Why Spain’s Western Sahara U-turn is a risky move with no guarantees

In changing Spain's position on disputed Western Sahara, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has taken a risk that has sparked a new diplomatic crisis with Algeria and triggered a political backlash.

Why Spain's Western Sahara U-turn is a risky move with no guarantees
Security men sit in front of a mural with the Western Sahara flag at at the Smara refugee camp in Algeria's Tindouf province, home to several thousands Sahawari refugees. Sanchez's decision to back Moroccohas sparked a backlash within his coalition government. Photo: Farouk Batiche/AFP

At this stage, there are no real guarantees he’ll get anything in return.

In publicly backing Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara, Madrid has ended its decades-long stance of neutrality, giving in to years of pressure from Rabat in order to end a major diplomatic crisis.

Ties between Spain and Morocco nose-dived in April 2021 after Madrid allowed Western Sahara’s independence leader Brahim Ghali to be treated at a Spanish hospital for Covid-19.

Ghali’s Polisario Front has long fought for the independence of Western Sahara, a desert region bigger than Britain that was a Spanish colony until 1975.

A month later, more than 10,000 people surged into Spain’s tiny North African enclave of Ceuta as Moroccan border forces looked the other way in what was seen as a punitive gesture.

Morocco hailed Spain’s U-turn, returning its ambassador who had left in May 2021.

Spain said it hoped the shift would ensure “cooperation in managing migrant flows” — a key issue for Madrid.

“Spain knows through experience that when the relationship with Morocco is good, migrant arrivals fall dramatically,” said Eduard Soler, a North Africa expert at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.

Brahim Ghali, President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SARD) and Secretary-General of the Polisario front, was treated for Covid-19 in Spain. (Photo by RYAD KRAMDI / AFP)

But the “guarantees that Spain might have received about controlling migratory flows will not necessarily last forever”, warned Irene Fernández Molina, an international relations expert at Britain’s Exeter University.

Madrid also said the move would safeguard its “territorial integrity” — a reference to its Ceuta and Melilla enclaves, both claimed by Morocco, which is expected to put its demands on the back burner.

But the timing and the way the Spanish decision came to light via a statement from Morocco’s royal palace — contrary to diplomatic norms — has raised questions.

“It gives the impression that the palace pre-empted (a Spanish announcement) with its own statement, probably on purpose,” said Isaias Barrenada, an international relations expert at Madrid’s Complutense University.

The move infuriated Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front. It immediately recalled its ambassador, triggering another diplomatic crisis whose consequences remain unknown.

Algeria is one of Spain’s main suppliers of gas, which leaves Madrid vulnerable at a time when energy prices are soaring due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But Enric Bartlett Castella, a professor at Esade business school, said it was “unlikely” Algeria would turn off the tap.

“Given the current price of gas, it is in every producer’s interest to sell. And fulfilling a contract is a guarantee which the seller must be careful to observe” to ensure supplier credibility.

Algeria could however review its partnership with Spain, reserving surplus production for other nations and forcing Madrid to look further away for suppliers, which would be more expensive.

“Algeria is an important partner for Spain. It has provided us with stable gas supplies and will continue to do so,” insisted Spanish Economy Minister Nadia Calvino on Monday.

Western Sahara was a Spanish province from 1958 to 1976, at which point it abandoned the territory without transferring its sovereignty over to another country or declaring it independent. (Photo by RYAD KRAMDI / AFP)

Spain recently reduced its dependence on Algerian gas by importing liquified natural gas (LNG), after Algiers stopped sending supplies through a pipeline that crossed Moroccan territory following a crisis with Rabat.

“Before, nearly 50 percent of Spain’s gas imports came from Algeria. But in January, Washington outstripped Algiers as the main provider, accounting for 30 percent compared with 28 percent from Algeria,” said Gonzalo Escribano, a researcher at the Elcano Institute think tank.

In Spain, Sánchez’s decision sparked a backlash within his coalition government. The hard-left Podemos — which backs self-determination for Western Sahara — denounced the move as “a serious mistake”.

Such tensions with Podemos come at a difficult moment, with rising social unrest over record inflation and runaway prices.

And the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) demanded answers for changing a policy “that has been a matter of consensus” since Spain relinquished its colonial claim on Western Sahara.

“Such a drastic change in foreign policy cannot be decided on by a government, let alone by a party,” railed incoming PP leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo on Saturday.

“It is foolhardy to take the risk of making a U-turn without sufficient support.”

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Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

Well-known faces of Cuba's protest have in recent years gone into exile in Madrid, which is rivalling Miami as a haven for Latin American political opponents.

Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

“Miami has always been the destination of those who suffered from Latin American dictatorships,” Cuban dissident and playwright Yunior García, who went into self-imposed exile in Madrid in November, told AFP.

But now “many Latin Americans are choosing to come to Spain,” added García, one of the organisers of a failed mass protest last year in the Communist-ruled island.

The Spanish capital is especially attractive for an artist and dissident fleeing a dictatorship because of its “bohemian” atmosphere, García said.

Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs as cleaners or waiters — but in recent years prominent exiles have joined the influx.

Award-winning Nicaraguan writer and former vice president Sergio Ramírez and Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López, a former mayor of Chacao, an upmarket district of Caracas, are among those who have moved to Madrid.

“Madrid is the new Miami, the new place where so many hispanics come fleeing dictatorship,” said Toni Cantó, the head of a Madrid regional government body charged with promoting the region as the “European capital of Spanish”.

Many Latin Americans are able to establish themselves easily in Spain because they have double citizenship, in many cases because their ancestors came from the country.

Others like García arrive on a tourist visa and then request asylum.

Sometimes, especially in the case of prominent Venezuelan opposition leaders, the government has rolled out the welcome mat and granted them Spanish citizenship.

Cuban political dissident Carolina Barrero is pictured during an AFP interview in Madrid. Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs, but in recent years prominent exilees have joined the influx. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Good option’

Contacted by AFP, Spain’s central government declined to comment.

But shortly after García arrived in Spain, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told parliament that Latin Americans “share our values, they look naturally to Europe”.

For Cubans, getting a visa to enter the United States has been even more complicated in recent years since Washington closed its consulate in Havana in 2017. It only partially reopened in May.

“Spain is a very good option,” said Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez, who fled to Spain in January when he finally was able to obtain a passport after years of being denied one.

Spain has received previous waves of Cuban dissidents in the past.

Under an agreement between Cuba, Spain and the Catholic Church, in 2010 and 2011, more than 110 Cuban political prisoners arrived in Madrid, accompanied by dozens of relatives.

There are now about 62,000 Cubans officially registered in Spain, with Madrid home to the largest community.

Cuba is “a pressure cooker, and ever time pressure builds” Havana eases it by forcing dissidents into exile, said Alejandro Gonzalez Raga, the head of the Madrid-based Cuban Observatory for Human Rights who fled to Spain in 2008.

Cuban journalist Mónica Baró is pictured at her home in Madrid. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Lost everything’

Cuban independent journalist Mónica Baró said she left Cuba for Madrid in 2021 because she said she could no longer bear the “harassment” of Cuban state security forces.

Madrid shares the same language and has a “shared culture”, as well as a well-established network of Cubans, that has helped her overcome the “traumas” she brought with her, Baro added.

But not knowing if she will ever see her parents, who remained in Cuba, again saddens her.

“When you leave like I did, you have the feeling that you buried your parents,” said Baró, who faces arrest if she returns to Cuba.

García said he welcomed the absence in Madrid of the deep “resentment” and “rage” towards the Cuban regime found in Miami among its much larger community of Cuban exiles, which he said was “natural”.

These are people “who had to leave on a raft, who lost everything they had in Cuba, whose family suffered jail time and sometimes death,” he said.

Madrid on the other hand, provides “tranquility to think things through,” he added.

“I don’t want anger, resentment, to win me over,” García said.