International political summits, those huge events where heads of state gather to debate things such as international affairs and social integration, tend to have one common denominator everywhere in the world: most taxpayers have no interest in them.

It’s not that taxpaying citizens are not concerned with those important issues their leaders discuss; it’s simply that they fail to see the point to such events.

Lack of public interest has always offered global leaders an easy ride. Since hardly anybody seems to care about what they do on such occasions, they can fly into wherever the summit is held, offer a few meaningless speeches and go back home after their quick vacations. But now, thanks to Spain’s King Juan Carlos, this may have changed.

In case you haven’t heard, King Juan Carlos snapped on Saturday on the closing day of the Ibero-American summit in Chile and yelled at Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan President, “to shut up”. Here’s the video, subtitles and all (the “royal” reaction comes just after the first minute).

The main speaker — the angry yet quite calm gentleman — is José Luiz Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish Prime Minister, and Chávez, the President of Venezuela, is the one who tirelessly tries to interrupt him. The king is, obviously, the choleric elderly man who forms the third vertex of this diplomatic “love triangle” (the female voice in the background belongs to host President Michelle Bachelet, desperately trying to put some order among her peers as if they were naughty students). The Ibero-American summit gathers the leaders of Spain, Portugal and Latin America.

Kings are not meant to react like this. From the day we hear our first fairy tale, we expect real-life kings to act like the model citizen every mother would want her child to be. We are led to believe that the only people capable of upholding protocol more than career diplomats are kings and queens. As “crown-carrying descendents of God” they are expected to behave in measured, careful, polite fashion, without a word or gesture out of place. Such is the world of etiquette. And even though Chávez is not an easy man get along with, what with his proclivity to fire witty aggressions at other leaders (remember when he called Bush the devil at the UN?) Juan Carlos’s reaction surprised everybody who saw it.

Most Latin-American presidents manage to live with Chávez fine for their own (mainly financial) reasons — a bit like Southern African leaders are happy to put up with Robert Mugabe, never mind what developed countries have to say. In Spain, however, the man is not liked much. He is considered a big-mouthed, petty dictator (even though he was elected three times in nine years by a vast majority).

In the video, Zapatero is replaying to earlier comments by Chávez against the previous Spanish president, José María Aznar, a conservative who stood aside Tony Blair and George Bush to declare the invasion of Iraq. Chávez had called Aznar a “fascist”. The Venezuelan cannot forget that when a coup led by the Venezuelan business establishment ousted him in 2002, the Bush and Aznar administrations swiftly hailed his fall (the rest of the world screamed foul and Chávez was reinstalled two days later).

After Chávez’s attack against Aznar, Zapatero seized on the chance to show himself off as a strong state leader capable of putting a leash on the big-mouthed Venezuelan and a noble leftist knight-in-armour willing to defend the honour of his right-wing political arch-rival.

Zapatero’s reaction has garnered praise from all of Spain’s very politically opinionated media and a thank-you call from Aznar. Regarding the king, the Spanish media have also been all praise and sweet-talk — not only the leading rightist publications such as the newspapers ABC and El Mundo, but also the centre-leftist El País, the best-selling quality daily in the country. Few Spanish political analysts have bothered to comment that a king has no right to tell a president to shut up.

Another big question nobody has bothered with is what the incident will do to the future of diplomacy and international summits. How are other good-mannered members of royalty meant to behave from now on? Can we expect Queen Elizabeth to yell at Mugabe under advice from Gordon Brown? Is Belgium’s Albert II going to start cuffing French-speaking and Flemish-speaking leaders behind the ears for them to start moving and form a government for the country (Belgium has been without a prime minister for more than 150 days)?

Any of the above would make a lot of sense since it would entertain their citizens as well as foreign ones more than anything else they do. It would also make far more sense than seeing anachronistic figures such as kings and queens be treated as equals to democratically elected leaders.


  • Rodrigo Orihuela is a South African-born Argentine journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he is an online editor for the newspaper Perfil. He has worked for the Financial Times, Reuters and the Buenos Aires Herald, where he still reviews books. He also worked as a translator/editor for Standard & Poor's and has written about football for the British magazine When Saturday Comes and for the Guardian (UK). He also reviewed books for the Argentine daily Pagina/12 and contribued to the current affairs magazine Noticias.


Rodrigo Orihuela

Rodrigo Orihuela is a South African-born Argentine journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he is an online editor for the newspaper Perfil. He has worked for the Financial Times, Reuters and...

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