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The World | Showdown with Iraq

Mexico and Chile Walk a Tightrope

March 13, 2003|Hector Tobar and Marla Dickerson | Times Staff Writers

SANTIAGO, Chile — These are stressful days for the leaders of Chile and Mexico, caught between the demands of the world's remaining superpower and the overwhelmingly antiwar sentiments of their people.

Since President Bush announced last week that he would seek a vote in the U.N. Security Council authorizing the use of force in Iraq, Chile and Mexico have been awash in rumors about what a "no" vote could mean for their relationship with the United States.

Mexican President Vicente Fox, recovering Wednesday from back surgery, worries that bilateral attempts to deal with immigration issues, already delayed by the war on terrorism, will fall victim to a U.S. backlash. Chile fears that its long-sought free trade agreement with the U.S. could be torpedoed.

The two countries hold a special place in the diplomatic wrangling in the Security Council. On Wednesday night, the United States claimed that it had quietly peeled the three African nations and Pakistan away from the undecideds, giving it eight of the nine votes needed for passage of the war authorization resolution sponsored by the U.S., Britain and Spain. Chile and Mexico hung in the balance as the crucial, deciding votes.

Every day brings a new report of Chilean President Ricardo Lagos on the phone with another world leader: Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac.

"Chile has tried to build a bridge between two sides that are far apart," said Chile's ambassador to the United Nations, Juan Gabriel Valdes. A decision to disarm Iraq by force must have the moral authority of a united council, he said, not just the fig leaf of a bare majority.

"Chile, being a small country, is trying to find some common ground between two sides that are very far apart," said a government source close to Lagos.

For a decade now, Chile has been working hard to foster an image as an orderly, business-friendly place where people are open to trade with anyone from anywhere. Toward that end, the Lagos government has in recent months negotiated free trade agreements with both the U.S. and the European Union. Ratification of both treaties is pending.

Now, because of the likelihood of war in Iraq, those carefully cultivated relationships are on the verge of coming apart. If Chile sides with the Americans, it will anger the French and Germans. Like a child being forced to choose between parents on the brink of divorce, Chile is hoping for a last-minute reconciliation.

In Mexico, the decision of the Fox government must take into account domestic politics.

On Sunday, Fox's National Action Party lost ground to the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party in a key state election. Some analysts say a "yes" vote on the U.S. war resolution could aid the opposition's efforts to take control of Congress in federal elections in July.

"If Fox votes for war, he is going to look like an employee of the Bush administration," said Luis Hernandez, a senior editor with the Mexico City daily La Jornada. "He is going to lose votes for his party and popularity for himself."

Since winning election in 2000, Fox has worked to change Mexico's often subservient relationship with the U.S., lobbying for a major immigration reform bill in Washington. He hoped that a better deal for Mexicans living north of the border would be a centerpiece of his presidency.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, however, American concerns about national security squelched any talk of further loosening U.S. borders. Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda resigned in frustration over the lack of an accord, and Fox once again appeared to be no more than a junior partner of the top gun up north.

"Fox bet a lot of his own political capital and was left twisting in the wind," said Denise Dresser, a political scientist with the Pacific Council on International Policy at USC.

Already chafing at being relegated to the sidelines, some Mexicans are now incensed by what they see as highhanded tactics by the Bush administration to pressure Mexico into supporting the U.S. position on Iraq. Tony Garza, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has suggested that the U.S. Congress might not take kindly to a "no" vote by Mexico.

On March 3, Bush himself said Mexico and any other countries that voted against a U.S.-backed resolution in the Security Council might face future "discipline."

Although the White House has since tried to clarify Bush's remark, stating emphatically that there will be no reprisals if Mexico goes its own way, many Mexicans remain deeply offended.

"Why are they threatening us?" asked Lilia Velasquez, a soft-spoken 43-year-old homemaker from the central city of Toluca, while casting a ballot in the state elections there. "We are a free country, and they shouldn't have this attitude."

In Chile, several legislators reacted angrily last week when it was revealed that U.S. negotiators were seeking "technical" changes to the free trade agreement completed in December.

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