VALENCIA, Spain — The White House visit by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on Tuesday aims to boost recognition in the United States that Spain is a significant economic player on the world stage.

“The Iraq pullout of Spanish troops killed relations with the U.S. short term but Spain has stayed the course with Afghanistan,” observed Richard Kagan, a Johns Hopkins University historian and author of several books about Spain.

Spain has about 800 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, and sent 450 additional troops to provide security for the August presidential election. Zapatero, after his meeting with Obama on Tuesday, said that while Spanish troops have sacrificed in Afghanistan, they would continue their mission there. “Our engagement in Afghanistan is firm,” he said. Read the official transcript of his remarks here.

Kagan mused over relations between the two countries, past and present, while grazing on tapas served up for speakers — a select group from academia, the arts and business — at the recent seminar “Images of Spain in the United States.” The seminar, organized by the Fundacion Consejo Espana-Estados Unidos and the Fundacion Bancaja, was presented by Spanish and North American experts from different fields.

“This is what makes Spain hot,” Kagan concluded. “Mediterranean cuisine, nightlife, the arts.” Kagan explained that accomplishments from German engineering to British style made those countries “cool.”

Spain broke the barometer of pre-conceptions when its National Bank’s much-lauded precautions in the wake of the global economic crisis helped earn this country a place among the select group of nations meeting to shape future monetary policies. President Barack Obama’s Spanish-language greeting, “¿Que paso Jose Luis?” to Zapatero at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh made headlines here, not only for who said it, but also for the language he chose. 

A reflection of the growing influence of Spanish-speakers in the U.S., Obama’s “what’s up?” also encapsulated the navel-gazing observations shared by panels of experts gathered in Valencia to analyze the evolving image of a country renowned for siesta and fiesta. The seminar was held to coincide with the opening of a rare exhibit in Spain of Joaquin Sorolla’s “Vision of Spain” — a collection of folkloric murals normally displayed prominently in New York at The Hispanic Society of America.

In the early 20th century, society founder Archer Huntington first approached Sorolla to paint scenes portraying the rich cultural history of Spain reaching back more than two millennia. Sorolla convinced his patron to portray the people of Spain, mostly while dressed up to enjoy regional festivals. Hispanic Society executive director Mitchell Codding said the painter’s instinct proved hugely successful when the works were first exhibited in New York a century ago. Sorolla’s murals seemed to erase lingering resentment over the Spanish-American War of 1898. They positioned the artist as Spain’s unofficial cultural ambassador to the U.S., according to Eduardo Garrigues, seminar chair and general secretary of Fundacion Consejo Espana — Estados Unidos.

Following four years of disagreements over the Iraq War and a cold shoulder by the Bush administration, Spain’s political leadership launched its own sort of charm offensive on the new U.S. leadership. In a January speech defending his Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, Obama pointed to Spain’s investment in renewable energies as industrial leadership the President wants for America.

Even so, Elcano Royal Institute investigator Marta Jimeno Vines advanced findings at the seminar that “the classic stereotypes, the Hemingway paradigm, are fading, but the new images haven’t settled into middle America yet.”

From the shadows of international ostracism under General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship until his death in 1975, Spain has emerged as a democratic nation and influential member of the European Union. In the land renowned for bullfights and flamenco there co-exist Spanish companies that have become world leaders in banking (Banco Santander and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria — BBVA), infrastructure (Actividades de Construccion y Servicios — ACS, Sacyr and Ferrovial), and textiles (Zara, Mango, and Custo) — all doing business in the U.S.

“Spain has investment in the U.S. but it doesn’t have a product,” insisted Kagan. “There is no brand association with Spain.” Spain’s Foreign Trade Institute seeks to close the gap of understanding over Spanish brands with a multi-million dollar “Made in/Made by Spain” promotional campaign that began in the U.S. last year. Spain’s King Juan Carlos and its Crown Prince Felipe — a graduate of Georgetown University — have led delegations of Spanish businessmen on networking missions from New York to Florida.

But like Sorolla in his time, several Spanish analysts believe the people representing Spain today must play a role in the building of the country’s image. The fact that celebrities like Penelope Cruz, Pau Gasol and Rafael Nadal aren’t widely associated with Spain prompted Jimeno Vines to conclude, “we haven’t figured out how to capitalize on the achievements of these people for the good of the country.”

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