When Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez nationalized the country's largest company, Rumasa, he must have thought he had finally eliminated one of his worst political enemies, industrialist José Maria Ruiz Mateos. Instead, he created something of a nightmare for himself.
Ruiz Mateos, founder and owner of Rumasa, has long been a critic of Gonzalez's Socialist Labor Party. In turn, Gonzalez has accused Ruiz Mateos of "financial irregularities" in running Rumasa. Upon taking office in 1983, Gonzalez seized the $7.8-billion conglomerate and hastily broke it up into its many component parts: hotels, banks, wineries, mines, real estate holdings, manufacturing operations, and department stores.
Since none of the charges against Ruiz Mateos had been proven in court, Gonzalez's actions caused quite a stir. Several administration officials, questioning the constitutionality of the decree, resigned from their posts. And Gonzalez drew the criticism of many Spanish businessmen and journalists. A lengthy court battle over the charges against Ruiz Mateos and the disposition of Rumasa has cost Spanish taxpayers nearly $20 million thus far.
Since the nationalization, Ruiz Mateos has been a constant source of headaches to the prime minister. The legal fight so far has mostly favored the industrialist, and parts of Rumasa (which, incidentally, stands for Ruiz Mateos S.A., or Ruiz Mateos Inc.) have been reprivatized by the courts, although none have been returned to Ruiz Mateos directly. The government, possibly fearing defeat, has postponed Ruiz Mateos's trial for over six years.
A foe of the socialists even before his company was seized, Ruiz Mateos intensified the frequency of his speeches against the economic policies of Gonzalez immediately following the nationalization and began to draw large crowds wherever he appeared. After two years, with no trial in sight, Ruiz Mateos, free on bail but forbidden to leave the country, decided to augment his words with actions.
To protest the endless postponements of the trial, Ruiz Mateos illegally left Spain in the middle of 1985. He sent snapshots of himself, usually at famous European tourist sites, to major newspapers, garnering front-page coverage and irritating the administration. In November 1985, Spanish authorities finally tracked him down in West Germany and extradited him back to Madrid, where he was jailed.
Despite his incarceration, Ruiz Mateos continued to strike back at his enemies. Several times in 1987 a small plane trailing a banner with Rumasa's logo circled over the prime minister's home. "I'm very glad," said Ruiz Mateos after "learning" about the first incident. "After what he's done to Spain, Mr. Minister should not be able to sleep in peace."
Imprisonment did not suit Ruiz Mateos, and in October 1988, he escaped. After making an appearance in court, he somehow slipped away from the guards who were supposed to take him back to his cell. A few days later, newspapers were anonymously informed that he would turn himself in to the judge who was in charge of his case. But on the day he was supposed to show up, Ruiz Mateos never appeared. Instead, a group of actors delivered a cactus to the judge. A card attached to the cactus read "From Ruiz Mateos, who is even harder to hold on to."
Then in February 1989, a group of supporters entered Ruiz Mateos as a candidate for the European Parliament. Although he was a fugitive from justice, he could legally run for office because he had yet to be found guilty of anything. And if elected, he would receive congressional immunity, and all charges would have to be dropped. (In Spain, legislators have immunity from virtually all prosecution.)
Would the government be able to locate and prosecute Ruiz Mateos before the election? Would Ruiz Mateos be able to run a successful campaign under the circumstances? The cat-and-mouse game intensified.
The race officially began on March 5. That same day, unable to kick off his campaign with a speech, Ruiz Mateos nevertheless stole all media attention by publicly assaulting a former government official, Miguel Boyer. Boyer was minister of economics and finance at the time of the nationalization, and Ruiz Mateos never made any secret of his hatred for him.
As Boyer was leaving an unrelated trial amid extensive media coverage, Ruiz Mateos appeared out of nowhere, stood before him, and, shouting that Boyer had robbed him, challenged the ex-minister to a fist fight. Television cameras recorded Ruiz Mateos throwing three punches, hitting Boyer hard in the face and then quickly disappearing in the crowd. A judge ordered Ruiz Mateos to stand trial for assault and battery, and Gonzalez announced he would invoke an old law against hitting high-ranking officials which carries a 30-year jail sentence. But the industrialist remained in hiding and predictably failed to show up at a scheduled court hearing.
Ruiz Mateos's campaign was a study in free publicity. With essentially no staff, a platform that read only "to defend the interests of Spain and Spain's businessmen in the European Community," and unable to appear in public, he nevertheless managed to continue making headlines. With the police intent on tracking him down, his photograph was constantly published in all the newspapers.
Fantastic versions of his whereabouts inundated the tabloids and "Ruiz Mateos Was Here" became a popular slogan among graffiti artists. Two stories were actually confirmed: He made a short speech on his own behalf at a political rally disguised as a woman, and he was present, wearing a wig and sunglasses, at a conference given by Economics Minister Carlos Solchaga two weeks before the election. At the end of the conference, he even asked Solchaga to autograph a book, which a few days later was made available to the press. The dedication read: "To José Maria, with affection."
Ruiz Mateos needed 250,000 votes to be elected. He received more than 700,000, which enabled his party, the JMRM, to send an additional delegate to represent Spain in the Parliament. Ruiz Mateos chose his son-in-law. On June 20, a judge granted Ruiz Mateos congressional immunity and dropped all personal charges against him. The fate of Rumasa remains legally tangled. The industrialist and his son-in-law were sworn in as parliamentary delegates on July 5, making the traditional statement: "I swear by God to respect the Constitution" and then adding "which was sworn to and violated by others when they expropriated Rumasa."
Julio Marquez is a student at the Harvard Business School.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spain: Who Is Ruiz Mateos?".