President George W. Bush (after that, Bush “barely said hello” to Zapatero, he recalls) and squandering good relations with the U.S.

But turn to his second term, an infamous period in which he tried (and failed) to manage the economic crisis, and he grows soft-spoken. He could have done more, he concedes. Those unpopular years were hard on his wife, Sonsoles Espinosa, a soprano singer and teacher, he says, not to mention on his two teenage daughters, who were enduring the regular growing pains in a public high school. By the end of his presidency, as he wrestled with the economy and elections that sunk his party into the deepest crisis in history, he had little authority or clout left, says Palomares. Spain went from growing faster than any European country through 2007, to its first recession in 2009. Unemployment went from single-digit lows before the crisis to around 25 percent.

The descendant of a Spanish Civil War captain, Zapatero takes pride in his family heritage. His grandfather, Captain Juan Rodríguez Lozano, was executed by one of Franco’s firing squads. That legacy “left a profound mark” on him, he recalls. His political narrative has since revolved around that need for democracy and the “need to overcome that rancid division.” It’s a story that has worked, time and time again. “He’s always been a political man,” says his childhood friend Carlos Ridruejo, a bank executive, who says Zapatero’s leadership came less from his charisma or speechmaking than from his deliberate public argumentation style.

But Zapatero’s legacy was never in foreign policy, which makes him an unlikely — and possibly unsuccessful — representative abroad, says Torreblanca. “He doesn’t have the stature, the visibility or the prestige.” And his home government’s opposition to much of what he does naturally limits what he could get done. If he fails, though? At least he’s having a ball in retirement: running, trout fishing and living the simple rural life he grew up with; and watching plenty of TV — The Sopranos, but also True Detective and The Wire. Life out of office, he says, means regaining “the flavor of friendship, liberty and the smell of books … even enjoying food.”

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