The paternalism that characterized Spain's relationship with Latin America during the Francisco Franco years has been replaced by a dynamic political and commercial offensive promoted by King Juan Carlos.
The drive aims to give the Madrid government a form of moral leadership throughout Latin America as well as a ringside seat to view the area's economic development.
Foreign Ministry officials here deny that there is any attempt to export the Spanish formula for cementing representative government after a period of authoritarian rule, but they say democratic and democratic-leaning Latin American governments can expect the full support and cooperation of Spain.
Spanish good will paid off handsomely earlier this month with an invitation from the five Andean Pact countries. Spain then became the first non-Latin American nation to attend the Andean group's meetings on tariff agreements and interregional distribution of industry.
Foreign Minister Marcelino Oreja will go to Caracas on Sept. 3 for an Andean Pact ministers' conference. A team of Spanish officials will stay on in the Venezuelan capital for a meeting of the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) an organization in which Spain has the status of a full member. Britain, France and the Netherlands, the other European members of ECLA have membership by virtue of their colonies or territories in the area.
Perhaps the most significant initiative in Latin American is a Spanish aid mission that left for Nicaragua Thursday. The top-level delegation, headed by the president of Madrid's Iberian-American Cooperation Institute, Manuel Prado, has a political and economic brief: to help to rebuild the Nicaragua and planned followup by for democracy.
In Spanish terms, the mission to Nicaragua and planned follow-up by technicians has few precedents. The Spanish government is determined, however, to turn the Iberian-American Cooperation Institute, formerly known as the Institute of Hispanic Culture, into a well-budgeted and influential aid agency promoted by Spain but eventually financed by all, or at least the richer, Latin American countries.
The driving force behind the flurry of Spanish activity in Latin America is undoubtedly King Juan Carlos, who has taken the idea of a special relationship with Latin America to heart. He has promised to visit every Latin American nation, and is already a long way toward fulfilling his pledge.
When the king visited the United States in 1976, his first state visit as a monarch, he stopped off on the way at Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic -- a symbolic gesture commemorating Columbus' arrival at Hispaniola.
Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez will tour Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua on his way to Washington, where he is to arrive for an official visit Oct. 3. Discussing these visits, a Foreign Ministry spokesman explained that they are a way of showing that Spain has a special role in that region.
Suarez, in comparison to the king, is a late recruit to the cause of Latin Americanism. But he cut into his summer vacation this August to go to Brazil and then to Quito, Ecuador. In both places, his visit had considerable political impact.
In Brazil, the Spanish premier was courted by opposition groups who hailed him as the man who brought democracy back to Spain, legalizing the political parties Franco had banned. Suarez refused to address the subject of whether the Spanish experience was exportable.
In Ecuador, Suarez met Latin American leaders attending the inauguration of President Jaime Roldos. From the talks emerged the so-called Quito Declaration -- a call by the five Andean Pact countries and Spain for respect of human rights in Latin America. The Quito Declaration angered Latin American dictatorships, notably Chile, but earned Spain its invitation to attend Andean Pact talks.
On his return two weeks ago from the Latin American tour, Suarez sprung the surprise that Spain had accepted an invitation to attend the conference next month of nonaligned nations in Havana. This is the first time Spain has attended such a meeting, and the move is calculated to increase Spain's prestige as a progressive nation demonstrating concern for the underdeveloped world.
Despite the government's commitment to the European Community, to NATO and to the West in general, Spain can make a place for itself as a respected spokesman for Latin America and act as a bridge in North-South relations.
In the short term, Spain's industry and intermediate technology can only gain from its close relationships with the richer and more stable Latin American nations.