“In the general European euphoria over the election of Barack Obama, there is the beginning of self-reflection about Europe’s own troubles with racial integration. Many are asking if there could be a French, British, German or Italian Obama, and everyone knows the answer is no, not anytime soon”.

These are the words of Steven Erlanger in a brief article published in the International Herald Tribune.

But now, as I just visited my native Argentina – which has many problems, but fortunately not the nationalisms that my adoptive country, Spain, does – I am wondering if it would be possible for the President of Spain to be someone with the look of a foreigner, or more specifically, a child of immigrants.

Currently, immigrants comprise 11.6 percent of the population of Spain, which is practically the same percentage that the United States has: 12.9 percent. But despite the fact that their population percentages are basically the same, the difference in political representation between the two countries is abysmal. In the United States, minorities are better organized and better represented in the political system. Obama is not the only case of an immigrant or child of immigrants in politics in the United States; others include: the former ambassador of the United States to the United Nations, current governor of New Mexico and Secretary of Commerce Nominee, Bill Richardson and Antonio Ramón Villaraigosa, the current the mayor of Los Angeles.
In Spain, there are practically no immigrants or children of immigrants among the 200 most influential political figures.

It is possible that it will only a matter of time: the United States was founded by immigrants and their descendants. A fairly recent New York Times article provides an interesting look at the history of immigrant and racial identity in the country. Indeed, the founding father Benjamin Franklin himself was once worried about “swarthy Germans” outnumbering his fellow white Pennsylvanians.

In contrast, immigration is a recent phenomenon in Spain, having begun just a decade ago – two at the most. As such, at the dawn of the 21st century, the country finds itself stuck in the 19th or 20th when it comes to immigrant and racial integration, at least in comparison to the USA.

Ever since the Muslims and Jews were expelled in 1492, Spain has been a catholic, monolithic, and relatively poor country, and its people have emigrated to others. However, thanks to democracy’s comeback and its admittance into the European Union, the country has transformed itself and made progress in that aspect. As part of that transformation, Spain has received nearly five million immigrants in ten years, and the immigrant population has jumped from a mere three percent in 1998 to its current level of 11.6 percent.

The majority of immigrants are not yet able to vote in Spain, since they are still not Spanish citizens and thus cannot be represented in the Spanish government. This means that there are still very few Spanish citizens of immigrant origin. In contrast, think about the massive efforts undertaken by the candidates in the recent American elections to win the Latino vote. Regardless, in Spain, this level will grow in the next few years. It is very important to keep in mind that immigrants have twice as many children as natives, meaning that they make up 11% of residents but have 22% of the babies.

Could Obama’s election in the United States be influential and mobilize Spanish society and spark a demand for immigrant rights? Could the immigrants in Spain have their own Barack Obama?
To me, it seems unlikely.

In order for Spain to have its own Barack Obama, three preconditions that already exist in the United States would have to be met. One: that immigrants mobilize themselves and generate leaders to enthusiastically fight for the rights of immigrants and minorities (Spanish Martin Luther Kings, so to speak). Two: that the immigrant and minority movements grow more cohesive in order to demand their rights. And three: that voters in Spain be mature enough to vote for a child of immigrants.

I believe that the immigrant society in Spain has the ability to organize and mobilize through hundreds of organizations, but lacks leaders to represent the multiple interests of immigrants and be reference points for Spanish society as a whole. In order for immigrants to make that political leap, it is absolutely necessary to have leaders who mobilize, unite and demand minority rights.

As to whether Spanish society is ready to vote for an immigrant or a child of immigrants, to me it seems unlikely today. Spain lacks a lot in this sense because the level of prejudice is high. Just look at what Madrileños (natives of Madrid) and Catalans say to each other. It is hard for me to imagine that Spain could vote for a man or woman born to African immigrants.

A little while ago, I wrote an article in my blog in which I warned about the prejudice against minorities being demonstrated by Spanish high school students. It is hard for me to believe that, with these racial prejudices firmly established in Spanish high schools, this very group of young people will vote for a half-African or half-Latino president within a few years.

“In this election, the Americans not only chose a president, but also their identity. And now we have to think, too, about our identity in France. We realize we are late, and America has regained the torch of a moral revolution” wrote the French analyst Dominique Moisi in the International Herald Tribune.

I believe that it is also time for Spain to rethink its identity and, through an inclusionary campaign, better integrate its immigrants and open the doors to political process for them.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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Andrés on December 18, 2008  · 


I am a Spanish citizen living in the US, and, as such, I was not able to vote in the elections held on November 4th. And that is because I do not have a US passport. And I think it is the right measure to have in place, for the sake of democracy: if all the residents (regardless of how long they have been in the country) were to be allowed to vote there would be a myriad of ways to ‘cook’ the outcome of an election, in the same way that my fellow students from NY registered in PA in order to strengthen a candidate’s position in a “battleground state”, or in the same way as nationalist parties such as Partido Popular (you read it right: n-a-t-i-o-n-a-l-i-s-t) used to toy around with the emigrant vote for the regional elections in Galicia (specially those votes issued from Argentina).

That is why there has to be an aggravated procedure to attain the right to vote. That is why all the “latinos” (lower caps, please, that’s no nationality!) that were able to vote where actually US citizens, actively participating in their (host) country’s political system. The question is how a state allows foreign citizens to attain its nationality. You have gone through the pain of obtaining both a blue US passport and a maroon Spanish passport: maybe you can tell us more “insider stories” on how different one process is different than the other. If there is not so much difference (which would not surprise me: both countries make you go through a 5-year permanent residence with a work permit to allow you to swear the respective consitution) then maybe Spain is not doing stuff so wrong.

Having said this: beware of treading so dangerously near to demagogy. Spain has institutional elements that allow for the political participation of foreign residents that no one could dream of in the States. On one hand, the Spanish constitution was amended in 1992 to allow EU citizens to elect and be elected (that is, be candidate) in the elections to city councils. That is why, for instance, there are some German parties in the Balearic Islands. On the other, the same amendment (section 13.2) allowed for the same kind of participation with countries with reciprocity agreements. That is, if Spanish citizens are allowed to vote in a similar setting in another country, the citizens of that country can have the same treatment as a EU citizen.

What is more the Spanish society IS ready to vote for an immigrant or a child of immigrants. Actually they have done so already: there are representatives seating seating in legislative bodies that either are immigrants or sons of immigrants, like Mohammed Chaib Akhdim, born in Tanger, Morocco, and holder of a seat in the Catalan Parliament. Remember: Spaniards vote just their legislative bodies, we do not have a presidential system. Whether this should or should not be the system is another debate that has nothing to do with immigrants.

I’ll finish the digression just mentioning that no country can *rethink* its identity, like someone trying to re-brand a product or someone trying to be something that he’s not. At the end you are what and who you are. Identity is wired quite deeply. It is only changes that prompt human systems to change and learn about themselves and their fit, and how they should (honestly) respond to them.

Nevertheless, there’s something that we can both agree upon: Spaniards can surprise you often and exceed their expectations (both positively and negatively).

Warm regards (and admiration),

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Riviera on December 19, 2008  · 

Hi Martin, just one thing you miss in your comparison. Sure, the percentage of immigrant population is similar in the US and Spain. However, this phenomenon is really new in Spain: Before the 90s there was virtually no direct immigration, Spain was just a gateway to Europe. Hence, the minorities among citizens are still a much smaller percentage than that 12% you mention. I expect things to slowly change over the course of the next generation in terms of representation, hopefully for the best.

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Juan on December 19, 2008  · 

In France there is a Barack Obama, his name is Sarkozy. (His father is from Hungary)

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Adrian Elliot on December 21, 2008  · 

A Venezuelan homosexual, Pedro Zerolo, was a serious contender for the socialist nomination for Mayor of Madrid and is one of the most influential figures in the PSOE.

Regarding the chance of someone of African origin achieving a major political post, it is rather a sterile debate. Obama, despite his colour, has one white parent, he has been educated in the best universities, and is fully integrated in American society. In spite of his appeal to blacks, his constituency is a very large one composing the entire Democratic party and beyond. He has gone out of his way to say that he is not a minority President but an American President. I would call it post ethnicism. His colour is no longer an issue and that is why he is electable, in spite of and not because of his colour.

African immigration in Spain is too recent. There are no black newsreaders, very few blacks in top professions, and most are first generation. So it is clearly far too early to start talking about a black Prime Minister. On the costas, on the other hand, there are German councillors and there is even an English mayor.

When I arrived here 8 years ago, the only blacks I saw sold top manta and I read reports about police in central Barcelona rounding up blacks because there colour was enough for them the appear to be suspicious. Now you will find them stacking supermarket shelves, working on construction sites, building infrastructure, as cleaners and in other low wage roles. The test is whether their children will have access to as good an education as the Spanish and whether some of them will reach important posts in Spanish society. In Madrid I see an increasing number of young mixed couples which is clearly a positive sign however there is clearly a long way to go.

Another factor to take into account is that discrimination and antipathy to minorities in Europe has been provoked by different factors in different countries. In Holland, Pim Fortuyn’s popularity was more to do with fear at the cultural divide between a profoundly liberal Holland and the more conservative views and prejudices of immigrant minorities. Pim Fortuyn was homosexual. The Dutch were scared that the machismo, homophobia and general intolerance of difference among some immigrant communities would set back their achievements over the past 50 years.

There is a risk that this scenario may play out in Spain. Although there are plenty of middle class, highly educated and tolerant Latin Americans living in Spain, many of whom have come precisely to escape the intolerance of their native countries, there are also many who have come here for purely economic reasons, and who still hold reactionary views about the role of women in society, about sexual orientation, abortion and a whole variety of issues on which Spain has advanced enormously in the last 30 years. One can only hope that when the Spanish Obama arrives, he is as similar as possible to the American Obama, and that in spite of his colour and the origin of his ancestors, he is fully integrated in Spanish society and schooled in the values that make Spain what it is. Anything else would lead to a crisis of identity among the Spanish, and ample breeding ground for intolerance and division.

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Friedrich on December 24, 2008  · 

What a silly question! Did spain have a G.W.Bush before?? First think! Then write!

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ariben on December 27, 2008  · 

France has his Obama, its Sarkozy. I am disgusted and ashamed of letting my country being led by such an ignorant (he does not even speak english) and useless person such as Zapatero. I count the days eagerly for the end of his second term.

But, what is worse, is Rajoy supposed to be our ‘Sarkozy?’

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Adrian Elliot on December 27, 2008  · 

Ariben, There is no novelty in Zapatero not speaking English. Nor did Aznar when he was Prime Minister, nor did Felipe González. If you consider the basis of ignorance to be a lack of knowledge of the English language, you are implying that the vast majority of the Spanish population are ignorant.

Very few people in Spain, and I mean very few indeed, have a credible knowledge of English. I have worked here for eight years among highly educated Spaniards and I struggle to count on more than one hand those that were capable of having a serious analytical discussion or writing intelligible business English. Many of those considered in Spain to have an Upper Intermediate level can barely communicate.

This is a problem with the education system, a legacy of Spain’s past fascist dictatorship in which all languages other than Castillian Spanish were prohibited, and a consequence of the shortage of teachers with the necessary qualifications and ability to pass the language on. So if you accuse Zapatero of being an idiot, try to use other arguments to defend your case rather than focussing on the fact that he has a similar linguistic ability to most of the people who elected him.

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Guillermo on December 28, 2008  · 

Inmigration process in Spain is very recent. This is not an apples to apples fair comparison.
Please tell us how is the integration of the different inmigrants in Argentina when they first arrived? Tell us about the “Gallegos” (Spaniards) or the people from Southern Italy. USA was in its origin a multinational country, Spain has been not until very recently.
Argentineans are very racist towards indigenous people from Paraguay, Chile, etc…
Please be more balanced, Argentina is not a role model in this matter and unfortunately not in others.

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Guillermo on December 28, 2008  · 

Martin, I admire you as a successful entrepreneur, but not because of that your opinions are accurate or rigorous in any matter. Please contrast them. I have found lots of inaccurate statements.
1) As I told before, USA or Argentina have had this multicultural and multinational demographic distribution for a long time.
2) Process of expulsion or Arabs and Jewish, although a mistake as you state, it was a generalized process in Europe, to achieve political union.
3) Spain was a poor country in resources before and after Arabs and Jews leave it.

All in all, your comparison and judgment of Spanish Society is not fair and does not rightly reflect the reality in a country in the initial stage as an immigrants receiver country.
Please compare it with Argentina in the 1930s or with other countries at the same stage.
This is a back-ended analysis the one that you do.
With all my respect,

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Andrés on December 28, 2008  · 


a) Few areas in the Old World have been and are as multicultural and multinational as the Iberian peninsula. Geographically it’s a crossroads between Europe and Africa, between the Atlantic ocean and the Mediterranean area. Historically, Iberia has been the Balkans of Western Europe.

Today, Spain *is* multinational. Catalans and Basques *are* nationalities.

b) Political union was a really lousy excuse, if it was an excuse at all. Political union in Spain was only achieved in the second decade of the 1700s, after a civil war and a change of dinasty. Under the Habsburg all the Spanish territories in the Iberian peninsula retained all their political institutions.

c) Spain was once actually a rich country in terms of natural resources. The thing is that everyone that has come here has been able to use and abuse them, even before the Romans arrived. By kicking out all Jews and Muslims, Spain simply shot itself in the knee by expelling a big deal of its human capital, the urban and economic fabric of a potentially powerful metropolis. What did remain? A handful of bureaucrats/members of the court and a mass of peasants.
After that, the exploration and exploitation of the New World had to be financed by big wealths in Central Europe. Although the Castilian Empire was able to claim the rights over most of America, all the benefits were reaped by someone else.

d) Remember to use your words wisely: “Muslim” and “Arab” mean *really* different things.

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Andrés on December 30, 2008  · 


I would disagree slightly: as ill-intentioned as Mr Aznar can be, he actually had ideas of his own (that’s too much to ask for GWB). Whether the Spaniards were judge properly whether Aznar’s state vision was fit to where the country really was… that’s something else.

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Guillermo on December 31, 2008  · 

I do not think as rigorous considering the nationalities we have in Spain as a way to explain why demographic and cultural distribution can be considered comparable to that in the US

1) We have been a very homogeneous country in the last 4 to 5 centuries in many senses (you know which ones, I am not going to detail them to go on with a discussion based on specificities).

2) Although the Kingdom of Spain (as well as Spain as a Nation) is not considered as such until 18th century, the homogeneity of the country has more to do with processes (that as you know) took place 2 to 3 centuries before.

All in all, it is prudent to say that any country that has been living under certain “stable” (in the sense of unchanged) demographic, social, religious, political conditions during quite a long period has to “digest” again what are considered to be significant changes in its social, religious,….composition. 11% of the population has come to the country during the last 5 to 10 years.

Catalans, Basques or Galicians although if considered part of different nations are basically very similar in many aspects to Castilians or Andalusians which is not the case with a Rumanian or an Ecuatorian. Needless to say that this is not racist, this calls more for time and patience….”Rome was not built in a day”

P.S.: Martin, I agree with you Aznar was a great President for Spain during the first 6 years, but a Little arrogant Napoleon in the last two (which is a shame for as Spaniards, as he supported that horrible invasion of Irak and the posterior massacre there).

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Livia on January 1, 2009  · 

I believe a very important reason for Obama’s success is that he does not carry the psychological baggage of the typical African American. He was born of a white mother and an African father and did not experience the systematic discrimination that still is part of the African American culture, especially among the lower middle class. For this reason he does not prosyletize or harbour any resentment towards whites but clearly views himself as any white man’s equal. It is this very measured, intelligent, reasoned and above all unemotional stance that kept him from scaring off the middle class white voter. However, while I would like to believe his election was a result of greater tolerance and respect for African Americans, I think it will only make a small dent in discriminarory stereotyping which I still hear plenty of in the U.S.

While I can’t speak for Spain in particular, Europe does not have the same long history of slavery and discrimination that the U.S. has with respect to Africans. And more importantly the immigrants in Europe are more recent and have a stronger identity which should help them in their quest to be treated as equals in European countries. On the other hand, Europeans are as a general rule very nationalistic and it will be very hard for any “other” to be accepted in a leadership position. In sum, while in the US there is more talk of tolerance in democratic ideals, and more examples of exceptional individuals who broke the barrier, than in Europe, the immigrants in Europe don’t have to “get out of their own way” and are not as accepting of their lot in life the way many African Americans are.

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pepito on January 7, 2009  · 

the odd problem is not whether a spanish obama could arise in Spain but if the political system prevailing in Spain is a democracy like the americans have, which could make feasible that the citizenship can choose a president for the office and an independent congress instead of being done by the chiefs of the political parties as in Spain occurs

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Ramon on January 11, 2009  · 


The percentages of immigrants are basically the same ONLY regarding NEW immigration. However, a considerable amount of Americans are second, third and fourth generation of immigrants. Thus, the percentage of people that could be classified as immigrants is much greater in the USA than in Spain. All Afro-Americans are somehow immigrants, as well as all polish, italians and central Europeans that arrived in the USA in the last century but hold currently American citizenship. In Spain we do have such percentage of Spaniards with foreign background.

In Spain we may have one day a Barack Obama but in two-three more generations. Now, it’s too early for the country.


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