He was considered the father of Spain's post-Franco economic wonder. As the new head of the International Monetary Fund, many are hoping Rodrigo Rato can fix the global economy.
Rodrigo Rato is packing his bags for Washington.
Just a short time ago, Rodrigo Rato seemed like the classic political loser, a victim of insider deals and the calculus of power at the top of Spain's conservative People's Party (PP). The 55-year-old "super minister" for economics and finance had for years been considered the desired successor to then Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
But then Aznar instead gave priority to his right-hand man, Mariano Rajoy. But fate was kinder to Rato. Now his former cabinet colleagues have been forces back into the opposition, but Rato will be taking a position on the world stage.
Rato is the new president of the International Monetary Fund, the organization that provides loans to countries whose economys have gone awry, provided they adhere to the IMF's strict criteria. As an advocate of strict financial discipline in Spain and Europe and as the voice on conscience against deficit sinners like Germany and France, Rato knows a lot about stability criteria. But the lawyer didn't land in the president's chair at the IMF because of his fiscal policy merits. He partly landed the job because the United States rejected the appointment of France's Jean Lemierre, who was Rato's main competition in the running.
The father of Spain's economic miracle
When Rato became Spain's finance minister in 1996, unemployment in the country was at 23 percent and the federal budget deficit was a soaring 6 percent. Within eight years, Spain's unemployment rate had been halved and the deficit pushed down to zero. He also helped bring the country in line with the Maastricht criteria for entering the euro zone, all the while stewarding a growth rate that was, for many years, one of the highest in Europe.
But he's also had his share of detractors. Critics note that much of Spain's economic growth was the result of loans, especially from the European Union. Many also see the high level of personal debt in the country as one of the dark sides of the economic upswing. Others say he used statistical tricks to cook the unemployment rate down to a still high 11 percent.
In Aznar, his longtime boss and college friend, Rato had a strong ally. Aznar was also fond of praising Rato's work. Recently he described Rato as "the best economics minister Spain has had since it's return to democracy."
Born with a silver spoon
With such accolades from the once very popular prime minister, it's surprising that Rato was never really well liked by the Spanish people. In the eyes of most Spaniards, Rato had one major deficit: Born into one of Spain's richest business families, he was a child of privilege. And he hasn't always been modest. His opponents describe him as an arrogant man who doesn't always make the best impression. "He doesn't beam good energy," a former colleague said. "He's certainly not soft."
At least Rato won't have to change his economic policies in his new position. He comes to Washington from Madrid as the "wonder healer" who doesn't pull punches when it comes to tough economic prescriptions. The IMF, too, wants to maintain a tough position against debtor lands, and many are hoping the Wonder of Madrid will become the Wonder of Washington.
Privately, Rato is seen as a more casual person, who at times is even willing to ruffle feathers in his party to send out a political message. Few were pleased when he campaigned in Madrid's Chueca neighborhood, a mecca for Spanish gays and lesbians. Others in the conservative party raised eyebrows over the fact that he separated from his wife 20 years ago. But colleagues still describe him as a humorous and highly communicative man.
His successes haven't been isolated to politics. Last summer, he obtained a doctorate degree after completing a 400-page dissertation on the role of fiscal policies in Spain's tremendous economic growth. Rato's result: the highest possible grade, of course.