Name: Santiago Cabanas Ansorena | Age: 65| Hometown: Madrid, Spain
Ambassador to the U.S. since: September 17, 2018
Tell us a little bit about your family background and childhood. Where did you grow up and what was your family like?
I’m from the wonderful city of Madrid and I’m very proud of being a Madrileño. I grew up in a family with two loving parents, two sisters, and a brother. I went to the French school, the Lycée Français, and am privileged to still have friends from those years that I keep in touch with. I have really good memories of my childhood and those early times. A happy childhood, I would say.
You studied law and then joined the Spanish Foreign Service at age 27. Was there an experience or moment in your life that made it clear that you wanted to work internationally? What was your path from law to the Foreign Service?
I always looked forward to my father coming home in the evening with all the newspapers and reading what was going on in the world. But if I had a defining moment, it was when I had the privilege of spending two years when I was sixteen taking my A levels and my IB at a truly international school — the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales. I had the opportunity to be at that boarding school with boys and girls from all over the world — more than 50 countries. It was there that I realized that the international world really interested me. My father was a lawyer and a judge, so my family was related to the world of law, but not to the world of diplomacy. I was the first one in my family that decided to be a diplomat.
You’ve held some top-ranking positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain, and you’ve served as Spain’s ambassador to Algeria, the Czech Republic and Jordan. What is the most difficult challenge you’ve faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
I’ve been very lucky with the different postings I’ve had in my life. I have enjoyed all of them. The most challenging, and at the same time the most interesting one, was being a young diplomat in Iran from 1985–1988. It was just a few years after the revolution. And for different reasons I happened to be chargé d’affaires, even though I was quite a young and inexperienced diplomat. Those years were difficult. But, with the help of my colleagues at the embassy and a very supportive young wife who accompanied me to Iran, I think we managed to solve those many challenges that we had to face. I also learned a lot. In the end, I have very good memories of Iran and those difficult but very interesting years that we spent there.
You said that you learned a lot. What were the most important lessons you learned in Iran?
I learned the basic lessons of diplomacy: that you need passion to do your work, you really need to love the country where you’re posted, you need to develop a sense of responsibility in your day-to-day work, and that you have to act sometimes with patience and a certain sense of balance, without overdoing it.
Looking back on your career, what advice would you give to your younger self?
[Laughter] I think my younger self wouldn’t have asked for advice from me! One of the things I have learned is, “never give advice if you’re not asked for advice.” But on the contrary, if that younger self would ask me for advice (which I very much doubt), I would say, don’t hesitate to ask for advice!
You can learn a lot from people who think differently. And listen to what others have to say, especially if they think differently than you.
You’ve spent some time in the states already — both here in Washington and also as the Consul General of Spain in Miami. What do you hope to see or accomplish during your ambassadorship here in Washington?
What Spain has achieved since I was first here 30 years ago is amazing! If someone would have told me 30 years ago that Spanish investments in the US would be greater than US investments in Spain, I would have said that was in no way possible. But today, Spanish investments in the US are greater than American investments in Spain.
We’ve come a long way. Our trade has increased tremendously, the number of Spanish students that come here to the United States is enormous (in the thousands!) and Spain is the second country chosen by American students to study abroad. Our people-to-people contacts have increased in many ways, our political relations have multiplied, and our security relations are balanced and very strong.
The work has been done already and I just have to continue and push forward. But, there is one area where we have to work a little bit more, and that is the knowledge in the United States about the common history of Spain and the United States. Very few people know that really the first permanent settlement in what is today the continental US, was St. Augustine, Florida. In 1565 in St. Augustine there was a school, a public registry, a town hall. It had all the basics of what is now democratic life in the United States. And it was born there in St. Augustine and in the missions that we had all over the country during the 16th and 17th centuries. And most people don’t know about it. People also don’t know also about the great Spanish contribution to the War of Independence. So, I think there is a lot to do to try to get the American people to know that we do share a wonderful history. Sharing our past will help us build for the future.
And how about the EU — what do you hope to see the EU accomplish in the next 5–10 years here in the US?
We believe in the EU. We’re committed to the EU. It’s something that has done a lot of good for Spain. Thanks to the EU, Spain has become what it is today — a very strong democracy, a very open and generous society, a country that is really at the forefront of many fields, whether it is science, medicine, or technology. We are an example of the success of the EU project.
I think it’s important that we try all together — the EU and the EU member states — to convey that message of what the EU is about. The EU is about building a better future for the European citizens, putting aside the ghosts of wars, of politics of identity, of petty nationalism. In spite of the difficulties, the EU has always been able to build on crises, and we will do so again. In 5–10 years I hope that we will be able to recuperate the strength of the EU project in which we strongly believe, and that we will continue to build a strong relationship with the US. We are absolutely convinced in Spain that if we weaken the transatlantic relationship, we weaken Europe, and we certainly weaken also the US. This is a message that we have to explain with real examples, being present, and talking to people. You can be sure that Spain will be part of that effort.
California’s Governor recently issued a moratorium on the death penalty — why is that significant? Why are you opposed to the death penalty?
Spain, like the rest of the EU, is opposed to the death penalty as a matter of dignity and human rights. We believe that we should work for an abolition of the death penalty because it goes against the dignity of our humanity.
We all know that all judicial systems might be wrong and if you wrongly condemn someone to the death penalty, there is no way that you can ever go back on that decision. Finally, it’s been very clear that the death penalty does not in fact discourage violent or hate crimes. On the contrary, in those countries where the death penalty has been abolished, violent crime has diminished. But, I would stress that this is a question of human dignity.
What are some of your hobbies?
My two big hobbies are reading and hiking. I was very lucky to have the opportunity and encouragement from my family to read. My father was very fond of books and I had access to a very good library at home from a very young age.
Do you have a favorite author?
Being a Spaniard, I would have to say that for me it’s always a wonder to read Cervantes. I was ambassador to Algeria before coming here, and you may not know, but Cervantes spent 5 years in Algiers as a prisoner. I think his outlook on life was seriously affected by these five years. There he learned many of the lessons of friendship, camaraderie, love, pardon, and understanding others that he wrote about. For me it was very moving to go around the places where he lived and to try to understand how this life of imprisonment changed his life and affected the way he would write with such an understanding of the human condition that you can find in Don Quixote.
If you had to pick something to share with Americans about Spain, what would it be?
First, explaining the real Spain, because sometimes there are too many clichés. Spain today is a vibrant, open democracy, with a very advanced and generous society that welcomes everyone. Because of our history, we are a very mixed people and we are a very open society. This real, modern Spain is perhaps not so well known. And the second thing is that Spaniards are also Americans. You cannot understand Spain without America and you cannot understand America without Spain. Our histories are so intertwined because of our many centuries here. Our identity became very broad and global because of it. Also, you cannot understand America without understanding how Spain was present in the continent during the last few centuries.
What are you most proud of?
I’m very proud of my family. I feel privileged to have a very supportive wife and children who’ve accompanied me on different postings. I’m also very proud of the team here at this embassy. I’m very impressed by all of them and the work they do and I feel very confident working with this excellent team, and proud of what we all do together.