Rebels of the world

...come to uncle Jose Maria

Does this sound familiar? He’s a former prime minister who went against public opinion to support the American-led war in Iraq, and he stood down voluntarily before his party lost power.

Jose Maria Aznar, the former Spanish leader, is well placed to advise his “very close friend” Tony Blair about the transition from power to civilian life.

“Tony Blair was a very strong leader for this country,” says Aznar with a twinkle, “and also for the western world. But he should never forget the wisdom of Winston Churchill, who said that all the great nations are ungrateful.”

Aznar himself stood down as leader of Spain’s Popular Party in 2004 after two terms in office. Days after the bombing of four Madrid commuter trains in which 190 people died his party lost the election. Voters blamed the attack on Aznar’s support for the war in Iraq.

Since leaving office, he has run the Foundation for Social Analysis and Studies, a Madrid-based organization known as the Popular Party's ideas lab. Earlier this month, the foundation put together an unprecedented conference for dissidents from around the world to meet leaders and ex-leaders like Aznar himself. The key speaker was his old amigo George Bush.

The conference took place at a time when American neocons and their allies are increasingly being accused of interfering in the affairs of sovereign states, most notably Iran and Venezuela. Whatever your opinion of the neocons – and their experiment in Iraq – most people agree that intervention can sometimes be necessary and successful, as several non-violent revolutions in eastern Europe, discreetly supported from overseas, have demonstrated.

Aznar is often described as a dour, Castilian former tax inspector. To me, the diminutive former Spanish premier bears a startling resemblance to Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator – but with a more flamboyant hairdo. He spoke to me about the conference in London this week in still not-quite-perfect English – much better than my Spanish – which he’s only devoted himself to learning properly since leaving power.

The idea arose, he says, in a conversation with Nathan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician. Aznar had got to know Sharansky after reading his book, The Case for Democracy. They got on well, and Aznar went on to publish Sharanksky's book in Spanish through his foundation.

Two years ago, the pair decided to arrange for dissidents from various countries around the world to come together and meet sympathetic political leaders. Another dissident-turned-politician, the former Czech president Vaclav Havel, agreed to help.

“The thing that is most important for dissidents is not to feel alone,” says Aznar. “Sharansky told me the story of the first meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev. Sharansky's wife was there and Reagan told Gorbachev that it was impossible to have trust while her husband was in prison. Sharansky no longer felt isolated, because the leader of the free world was occupied by his situation.”

Aznar, Sharansky and Havel drew up a list of 17 countries, and invited 60 individuals, from different traditions and cultures and organisations. “The idea is to expand democracy and freedom. We're looking at China to Venezuela, Iran to Cuba and parts of Asia and the Middle East, and South America…”

“It was extremely important that the most important and powerful leader in the world should support the dissidents. The three of us – the three musketeers! – are close friends of George Bush. Each of us separately asked him to come.”

Bush has frequently used Sharansky’s “town square” test as a measure of freedom. If a person can walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a free society, not a fear society.

A wonderful test, but how to bring about a world in which citizens of all countries enjoy such freedom?

Speaking after Bush at the conference, Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah of Iran, offered a clue. “I have come to Prague,” he said, “to ask for your solidarity with the people of Iran against a common enemy: Islamist preachers of intolerance who turn young men and women into walking bombs.”

Pahlavi offered the conference the “untried option of tying external pressures to human rights in Iran, which would boost the morale of Iranians in their everyday resistance, and encourage internal pressures that the Iranian regime would really feel.”

This would seem to contradict Aznar’s predictable, diplomatic assurance that he is not interested in intervention in sovereign states. “I don't want to intervene in another country. I respect the sovereignty of all the states.”

History suggests otherwise. Indeed, Aznar admits it himself.

“In government I had to decide to intervene in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. I think that the intervention was necessary. The world is complicated but it's a little better without Milosevic, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein…”

Aznar’s government is believed to have been complicit in the attempted coup against Equatorial Guinea, in which Mark Thatcher was involved. When that failed, Robert Mugabe – whose intelligence personnel detained most of the plotters as they tried to collect weapons in Harare – acquired a new supply of cheap oil from the grateful Guinean dictator, one of the few resources keeping Mugabe’s regime in power. Oops!

More happily, the dissident Cuban poet Raul Rivero has said that without the “very energetic and strong support” of Aznar, the Spanish premier, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, could never have negotiated his release from prison.

“I believe that we have a responsibility,” says Aznar gravely. “It's not possible to have democracy and security only for rich countries. Havel and Sharansky have experience of this [issue] in their countries…”

Quite so. But what about Aznar? Did he struggle, as a young man, against the fascist regime of General Francisco Franco, which murdered tens of thousands of political opponents?

Not exactly. Aznar’s grandfather was Franco’s ambassador to the UN, and his father, after serving as an officer in charge of propaganda during the civil war, went on to establish the so-called Official School of radio and television broadcasting. In 1979, four years after Franco’s death, Aznar joined the Popular Party founded by Manuel Fraga Iribarne, Minister of the Interior in Franco's fascist regime. When it became clear that Fraga could never win popular support, the young Aznar was put forward to represent a break from the past.

He became prime minister in 1996 and was re-elected in 2000. Thanks to his liberalization and competition policies, budget control, rational public spending and tax cuts, almost five million new jobs were created in Spain. Spanish GDP increased a cumulative 64 percent over eight years. Throughout this time, the country advanced from 78 percent to 87 percent of the EU average income.

Not for nothing, at Popular Party election rallies, did frenzied crowds reportedly greet him with shouts of “Torero! Torero! Que par de cojones tiene.” (Bullfighter! Bullfighter! What a pair of balls you have).

His wife Ana Botella excites similarly strong feelings. Mrs Aznar, a Popular Party politician in her own right, has alienated women's and homosexual rights groups with her ultra-conservative views.

On April 19, 1995, Aznar was nearly killed by ETA bombers: only his armoured car saved him. His friends say the assassination attempt stiffened his resolve to defeat Basque separatism.

Additionally, Spaniards have an abiding memory of occupation by Muslim rulers. Aznar's forebears, the Counts of Aznar, are said to have been key to the reconquest. Last year he queried why Muslims have never apologized for occupying Spain for 800 years.

Despite watching his party lose the election in 2004, and the still declining public support for war in Iraq, Aznar says, “I think we have won the battle of ideas.”

It’s hard to agree. In 2003, Aznar helped to cause a split between Old Europe and New Europe, creating – with Blair – a new axis of power to challenge Paris-Berlin.

As signatories to the so-called Letter of Eight they laid bare the division between those who supported US action in Iraq and those who were opposed. With its reference to “compelling evidence” against Saddam – evidence that no one had yet seen or heard – the letter was itself regarded as evidence of a US-led conspiracy to divide Europe.

But the socialist government that replace Aznar has worked to repair relations. Indeed, last year it excluded Britain from a plan for peace in the Middle East, working it up instead with France and Italy.

Aznar takes a dim view. “European leaders should concentrate their efforts on reforming, with flexibility and openness, less tax, less intervention and respect the rules. More privatisations, less state intervention.

What does he think of the revived interest in a European constitution? “For me this is a useless discussion. The Treaty of Nice is enough.”

In a farewell interview on Spanish television, before leaving office, Mr Aznar said he aspired to “a quiet life in Spain”, and “not to be a bother to anyone”. What changed his mind?

“I thought, why not use my reputation in favour of these people [dissidents]? This is not about coming back into politics. And it's certainly not an economic ambition!

“When you leave power, and you are 51 years old, you can begin a new life. It will be impossible for you to forget politics. You have that in the blood, and you have participated in the fast lane. But there is life after politics.”

Has he told Blair this happy news? “I don't give advice to Tony. He is a very close friend and I appreciate him very much. We did a lot of things together. But in my experience – and this is not advice – it's necessary to establish a difference in your life. You must travel a lot and be busy and have initiatives and new ideas.”

Does he think the expected Blair Foundation will operate on similar lines to his own? The thought doesn’t seem to have occurred to him, and with a hearty laugh he finally drops the amigo act. “I don't know. But mine is the best!”