MEXICO CITY — Since his appointment last fall, U.S. Ambassador Charles J. Pilliod has been walking a diplomatic tightrope. He has gone out of his way to say nice things about Mexico, even though Washington and Mexico City are at odds on a wide range of issues.
In contrast to his predecessor, John Gavin, Pilliod has largely taken a non-combative stance toward Mexico--no battles with the Mexican press, no criticism of the Mexican political system, no contradictions of Mexican government pronouncements, no acrimony over the drug traffic.
For a while, Pilliod enjoyed a public relations honeymoon. Mexican officials talked of a new and warmer era in Mexican-American relations, and the Mexican press praised Pilliod's low-key style.
In Washington, though, there were murmurs that Pilliod was being too soft on Mexico.
Early in May, Pilliod slipped off the tightrope. In a speech in Guadalajara, he brought up the issue of Central America, perhaps the area of sharpest disagreement between Washington and Mexico City. He went beyond pointing out that the two governments differ on how to deal with Nicaragua and El Salvador; he charged that Mexico's policy was unbalanced and selective.
The response was immediate. Mexican Foreign Minister Bernardo Sepulveda demanded "real, not merely formal" respect for Mexico's independence of action. Ignacio Villareal, the chief of bilateral relations in the Foreign Ministry, said Pilliod's remarks "did not correspond to reality."
The incident points up the dilemma faced by an ambassador who apparently believes he can steer a smooth course between Mexican sensitivities and a U.S. government that has made Central America a focal point of its foreign policy.
Pilliod, 68, former chairman of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., uses two tactics to try to avoid controversy: He accents the positive in Mexican-American relations, and he rarely talks with reporters.
No Private Interviews
He declined, for example, to discuss the recent uproar over his Central American remarks with a Times reporter. Vincent Hovanec, the U.S. Embassy spokesman, said Pilliod has not given a private interview since he arrived here.
Not long after Pilliod arrived last October, he ordered aides to send upbeat reports about Mexico to Washington. He made equally upbeat speeches. In March, he told the Mexico City Rotary Club that there "are strong views (on Central America) on the part of both countries, and there appears little opportunity for an early change."
"However," he said, "there is a firm respect for one another's viewpoint, and we are determined not to let this difference of opinion reflect on our . . . relationship."
His tone changed in the Guadalajara speech to the American Chamber of Commerce. He first said that Washington respects Mexico's "point of view" on such issues as nonintervention and self-determination, then added:
"However, it appears that in practice Mexico interprets these principles selectively, depending on the ideological orientation of the government in question. For example, Mexico is supportive of the Marxist-Leninist government in Managua (Nicaragua), which is engaged in intervention, does not provide for self-determination and lacks respect for human rights."
Pilliod contrasted that policy with Mexico's opposition to Chile's military dictatorship, as well as its attitude toward El Salvador, where an elected Christian Democratic government is battling Marxist-led guerrillas. Mexico maintains diplomatic relations with El Salvador but also recognizes the guerrillas and permits them to keep offices in Mexico City.
State Department sources here and in Washington say that Pilliod has been under pressure from the Reagan Administration to take Mexico to task over Central America. In Nicaragua, the Administration backs an insurgency, many of the leaders of which are political rightists, which is trying to overthrow the Sandinista government, while in El Salvador it supports a Christian Democratic government.
Pilliod's Guadalajara speech, U.S. sources said, was meant to relieve pressure from Washington.
"He has covered his butt," an embassy official said.
This week, Pilliod returned to his preferred role of accommodation. In a speech Wednesday to the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico City, he kept mainly to economic issues, defended U.S. trade policies and promoted American investment as good for Mexican development. He made no mention of Central America.
Still, Pilliod has not found it easy to avoid sensitive subjects. Earlier this week, he touched on the issue of Mexican elections--and was given mixed reviews. He told reporters in Hermosillo that "there is democracy" in Mexico and that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will win next year's presidential election because it gets more votes than any other party.
He went on to say that in the United States, the Republican presidential candidate will also win next year, "like the candidate of the PRI is going to win here."
"In both cases they have the most votes," he said.
Pilliod's assertion about democracy in Mexico was praised by the influential newspaper Excelsior as "sensible." But it was challenged by the conservative National Action Party, which charges that it was the victim of fraud in recent state campaigns. National Action leaders said that Pilliod appears to have the same knowledge of Mexico as "any tourist."