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LatAm at centre of Juan Carlos’ work abroad

Monarch visited the region more than 80 times, had close ties with some of its leaders

MADRID — Latin America was always among King Juan Carlos’ priorities. The Spanish king, who announced his abdication yesterday, visited the Americas more than 80 times — more than any other region in the world.

“It was an intense relationship from the beginning,” said Carlos Malamud, chief researcher for Latin America at the Real Instituto Elcano. “The king was an important part of Spanish diplomacy,” he added.

The first foreign country that Juan Carlos visited as the king of Spain was the Dominican Republic, in 1976. That visit inaugurated a close relationship that lasted until his resignation.

The most important political legacy that he left in Latin America is the IberoAmerican summits of heads of state and government. The first one took place in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1991. One of the milestones of these gatherings — where Latin American countries meet with Spain and Portugal — was the inclusion of Cuba.

“Fidel Castro wouldn’t miss a summit while he was active,” Malamud said. “One of the big achievements of these meetings was that they gave participation to Cuba, at a time when the island was completely isolated from the rest of Latin America. (At the time), Cuba didn’t participate in any multi-lateral bodies,” he added.

It was during a 2007 summit in Chile, that the famous anecdote with late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez took place. Chávez was criticizing the then-Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero when the king lost his patience and shouted: “Why don’t you shut up!”

The two leaders eventually made up but the incident strained diplomatic ties between the two countries for several months.

Juan Carlos’ spontaneity led to many anecdotes during the almost 40 years that he was in the throne. During the first Congress of the Spanish language that was celebrated in Zacatecas, Mexico, he was received even more enthusiastically that in Spain.

In 2000, during his second visit to Bolivia, the king pulled quinoa — the “golden grain of the Andes” — out of anonimity and praised its nutritious qualities. At a time when even Bolivians underestimated its value, Queen Sofia requested to have dishes prepared with the grain as part of her menu. Bolivia is nowadays the first global exporter of quinoa, which has become a very sought-after cereal.

Leftist Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa told the story of how Juan Carlos gave him a green tie he was wearing as a present, after the Latin American leader reminded him that green is the colour of his political movement, Alianza País.

“It’s curious how even countries that define themselves as strongly republican, had a lot of affection for the monarch’s figure,” Malamud said.

He also explained that the king played a key role in the expansion of Spanish companies in the region and considered that the future monarch, Juan Carlos’ son Felipe, will maintain a special relation with the Americas.

In recent years, Felipe has represented his father at the inauguration of several Latin American presidents. “Prince Felipe has travelled a lot to Latin America,” Malamud said. “And this will be important once he gets to the throne: because he already knows the region’s leaders,” he added.

King Juan Carlos had a close relationship with the Kirchners and attended several inaugurations. The nationalization of YPF soured the bilateral relation a bit, but the two countries managed to remain relatively friendly to each other, even at times of tension.

Herald with Télam

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