Starting in the late 1990s, Spanish companies began a drive into Latin America that resulted in their takeover of some of the region's most prized assets. Now, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain wants the investment to flow in the other direction.
Mr. Rajoy used a weekend summit meeting here to try to persuade Latin American leaders to invest more in recession-hit Spain, suggesting that his country could be "the closest platform" for companies to make forays into the rest of Europe, and even North Africa.
Mr. Rajoy's investment plea underlines the extent to which Spain and Portugal, among those hit hardest by the European debt crisis, are scrambling to find new ways to exploit their historical and cultural ties to Latin America.
The International Monetary Fund forecast last month that growth in Latin America would accelerate to 3.9 percent next year from 3.2 percent this year, with Brazil's economy growing 4 percent.
Luis Alberto Moreno, the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, said during an interview that "for years you had capital going from north to south and immigration going from south to north and what we are increasingly going to see is a reverse of the flows."
At a time of soaring unemployment in Spain and Portugal, Mr. Moreno added, a reversal of migration — from parts of Europe to Latin America — is likely to accelerate also because "there is now a skills gap in Latin America."
In fact, some of the participants in the two-day summit meeting suggested that Spain and other European countries should pay closer attention to Latin America's recent recipes for economic success in order to help them emerge from their own economic quagmire.
"I think Latin America now has a lot more to show Spain and others in Europe than the other way round," said Heraldo Muñoz, a former member of the Chilean government who is now assistant secretary general at the United Nations Development Program.
One of the lessons from Latin America's ability to overcome several rounds of financial crisis, he suggested during an interview, is that "the idea cannot simply be to tighten the belt."
"I'm very concerned by the tendency now in Europe to dismantle the welfare state and the social gains that have been achieved," Mr. Muñoz said.
While Mr. Rajoy maintains that Spain can meet the budgetary targets it told its European Union counterparts that it would meet, his administration has been debating since September whether to seek further European rescue funds amid concerns in Madrid that such help would require Spain to introduce further austerity measures.
"To get out of the crisis, austerity is necessary but not sufficient," José Manuel García-Margallo, the Spanish foreign minister, said at a news conference here Friday. "Growth is the key."
For now, however, the economies of Spain and Portugal are expected to contract through next year. And with unemployment already at 25 percent in Spain and nearly 16 percent in Portugal, expectations of a prolonged recession are helping to fuel an exodus to Latin America and other growth markets. Mr. Rajoy, for instance, noted on Saturday that already more than one million Spaniards lived in Latin America.
In order to strengthen their presence in Latin America, Spanish companies will increasingly have to be "bringing people over, given the scarcity of local talent, particularly in the engineering and technical fields," said Javier García-Ramos, a Spanish investment banker who moved to São Paulo this year to work for VGL Finanças Corporativas, an advisory firm specializing in mergers and acquisitions. Still, he warned job seekers that "immigration requirements are cumbersome to say the least and don't facilitate the process."
Latin American companies, on the other hand, have so far mostly ignored Europe, in part because their priority instead has been to tap into Asia-led demand for natural resources and because of concern about the euro. The trickle of Latin American investments could turn into a flow "when there is more certainty as to the direction of Europe," Mr. Moreno of the Inter-American Development Bank forecast.
The bank announced Friday that it was offering a new $420 million credit facility for medium-size Latin American companies to expand overseas. Half of the 150 largest Latin American multinationals have no base in Europe, according to a study by Javier Santiso, economics professor and Latin America expert at the Esade business school in Madrid.
Meanwhile, Mr. Moreno noted, "with hindsight many Spanish companies now see that they made the right bets" in Latin America. Indeed, many of them have become heavily reliant on their Latin American businesses to offset dwindling revenues at home. Last year, Banco Santander earned more money in Brazil than it did at home, while the largest Spanish bank, BBVA, had higher earnings in Mexico than in Spain.
Ricardo Martinelli, the president of Panama, whose economy is set to grow 10 percent this year, said Saturday that the future of Spain "involves being able to incorporate this big Latin American market with 650 million people, in which Spanish companies are more than welcome, with some exceptions."
Indeed, Spain recently suffered some significant setbacks in the region. In April, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina unexpectedly announced that her government would take back majority control of YPF from Repsol, Spain's largest oil company. Weeks later, Bolivia seized the assets there of Red Eléctrica de España, a Spanish utility. The Argentine president was among a handful of absentees from the weekend summit, citing health reasons.
In 1999, Spanish companies invested the equivalent of 32 billion euros, or $40 billion today, in Latin America. In 2011, the amount was 9 billion euros.
Still, despite such a slowdown and the recent dispute over Repsol in Argentina, Spain remains the largest foreign investor in Latin America after the United States and is set to raise its investments this year in every country in the region except Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador, led by companies focusing on the infrastructure and energy sectors, Mr. Santiso of Esade said.
Spanish companies are also maintaining their focus on Latin America because of what Mr. Santiso called "the paradox of financing," which has seen Spanish companies successfully raise money in Latin America while being almost shut out of European financial markets. Last month, for instance, Santander raised $4 billion from listing its Mexican banking subsidiary.
Carlos Malamud, a Latin America specialist at the Real Instituto Elcano, a Madrid research institution, suggested that over all, however, the euro crisis had reshaped what had been an asymmetrical relationship between Spain and Latin America since the 1990s. "Spain simply cannot maintain the leadership role that it has had," he said.