“It was worth it”

Ignacio de la Torre. Professor. IE Business School

30 October 2015

“Valió la pena (It was worth it)” is the title of the recently published book featuring the memoirs of Jorge Dezcallar. It was certainly worth writing, given that it enables us read the recent history of Spain from a perspective based on the truth.

Two thousand years ago an Iranian poet called Rumi said that “a wound is a place through which light enters the soul.”  I have just spent the weekend devouring the recently published memoirs of Jorge Dezcallar - Valió la pena (It was worth it,) - published by Península.  A Spanish ambassador and former director of Spain’s National Intelligence Center, Dezcallar has written a book that reminds me of a poem by Rumi entitled “Among diplomats and spies,” which demonstrated a healthy dose of envy of such a fascinating life, coupled with intellectual perplexity brought about by comparing the apollonian world of high diplomacy with the dionysian world of “high” politics (which would be better described as low). In spite of the emotional charge of Dezcallar’s book, which was written several years after the events, his style reveals a magnificent sense of freedom afforded by distance. As the author says, alluding to the father of Independence in Uruguay, “with freedom I neither offend nor fear,” a powerful phrase which in this case actually means, “with the truth I neither offend nor fear.”  

First and foremost I have to say that my stance is neutral with regard to the subject at hand.  For fifteen years now, however, I have admired the professional trajectory of Jorge Dezcallar and his sense of state, and eleven years ago he was kind enough to write a prologue for a book of mine. Since then I have been lucky enough to get to know him and debate with him. 

The book sets out his memoirs in a very personal, direct, and occasionally festering fashion, and can be divided into three main sections. The first talks about his years as a diplomat, centered in particular in the handling of foreign policy for Africa and the Middle East. It was a career that culminated in the Moroccan Embassy, one of the most important embassies for Spain when it came to interacting with members of Spanish political parties of all persuasions - UCD and PSOE and PP.  The second examines public aspects of his role as secretary of state and director of Spain’s National Intelligence Agency, under governments of the somewhat right-of-center Popular Party, with a special focus on the days following the March 11 terrorist attacks. The third talks about his time at two of the most emblematic Spanish embassies, namely that of the Holy See (possibly the oldest embassy in the world) and that of the US, under PSOE (Spanish Socialist Party).   For someone who is not affiliated with a political party and who is renowned for being independent in terms of politics, he has not done badly to have got so far in life. 

There is a central ideal running through the whole book, namely that of the constant tension among politicians and top civil servants due to the fact that politicians always placed the party’s interests before those of Spain, with a few honorable exceptions. In some cases, this “perverse situation” could be attributed to a growing failure to extract numerous people from the world of politics, and in others to the lamentable state of “internal democracy” mechanisms, (a valid oxymoron), while in other cases it is simply the result of intellectual stupidity coupled with good old megalomania.   

A few years ago I wrote a column headed “Forgiveness” in which I pondered the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US and those of March 11 in Spain. In the US the conclusion reached was that different security agents had not worked enough at sharing information, and a bipartisan commission was set up to examine the matter. The result was an appearance  during which the first thing that happened was that the American people were asked for forgiveness for such a catastrophic mistake, and a national security agency was created to coordinate all information and thus avoid further attacks. Both political parties subscribed to and supported the agreement. In Spain, the March 11 attacks did not bring about a similar movement, but rather a very Spanish blamestorming session aimed at transforming deaths into votes.  This is one of the most shameful examples of how the interests of parties (for want of a more appropriate term) are placed above those of the state. Said attitude was an attempt to manipulate state institutions through lies and cover-ups in order to do irreparable harm to people with wholly blameless track records, like the man who wrote the abovementioned memoirs.  

Nobody has asked for forgiveness to date, and, as explained, it may be possible to have economic recovery without asking for forgiveness, but economic recovery without ethical recovery will once again be built on quicksand. Perhaps this book will make us think once again about the importance of civil society, and the fact that having the guts to expose abuse committed by politicians is a major component of such a society. Such abuse can give rise to a level of disaffection that brings devastating effects, as we have sadly witnessed in recent years. These memoirs are an example of having the guts to perform a civic duty.  

Remember when Ignacio Ellacuría and his five Jesuit colleagues from the University of Central America were murdered in El Salvador, and a visibly moved head of the university talked about how the very next day an enormous number of Jesuit professors volunteered to fill the void in the classroom?  Dezcallar tells a similarly stirring story of how, when a Spanish intelligence agent was murdered in the course of a dangerous mission in Bagdad, the next day seventeen agents volunteered to continue his mission. Some weeks later seven agents in Iraq, who had heroically defended information, were murdered, and there were subsequently 22 volunteers to replace each one of the murdered agents in the field. They form part of an anonymous and truly heroic breed of people of whom we can be very proud indeed. 

It would have been nice to also see in the book a reflection on the close relation between the economy and geopolitical power, which, when all is said and done, is what diplomatic competence is all about. Empires that give the impression of having more power than their economy and demography permits end up in decline (Rome being the most obvious example) and that is why diplomacy should be capable of carrying out a critical analysis of the permanently shifting realities of an economy in order to give an optimum show of power, be it on the rise or in decline. The withdrawal by the US over the last few years is due precisely to this historic golden rule, as stated some time ago by Richard Hass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, in his book “War of Necessity, War of Choice”. Meanwhile Russia is in the throes of the opposite process, trying to secure greater geopolitical power when it is now an economic dwarf, which can only end badly.  Spain has lived through some difficult times in terms of foreign policy following the transition and as a result of economic expansion followed by the devastating effects of the crisis.  Today Spain is enjoying one of the highest rates of growth in the West, and we have to ask ourselves how we should manage this rise. However, as I said at the start, the book is not theoretical in nature, rather it offers a personal take on very important events that have taken place in Spain’s foreign policy and the country’s security in some very critical years, which it succeeds in doing beautifully.

The conclusion I draw from these ideas is that reading the memoirs of Jorge Dezcallar is both necessary and useful, given that only by facing the truth, no matter how unpalatable it might be, can we rebuild the country and its institutions on the kind of moral base needed to render them solid.   The book is written from a point of view that permits an enormous amount of inner freedom that does not seek to wreak revenge but rather to simply subjectively narrate an “objective” reality, and that is what is so good about it. 

“Valió la pena” is an epic and tragic portrayal of the struggle between two very different approaches – that of serving Spain, and that of using Spain to serve oneself.  

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