CARACAS, Venezuela -- The Spaniards are back.
Their return has been called "the reconquest." It is the latest stage in the remarkable evolution of the complex, intense and increasingly lucrative relationship between Spain and its former Latin American colonies.
Here in Venezuela's capital, Juan Carlos Zorrilla, stocky and urbane in an impeccable suit, overlooks the city from his top-floor office at the Banco Provincial, the Venezuelan bank purchased for $480 million in 1997 by his company, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya of Madrid. The Spanish bank also owns financial institutions in seven other countries in the region.
"Latin America is the center of expansion," says Zorrilla, a solemn 49-year-old from Bilbao who has a master's degree in economics. "We have the same language and culture, and it is easy to transfer it."
Zorrilla's bank is part of a mammoth wave of investment that is both symptom and cause of the changes that are remaking Spain and Latin America: Spain is flexing new economic muscle, and Latin America, for the first time, is opening itself to the outside world.
"Spain used to represent the past, and now it represents the future," says Rosendo Fraga, an Argentine political analyst.
Commerce is the most concrete manifestation of a phenomenon that has also become political and cultural, transforming the ways in which Spain and Latin America see themselves and each other.
Spanish book publishers control the once-dominant houses of Mexico City and Buenos Aires, Argentina, while Latin American best sellers win Spain's top literary prizes.
Spanish singers such as Azucar Moreno, Juan Manuel Serrat and Enrique Iglesias sweep triumphantly through the Americas, as Cuban "salseros" and Argentine rockers take Madrid by storm.
An Argentine actress stars in the latest film by the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. Fabulous salaries spur an exodus of soccer stars from Brazil and other nations to the Spanish league.
A poll in the Spanish ABC newspaper this year showed that Spaniards are more interested in Latin America than in the rest of Europe or the United States. They regard Latin Americans as particular friends of Spain, singling out Argentina, Cuba and Mexico.
It might seem a natural affinity, but consider the bloody past. The original image of the Spaniards is as conquistadors who arrived 500 years ago: invaders, creators, destroyers. In Bolivia's capital, La Paz, the Simon Patino historical museum exhibits a diorama of conquistadors about to execute an Incan chief by tearing him apart with four horses bound to his limbs; it symbolizes the destruction of indigenous civilizations.
The story of the reconquest is about a midsized European nation which, despite limited prospects in its home market, has attained impressive and disproportionate clout in Latin America.
Spain has perfected a strategy of snapping up former state-owned monopolies that were sold off as Latin nations modernized and opened their economies in the 1990s. During a $40 billion, four-year buying spree, Spanish companies have netted Latin America's largest telephone, electricity and insurance companies, and the largest banks in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela.
Spain will probably surpass the United States to become the region's lead investor nation this year on the strength of Madrid-based Repsol's $13.5 billion acquisition of YPF of Argentina, the largest energy company in South America.
"Spain has become the model of possible development for our countries," Fraga says. "It has broken the thesis that Latin nations are not culturally capable of capitalist development."
As Latin America tries to consolidate democracy and overcome inequality, the new Spain offers a hopeful path. Since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975, Spain has gained a standard of living comparable to Britain's and an equality of income distribution similar to Sweden's and Japan's.
Spanish leaders recognized that a Latin American connection could be a valuable resource in their dealings with larger European powers, such as Britain and France. Spain is a forceful advocate in Latin America's emerging political and commercial relationship with Europe. The European Union is the largest trade partner with Mercosur, the trade bloc comprising Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Spain's role as the gateway between the region and Europe challenges the idea of Latin America as the natural "back yard" of the United States, a concept first expressed in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Americans must contend with the age-old Yankee imperialist stigma and recent moves by Latin leaders to encourage a European counterweight to the vast U.S. influence.
The Spaniards have also benefited from the reluctance of some U.S. companies, especially banks, to move aggressively back into Latin America after suffering extensive loan losses in Mexico and Brazil in the 1980s.