José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero Biography





August 4, 1960 • Valladolid, Spain

Prime minister

 Marcelo Del Pozo/Reuters/Corbis.
Zapatero, José Luis Rodríguez.
© Marcelo Del Pozo/Reuters/Corbis.

Just three days after a series of bomb blasts killed nearly two hundred in Madrid in March of 2004, Spanish voters went to the polls and elected the socialist party of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero into office. As prime minister, Zapatero promised to withdraw Spanish forces from Iraq, and ordered those troops home just hours after he was sworn in four weeks later. His party's victory was widely seen as a rejection of the pro-American policies of his predecessor, José María Aznar and his Popular Party (PP).

Came from renowned liberal family

Zapatero was born in 1960 in the city of Valladolid, north of Madrid. His family were of Castilian background and were originally from the city of León. His father was an attorney; his grandfather had been killed during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Spain had established a republic in 1931, with the king abdicating his throne, but civil unrest continued, and reached a crisis point by 1936. A military officer, Francisco Franco, attempted a coup, and a bloody war ensued. Zapatero's grandfather, who fought on the Republican side, was slain by Franco's soldiers during the first weeks of the war.

Franco and his Nationalists ultimately won the war and installed a military dictatorship that endured until Franco's death in 1976. Zapatero was sixteen years old at the time. He attended his first political meeting just a few weeks later, in August of 1976, although political parties were still technically illegal. At that rally, he was impressed by a speaker, future prime minister Felipe González, and joined González's Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, or PSOE, two years later. Zapatero went on to study law, and taught the subject at León University from 1982 to 1986. At the lectern, he specialized in Spanish constitutional law, a relatively new field with Spain's constitution in place only since 1978.

Zapatero also became a rising star in the PSOE. He headed the party's youth organization in León, and in 1986, when he was just twenty-six years old, became the youngest member of parliament when he was elected from the province of León on the PSOE ticket. The PSOE dominated Spain's post-Franco political era. González, head of the party, became prime minister in 1982, and held the post for the next fourteen years. Corruption scandals, however, blackened the party's reputation in the early 1990s. In response, Spanish voters elected the center-right Popular Party (PP) of José María Aznar in 1996.

"My most immediate priority is to beat all forms of terrorism."

Rose to party leadership post

By 1988 Zapatero had been elected secretary-general of the PSOE chapter in León province. Over the next decade he worked to reform the party from inside, as a response to the corruption scandals. He and

Spain's Basque Problem

Terrorist threats were already a fact of life for Spaniards long before a series of bombs in backpacks went off in Madrid on March 11, 2004. Since the 1960s a Basque group, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), had carried out similar acts in order to gain support for their goal of political sovereignty.

The Basques number nearly three million, but not all of them live in Spain. Some reside in mountain villages just across Spain's border with France in the Pyrenees. Their language, Euskara, is different from any other language in the world. Linguists believe it may have origins in the Sino-Tibetan language family, or is connected with the Berber language of North Africa.

The origins of the Basque people have been one of Europe's greatest mysteries. They may have come to Europe with the Indo-European migration that occurred around 2000 B.C.E. Another theory claims they were settled in the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) long before, when Cro-Magnon man became dominant in Europe. This would make them Europe's oldest surviving ethnic group. They survived the Roman Empire invasions, and ambushed and massacred Charlemagne's troops in 778 C.E. in what is known as the Battle of Roncevaux Pass.

For centuries the Basques remained isolated and self-sufficient, weathering the Moorish Islamic invasion of the Iberian peninsula as well as a series of successive kingdoms that dominated Spain. They converted to Christianity, but may have been sunworshippers in earlier times. Renowned fishers, they became major suppliers of cod to the rest of Europe, but where they found their fish remained a mystery for hundreds of years. Then, in the 1530s, French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Canada and reported thousands of Basque fishing boats already there.

The Basques managed to maintain much of their unique identity for generations. They were nominally allied with the Spanish monarchy, but had their own set of laws, called fueros. Their independence was eroded after the terms of deals made during Spain's contentious internal wars during the nineteenth century were not honored. During the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s they surrendered to Italian troops, and Spain's victorious military dictator, Francisco Franco, removed nearly all of their autonomy.

Out of that grew the ETA, a guerrilla group formed in 1959. It carried out its first attack, a train derailment, two years later. The first death from an ETA act came in 1968. In 1973 ETA operatives assassinated the Spanish prime minister, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. Over the next three decades, the ETA planted car bombs and devices on trains, but a crackdown limited much of their power by 2003, when a train-station attack on Christmas Eve was successfully thwarted by the government's anti-terrorism squad. Few thought the ETA was repsonsible for the Atocha attacks in March of the following year, since the group almost always alerted authorities to a bomb they had planted.

a coalition of other like-minded PSOE politicians urged a modernization of the party's platform, modeling it after Tony Blair's remake of the Labour Party in the mid-1990s. The reform movement gained momentum, but the PSOE failed to beat Aznar's party in national elections held in March of 2000. The head of the PSOE at the time, Joaquín Almunia, resigned as a result of the poor showing, and at the next party conference that July, PSOE delegates elected Zapatero as their new national secretary-general. Elizabeth Nash, a writer for London's Independent newspaper, quoted Zapatero as saying he would personally "lead this party once more to victory and the biggest one in its history." He added, "We need change, tranquil change. Our hope is for victory in 2004."

Zapatero began to take steps to win over Spanish voters to his party. In the fall of 2000, Zapatero and Aznar forged an agreement that their parties would work together to eliminate the threat of home-grown terrorists, which had been a serious concern in Spain for a number of years. A separatist movement in the north of Spain, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), translated as "Basque Fatherland and Liberty," had emerged in the 1960s, and called attention to its cause through bombings and assasinations. More than eight hundred Spaniards had died since then. Zapatero and Aznar pledged that they would not allow the ETA threat to be used for the political gain of their own parties, and pledged to work together to end the bloodshed. They even led a march through the streets of Barcelona against ETA terrorism that November.

The renewed effort against the ETA seemed to work, and many arrests were made. At the same time, Aznar's PP government was proving increasingly unpopular. It was criticized for its handling of an oil tanker spill off Spain's northern coastline in Galicia in November of 2002, which paralyzed the region's fishing industry for months. It was later revealed that Aznar's government had initially underreported the scope of the environmental disaster. In May of 2003 an aging military transport plane carrying Spanish troops back from Afghanistan crashed in Turkey, killing sixty-two. Protesters called for the resignation of Aznar's minister of defense, saying the Soviet-made, Soviet-era planes were known to have been unsafe.

Opposed war in Iraq

Aznar's most serious political error, however, seemed to be his support of U.S. President George W. Bush in the latter's effort to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003. Aznar's decision to send a small contingent of Spanish troops to join the coalition forces that invaded Iraq was met with a public outcry; opinion polls showed that seventy percent of Spaniards opposed the war. Zapatero took a strong stance against the war. As PSOE head, Zapatero rejected any alliance with America, although Aznar had tried to persuade him to give his support in the interests of national unity. After meeting with Aznar, Zapatero appeared at a press conference and told journalists that he refused to comply with Aznar's plea. "I told him the Socialist Party does not support a preventive attack on Iraq," New York Times writer Emma Daly quoted him as saying, "because there are no causes and reasons to justify an action of this magnitude."

In the run-up to the 2004 national elections, one of Zapatero's first campaign promises had been a pledge to withdraw the 1,300 Spanish troops in Iraq if elected. "This government doesn't serve Spaniards anymore, it only serves the interests of Bush," New York Times writer Lizette Alvarez quoted him as saying. As the election season moved into full swing, many were surprised at Zapatero's new fierceness on the campaign trail, as he condemned Aznar's government in the strongest terms. In past years, newspaper editorial cartoonists had sometimes poked fun of Zapatero as Sosoman, or "Dullman," depicting him wearing a superhero costume.

The Madrid bombings, thought to have been timed to disrupt the Spanish elections, seemed to be the decisive factor in the PSOE victory at the polls. On March 11, a series of bombs went off at Madrid's main train station and on trains elsewhere in the city during the morning rush hour. The catastrophe, the deadliest attack on European soil since World War II, left 192 dead and more than 1,400 injured. The Aznar government initially blamed it on ETA terrorists, but evidence began to mount that the attack might have been carried out by al-Qaeda—the terrorist group responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States—operatives in Spain. Spaniards who were opposed to the war in Iraq noted that Aznar's decision to side with the Bush White House had made Spain vulnerable to such attacks. They took to the streets by the thousands to mourn the dead and voice their opposition to government policy as well. Despite evidence pointing to al-Qaeda, the Aznar government continued to insist that ETA had been responsible, which was widely viewed as a political ploy to forestall a loss at the polls that weekend.

Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero (left) is sworn in as the Prime Minister of Spain, April 17, 2004. Onlookers include Spanish King Juan Carlos (right) and Queen Sofia.  Reuters/Corbis.
José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (left) is sworn in as the Prime Minister of Spain, April 17, 2004. Onlookers include Spanish King Juan Carlos (right) and Queen Sofia.
© Reuters/Corbis.

Recalled troops from Iraq

Three days later, on Sunday, a record voter turnout ousted Aznar's party and his handpicked successor, Mariano Rajoy, in favor of Zapatero and the PSOE. Even Rajoy was jeered by protesters when he cast his own ballot at a Madrid polling station. In the official tally the Popular Party won 38 percent of the vote, but Zapatero's socialists took 43 percent of the vote and 164 seats out of the 350 in the Cortes, the lower house of parliament. The PSOE won 29 seats more than it had in the previous election.

Just days after the election, a leading newspaper in Spain, El Pais, published an interview with Zapatero. "The war in Iraq was a huge mistake," he asserted, according to an article by New York Times correspondent Elaine Sciolino. "There was no motive. It was done without international consensus, and the management of the occupation has been a disaster." For his cabinet, Spain's new prime minister named a respected diplomat, Miguel Angel Moratinos, to be his foreign minister. Moratinos was a veteran of Middle Eastern diplomacy issues, and had previously served as Spain's ambassador to Israel.

Zapatero was sworn into office on April 17, 2004, by King Juan Carlos at Madrid's Zarzuela Palace. Twenty-four hours later, he made the announcement that he had ordered all 1,300 Spanish troops in Iraq to return home as soon as possible. During his first year in office, he also proved to be a liberal on domestic matters. He pledged to create new policies that would grant same-sex couples in Spain the same legal rights as married heterosexuals. A year earlier, the Cortes had passed a new law, amidst great controversy, that forced all public schools in Spain to make religious instruction a part of the curriculum. Zapatero announced that his government would not allow the law to go into effect. Furthermore, he vowed to eliminate gender bias in Spain via a sweeping series of new laws.

Zapatero's wife, Sonsoles Espinosa, maintains a low profile and rarely appears by his side. She is a voice teacher and shuns the political spotlight. The couple have two daughters.

For More Information

Periodicals

Alvarez, Lizette. "In His Startling Leap to High Office, Socialist Takes Strong Stand Against 'an Unjust War.'" New York Times (March 15, 2004): p. A12.

Daly, Emma. "Spain's Chief, on Bush's Side, Comes Under Attack at Home." New York Times (February 4, 2003): p. A12.

Graff, James. "Getting to the Truce." Time International (April 26, 2004): p. 35.

"Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain's New Socialist." Economist (January 27, 2001): p. 8.

Nash, Elizabeth. "Madrid: The Aftermath: How the Quiet Man of Spanish Politics Finally Made His Voice Heard Above the Noise of War." Independent (London, England), (March 16, 2004): p. 6.

Sciolino, Elaine. "A New Future for Spain: Call It Social Socialism." New York Times (March 31, 2004): p. A4.

Sciolino, Elaine. "Spain's New Leader Blows Both Hot and Cold Toward U.S." New York Times (March 22, 2004): p. A3.

Sharrock, David. "Quiet Man Who Swept to Power on a Wave of Anger." Times (London, England) (March 16, 2004): p. 16.



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