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New tensions may put chill on Rice's visit to Spain

MADRID -- There have been many lowlights in the three-year chill between the Bush administration and Spain's Socialist government, foremost among them Madrid's decision to pull its troops out of Iraq, and sell high-tech military planes to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's one-day visit today was meant to put some of those issues in the rearview mirror, but a new controversy threatens to make for some testy moments when she meets with her Spanish counterpart, Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

US officials have been sharply critical of Moratinos's decision to snub Cuban dissidents during a visit to Havana in April. Rice herself joined the fray in comments Tuesday while en route to Berlin, saying she did not believe the United States and Spain "see eye-to-eye" when it comes to Cuba.

Of Moratinos's decision not to meet with the dissidents, she said: "The Cubans deserve better and I think we will talk about that."

Rice is also scheduled to meet with Spain's King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, with discussions ranging from bilateral relations to Afghanistan and Kosovo.

Even before she arrived, Zapatero's office was playing down the significance of the talks, characterizing their meeting as a "courtesy call" and indicating the Spanish leader is far more focused on visits this week and next by new French President Nicolas Sarkozy, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and the Japanese foreign minister.

Relations between Zapatero and Washington have been frosty since before he took power, and he remains one of the few European leaders not to have been invited to the White House.

In 2003, as head of the Socialist party then in opposition, Zapatero declined to join other Spanish officials in standing up when US troops marched past a VIP stand during a National Day parade. The next year, as prime minister, he didn't even invite the Americans.

That followed Zapatero's decision to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, which he did a month after taking office in 2004. The war has been deeply unpopular here, particularly after a terror attack by Islamic militants that killed 191 people on Madrid commuter trains.