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Iberian journey

PRESIDENT Reagan's visit to Spain next Monday, and his trip to neighboring Portugal later in the week, underscore the growing strategic and political importance of the Iberian Peninsula. The tour also serves as a reminder of the dramatic changes that have occurred in these once-authoritarian, now-democratic nations. It is no exaggeration to argue that the decade of the 1980s seems to signal an awakening, a rebirth, throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Under former authoritarian rule -- Ant^onio Salazar in Portugal and Gen. Francisco Franco in Spain -- the two nations remained largely insular, aloof from the growing political pan-Europeanism and the industrial drive toward high technology that marked the post-World War II era. And, in a longer-range perspective, the peninsula's isolationism and separateness, in part explained by geography, go back centuries in European history.

That wall of isolation is now crumbling. The two nations that President Reagan will visit are starkly different from the two nations ruled by Salazar and Franco. Socialist-led democratic governments are in power in both Madrid and Lisbon. New industries dot the once largely pastoral landscape. New cultural influences -- from hard rock to the plays of Samuel Beckett -- compete with the traditional culture depicted by Hemingway after World War I.

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Most important, the two nations are about to cement their new links to Europe by formally joining the European Common Market next year. Securing the ties to Western Europe is considered crucial in many Western foreign offices -- and in large part explains Mr. Reagan's extensive trip to Madrid and Lisbon. There are sound political -- or, looking at the matter a little differently, sound sociological -- reasons for the Reagan visit: Latin influences, particularly Hispanic, are growing in the United States. Still, the primary reason for the Reagan visit is strategic, particularly regarding Spain. Spain will hold a national referendum early next year on whether the nation should remain in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The government of Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez supports a continued NATO link, despite vocal anti-NATO sentiment in Spain. To placate that anti-NATO constituency, Mr. Gonz'alez is calling upon the US to reduce the number of American military personnel in Spain.

The Americans should be responsive on the troop issue. Spain, of course, is not the only smaller nation facing internal political difficulties because of a US military link: Iceland and New Zealand are other examples. But it is important that Americans be sensitive to such concerns. In the case of Spain, where democracy is a comparatively fragile flower after centuries of isolation and often authoritarian rule, the need for understanding is particularly compelling. ------30--{et

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