Hugo Chávez, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the King of Spain

The XVII Ibero-American Summit of Heads of State, held in Chile from November 8-10, was the object of an intense debate setting Latin America at odds with Europe and Spain in particular. An incident occurred between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on one side, and Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and King Juan Carlos de Borbón on the other, which had a broad repercussion in the international media. Nevertheless, the western press took care to concentrate solely on the violent and discourteous reaction of the king of Spain, without tackling the fundamental questions that surfaced in the live exchange.

Several Latin American dignitaries such as Evo Morales of Bolivia, Carlos Lage of Cuba, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Chávez called for the establishment of a new economic model as an alternative to the brutal neoliberalism that has ravaged the continent since the 1980s. The privatization of natural resources and Latin American businesses brought about the ruin of several economies and devastated populations with unprecedented social consequences, only benefiting the local elite and foreign multinationals. Basic services like potable water, sewer systems, telephone or energy can not continue being a private business,” Morales declared.1

These words were not pleasing to Spanish President Zapatero, who replied that nationalizations were not an “end” and used the occasion to point out the “enormous responsibility” of Latin America for its current backwardness, completely avoiding the reality of the bloody Spanish conquest. Zaptero, above all, wished to protect the interests of the Spanish multinationals present on the continent. In turn, Carlos Lage, vice-president of the Cuban Council of State, underlined “the contradiction between the need for change and the interests of the multinationals.”2

Answering Zapatero, President Chávez warned against the easy temptation to minimize the “external factors” that explain the stagnation in which Latin America finds itself. We look at our history, and not even the history of 200 years ago, but the most recent history,” referring to the coup d’etat organized by the CIA against Salvador Allende in 1973. “A president with a peaceful and democratic program” was overthrown and one of the cruelest dictators of the continent was installed.3

The Venezuelan president also recalled that José María Aznar, former Spanish president, supported the coup d’etat orchestrated against him and now travels around the world carrying out a diabolical campaign against him. Chávez described as “fascist” this heir of Francoist ideology—his mentor was Manuel Fraga Iribarne, former minister of the Franco dictatorship and member of the Spanish Falange—who openly supported the ephemeral dictatorship of Pedro Carmona in 2002, and participated in the bloody invasion of Iraq.4

Against all predictions, Zapatero defended Aznar, alleging that he had been elected by the Spaniards and deserved a little respect. Returning the ball, Chávez appropriately reminded the Spanish president that Aznar had never been a model of courtesy towards him, without ever causing any reaction on the part of Spain. “I have the right to defend the dignity of Venezuela,” he added.5

But it seems as if the entire truth can not be told. It was too much for the king of Spain who, losing his legendary serenity, addressed the Venezuelan President in a virulent and particularly offensive way. “You! […] Why don’t you shut up?” he exclaimed pointing his finger in an unfriendly manner, completely amazing the 22 participating countries.6

Far from responding to the disrespectful attitude of the Spanish monarch, Chávez contented himself with citing José Gervasio Artigas, hero of the Latin American wars of independence against the Spanish empire: “‘With the truth, I don’t offend or fear.’ The Venezuelan government reserves the right to answer any aggression in any place, at any time and in any tone.”7

The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) supported the king. “Spain wants to keep good relations with the Latin American countries, but it will not tolerate lack of respect for its citizens, especially for someone as prominent as Aznar,” stated Diego López Garrido, spokesman of the PSOE in Parliament. For his part, the Spanish Minister of the Interior, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, warned that if Chávez wished to maintain good relations with the Iberian Peninsula, he should “respect our king, our president, and our former presidents.” Even the Chilean foreign minister lined up on the side of Spain, lamenting “the style” of Chávez. Aznar’s Popular Party (PP) invited the government to take measures against the “serious accusations” that the Venezuelan president delivered.8 

Nonetheless, the indignation of the Spanish government, the king, the socialist party, the Popular Party and Chile at the Venezuelan president’s words is of a variable geometry and somewhat hypocritical. In fact, Aznar repeatedly attacked Chávez and his government successively calling him a “dictator,” “populist leader”, “tyrant” “new totalitarian species,” “authoritarian regime,” “totalitarian regime,” “return to Nazism,” “greatest danger for democracy in America,” “cheap demigod,” “effect of dangerous contagion,” “racist indigenism,” “an adversary of freedom who now dresses up as a populist,” and raises fear of the “elimination of basic freedoms like  expression” and concluded that “bad ideas produced Hugo Chávez.”9

These words have never provoked the disapproval of Juan Carlos, Zapatero, Chile or the PSOE. Regarding the “serious accusations” that the PP evoked, which tried to ignore Aznar’s support of the coup in 2002, an unquestionable source—the statement of the current Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, who had access to the classified archives of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Relations, threw light on this question. During his appearance before the Commission on Foreign Affairs of the Congress December 1, 2004, Moratinos clearly stated: “My statements were: 1. There was a coup d’etat in Venezuela; 2. That the Spanish ambassador received instructions from the government; 3.That the objective of these instructions, or rather, to avoid misunderstandings, that the effect of carrying out those instructions and other actions was to support the coup […]. My words must be understood in the sense that by supporting it, I wanted to say and want to say that the government did not condemn the coup d’etat, that it was endorsed and given international legitimacy.”10 It couldn’t be clearer.

In reality, the Venezuelan President only replied to the innumerable verbal attacks that emanated from the former Spanish president. The irritation of Zapatero and the king of Spain caused great incomprehension. Questioned by the press after the incident, Chávez confessed that he had not been aware of the king’s anger: I don’t even know what he said, I was defending the dignity of millions of people,” adding that no head of State has the right to demand another to be quiet.” The truth, I say it straight and respectfully.”11 He expressed his surprise at the “anger of his majesty, a mature man.” I was only talking of universal history,” he emphasized alluding to the Spanish conquest.12

Venezuelan Vice-president Jorge Rodríguez was not pleased with Juan Carlos’ invective against Chávez and recalled that his country had been independent since the battle of Carabobo. “Mr. Juan Carlos can treat his subjects like this if they allow it,” he stated regretting the insulting tone the monarch used.13 When the king exploded before the expressions of an Indian, 500 years of imperial arrogance exploded[…], 500 years of a feeling of superiority,” Chávez said.14

President Chávez also rejected Zapatero’s words justifying his defense of Aznar by the fact that Aznar had been elected by the Spanish people. “Hitler was also elected, right? Therefore, you will not criticize Hitler because he was elected by the people. That is absurd.” “When I say that, former Spanish president Aznar is a fascist, it is an unequivocal truth,” recalling that Aznar was responsible for the Iraqi genocide. He announced a complete revision of “political, diplomatic and economic relations” with Spain. 15

Chávez also wanted to emphasize the he was a head of state “like the king, with the difference that I have been elected three times and he has not.”16   He recalled a reality that some in Spain prefer to forget: it is important to remember how he became king. The caudillo of God, as Franciso Franco was called, by the grace of God and the disgrace of Spain, named him King.” In fact, Juan Carlos did not even have monarchist legitimacy, since the normal rule of succession was that his father, Juan of Borbón, the legal heir, should accede to the throne. But Franco the dictator had decided otherwise.17

Why was it that remembering that Aznar had supported the coup d’etat against Chavez caused the King of Spain to lose his temper? “Mr. King answer: “Did you know about the coup d’etat against the Venezuelan government, against the legitimate democratic government of Venezuela in 2002?,” Chávez asked.18 According to Title II of the Spanish constitution of 1978, “the king is the head of state […] [and] assumes the highest representation of the Spanish state in international relations.”19

The Spanish Ambassador Manuel Viturro de la Torre had applauded the coup d’etat against Chávez in 2002 and offered his political and diplomatic support to dictator Pedro Carmona. Viturro informed Aznar in a telegram dated April 13, 2002, that he had been received by Carmona.20 “It is difficult to think that the ambassador is going to be supporting the coup leaders, that he is going to go to the Palace [presidential] without the authorization of His Majesty,” Chávez emphasized. “Now I understand the King’s rage […], because of that he was infuriated when I said that Aznar was a fascist. […] It was the king himself who directed foreign policy.”21

His Majesty has the floor.


1 Cuba Información, « Quién fue el responsable del incidente entre Chávez y el Rey de España », 12 de noviembre de  2007. http://www.cubainformacion.tv/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2625&Itemid=86 (sitio consultado el 13 de noviembre de 2007).

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.; Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias, « Juzgar la verdad del pasado no tiene por qué ofender a los españoles », 10 de noviembre de 2007; Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias, « No puede minimizarse influencia de factores externos en situación latinoamericana », 10 de noviembre de 2007.

5 Cuba Información, « Quién fue el responsable del incidente entre Chávez y el Rey de España », 12 de noviembre de 2007, op. cit.

6 Ibid.

7 Federico Quilodran, « El rey de España manda a callar a Chávez en la Cumbre », Associated Press, 11 de noviembre de 2007.

8 Daniel Woolls, « España: socialistas respaldan al rey en disputa con Chávez », Associated Press, 12 de noviembre de 2007 ; Associated Press, « Canciller chileno se solidariza con España en pugna con Chávez », 12 de noviembre de 2007.

9 Javier Alder, « Aznar respetando a Chávez », Kaos en la red, 11 de noviembre de 2007.

10 Miguel Ángel Moratinos, « Los fax que envió la embajada española en Caracas que muestran el papel del gobierno Aznar en el golpe de Venezuela », Rebelión, 14 de noviembre de 2007.

11 El Nacional, « Rey de España manda a callar a Chávez », 11 de noviembre de 2007.

12 El Nacional, « Hugo Chávez responde: ¿Por qué no se calla usted, rey? », 11 de noviembre de 2007.

13 JMS, « Vicepresidente Rodríguez : El señor Juan Carlos puede tratar así a sus súbditos, si ellos lo permiten », Globovisión, 11 de noviembre de 2007.

14 Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias, « Si yo me callara gritarían las piedras de los pueblos de América », 12 de noviembre de 2007.

15 Federico Quilodran, « El rey de España manda a callar a Chávez en la Cumbre », op. cit.; Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias, « Chávez señaló que revisa con profundidad las relaciones con España », 14 de noviembre de 2007.

16 Federico Quilodran, « El rey de España manda a callar a Chávez en la Cumbre », op. cit.

17 El Nuevo Herald, « Chávez acusa al rey de prepotente », 14 de noviembre de 2007.

18 JMS, « Presidente Chávez: ¿Sería que el Rey sabía del golpe contra mí? », Globovisión, 11 de noviembre de 2007.

19 Constitución española de 1978, Título II.

20 Miguel Ángel Moratinos, « Los fax que envió la embajada española en Caracas que muestran el papel del gobierno Aznar en el golpe de Venezuela », op. cit.

21 Paulina Abramovich, « Chávez vincula al rey con golpe del 2002 », Associated Press, 12 de noviembre de 2007; El País, « Chávez acusa al Rey de pasividad en la intentona golpista de 2002 », 11 de noviembre de 2007; Jorge Marirrodriga, « Chávez reta al Rey a revelar si conocía el golpe de Estado de Caracas en 2002 », El País, 12 de noviembre de 2002.
Salim Lamrani is a French professor, writer, and journlist, specializing in U.S.-Cuba relations. He has published titles including : Washington contre Cuba (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2005), Cuba face à l’Empire (Genève: Timeli, 2006) y Fidel Castro, Cuba et les Etats-Unis (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2006).
Translated by Dana Lubow

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