Spain’s PM eyes ‘more solid’ Morocco ties after Western Sahara U-turn

Under attack over Spain's decision to change its stance on Western Sahara, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Wednesday defended the move as crucial to securing a "more solid relationship" with Morocco.

Spain's PM eyes 'more solid' Morocco ties after Western Sahara U-turn
Morocco's former Prime Minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani (R) receives his Spanish counterpart Pedro Sanchez (2nd-R) in the Moroccan capital Rabat during an official visit in 2018. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

For 10 months, Spain was in “an absolutely unsustainable situation” with Morocco, a strategic ally with whom “ties were cut from a political, diplomatic and economic point of view”, he said on a visit to Ceuta, one of two Spanish enclaves in North Africa.

“This was a crisis that could no longer be sustained over time, that we had to solve,” he said.

It was the first time Sánchez has spoken about last Friday’s bombshell announcement that Spain had agreed to publicly recognise Rabat’s autonomy plan for disputed Western Sahara, a Spanish colony until 1975.

The decision drew a line under Madrid’s decades-long stance of neutrality, giving in to years of pressure from Rabat in order to end a major diplomatic crisis, which erupted just over a year ago.

Diplomatic ties 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.

Then in mid-May, more than 10,000 migrants surged into Ceuta as Moroccan border forces looked the other way in what was widely seen as a punitive gesture by Rabat.

And despite multiple overtures by Madrid, ties remained frosty until now.

‘Essential to resume normalisation’

“We’re not only ending a crisis that had its clearest and most striking expression on 18 May 2021.. the most important thing is that we’re laying the foundations for a much more solid, stronger relationship with the Kingdom of Morocco,” Sánchez said.

“From now, it’s essential that we begin to develop this normalisation in economic and trade relations.. and in fundamental aspects such as migration control and security,” he said.

Migration is a key issue for Spain, with Morocco playing a fundamental role in controlling migratory flows — an issue which observers say has often been used by Rabat to put pressure on Madrid.

But Sánchez has come under fire for the secrecy surrounding the agreement, a major foreign policy shift that wasn’t ever discussed with his coalition partners, and for how it came to light via a statement from Morocco’s royal palace.

“We have been working diplomatically, silently, but I believe the result is good for Spain and Morocco,” he said, indicating the agreement had been under negotiation for 10 months.

Although Morocco quickly returned its own ambassador to Spain who had been recalled for consultations, the move infuriated Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front and is one of Spain’s main gas suppliers.

Western Sahara is designated by the UN as a “non-self-governing territory” whose people “have not yet attained a full measure of self-government”.

Morocco controls 80 percent of the territory, while the rest — an area bordering Mauritania that is almost totally landlocked — is run by the Polisario Front.

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

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


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.