Feijóo: steady hand on the tiller for Spain’s opposition party

Known as a pragmatic moderate with a knack for pouring oil on troubled waters, Alberto Núñez Feijóo promises to be a steady hand on the tiller for Spain's storm-tossed Popular Party (PP).

The new leader of Spain's opposition Popular Party (PP) Alberto Nunez Feijoo.
The new leader of Spain's opposition Popular Party (PP) Alberto Nunez Feijoo. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

For the past 13 years, Feijóo, 60, has run the northwestern Galicia region, earning a solid reputation as one of the best-respected leaders in the right-wing opposition PP.

His overwhelming election as leader with 98 percent of the vote at Saturday’s party conference came as the PP emerges from one of its worst-ever internal crises, toppling his predecessor Pablo Casado ahead of a general election due by the end of 2023.

“This election is only the beginning because what is really important now is to continue together so that Spaniards elect us to govern their future,” he said, thanking the party for electing him.

A keen fisherman who became a father for the first time at 55, Feijóo is often described as an “ordinary man” with very good manners.

Born and bred in Galicia, he’s spent most of his political career there and when he ran for regional leader in 2009, was elected with an absolute majority — repeating the feat in three subsequent elections.

“Feijoo is the best leader at a complicated moment,” Jorge Azcon, PP leader in the Aragon region, said this month.

“He’s a serious politician who is the opposite of the frivolity we are used to seeing… He brings people together and doesn’t cause divisions.”

In a survey in March, Feijóo was found to be Spain’s most respected political leader. News of his likely appointment calmed the storm around the party, which quickly stopped haemorrhaging votes.

“Everyone in the party believes Feijóo is the right person,” said Fran Balado, a Galician journalist and author of the book “Feijóo’s Journey” (2021).

“He’s a moderate because he manages to attract progressive voters and he’s a pragmatist whom people trust,” he told AFP.

From law student to civil servant

Born on September 10, 1961, in the village of Os Peares, Feijóo grew up in a working class family. His father worked in construction and his mother ran a grocery shop.

A studious child described as “responsible and obedient”, he read law in Santiago de Compostela, hoping to become a judge. But when his father was left jobless, he pitched in to help, becoming a civil servant in 1985.

His interest in politics was piqued while at university, when he would watch political debates on television.

But it was only in 1991 that he got his foot on the political ladder, taking a job at Galicia’s agriculture ministry with a politician who later became Spain’s health minister and who, in 1996, took Feijóo with him to Madrid.

There, Feijóo ran Insalud, Spain’s national health service at the time. In 2000 he took over as boss of Correos, the national postal service, until returning to Galicia’s regional administration in 2003 as head of public works and housing.

In 2006, he became regional head of the PP, a party he had only joined a few years earlier. At the time in crisis, Feijóo led the faction to victory in 2009 and has ruled Galicia ever since.

Although largely unknown, he won plaudits for cutting excess spending, although he never made cuts to health and education, says Balado.

Cards close to his chest

Always one to play his political cards close to his chest until the very last minute, he had been widely expected to run for the PP’s national leadership in 2018.

But he surprised everyone when he didn’t, breaking down in tears as he said being Galicia’s leader was his “highest political ambition”.

Several years earlier, he raised eyebrows when El País newspaper published photographs of him from the mid-90s on a boat with Marcial Dorado, a cigarette smuggler later convicted of drug trafficking.

Feijóo admitted they were friends at the time but said he had no idea about Dorado’s business activities.

In Galicia, he has managed to keep far-right party Vox at bay, despite its national resurgence. Vox has not held a single seat in the region’s parliament.

Always very discrete about his private life, Feijóo is currently in along-term relationship with top business woman Eva Cardenas, whom he met when she was running Zara Home. Together they have a five-year-old son, Alberto.

He is known to be an aficionado of traditional Galician dishes, notably goose barnacles and fresh spider crab, and is also a football fan, following local team Deportivo de La Coruna.

READ ALSO: A foreigner’s guide to understanding Spanish politics in five minutes

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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.