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Mexico's Envoy to U.N. Leaves, With Defiance

Adolfo Aguilar Zinser chastises President Vicente Fox, saying he bowed to U.S. pressure.

November 22, 2003|Maggie Farley and Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writers

UNITED NATIONS — Mexico's outspoken ambassador to the U.N., Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, resigned from his post Thursday after being told he would have to leave at the end of the year for being an "obstacle" to U.S.-Mexico relations. But the man Mexican newspapers dubbed "the offensive ambassador" did not go quietly.

In a defiant letter made public Friday, he chastised his erstwhile friend and supporter, President Vicente Fox, saying he had bowed to U.S. and domestic pressure to remove him for standing against the Iraq war.

Fox dismissed Aguilar Zinser days after the ambassador said in a speech that Washington considered Mexico "its backyard" and treated it as an inferior partner -- an assertion that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called "outrageous."

Although his comments rang true to many in Mexico, it was the last straw in a campaign against the diplomat who had rallied U.N. resistance to moves to invade Iraq. On Wednesday, Fox called the speech "an offense to Mexico" and overruled his foreign minister's appeal to let Aguilar Zinser stay on.

"I am an undiplomatic diplomat," his resignation letter said. "My work at the United Nations discomforted some members of the U.S. government, which exercises its power beyond collective understandings and international law."

During his tenure at the U.N., he said, "Mexico has never been anybody's backyard."

In Mexico, editorials and headlines Friday applauded the sacked ambassador: "Aguilar Zinser Told Government Where to Go," said the newspaper Milenio.

Aguilar Zinser must now decide where he will go.

On Friday, he began cleaning out his 28th-floor office, a sunny space with large slanted windows looking out at the U.N. He bade farewell to his staff, and said that he was leaving with his head held high.

A day earlier, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, "We will miss him, his wit, his independent spirit and his keen sense of justice and fair play."

But others won't. At the U.N., Aguilar Zinser long has been regarded by the United States as, at the least, "unhelpful." One senior U.S. official this week called him "an unguided missile."

Some believed that he was planning to leave at the end of the year and deliberately provoked the crisis to pave the way for a political career in Mexico.

Aguilar Zinser knows why Washington was irritated. A lawyer and former senator, he took apart resolutions on Iraq paragraph by paragraph to question apparent conflicts with international law. "This became kind of a pattern in the [Security] Council," he said with bemused hindsight. "They all knew they just had to wait and I would throw them the book."

His political skills also came into play in the Security Council. He and the then Chilean ambassador to the U.N., Juan Gabriel Valdes, persuaded some of the 10 nonpermanent members to join forces to influence the Iraq debate: Six of them decided to withhold their votes on the resolution seeking the U.N.'s blessing to invade Iraq.

Facing a shortfall of support, the U.S. withdrew the resolution and invaded Iraq without the U.N.'s approval.

During negotiations in the spring, Powell met with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez and Aguilar Zinser in a small room off the Security Council chamber. Powell leaned over and, shaking his finger at the ambassador, jokingly lectured him on what a problem he had created for the U.S.

But Washington's displeasure was not a joke. Privately, Powell reportedly asked Derbez to restrain his ambassador "many times" and Bush twice asked Fox to recall him.

At the time, Aguilar Zinser's stance played well in Mexico, where public opinion was largely against the war. The former leftist activist also was bolstered by his close relationship with Fox, forged during the 2000 presidential campaign in which Aguilar Zinser helped attract important support from the left.

Throughout the tense negotiations over Iraq, Aguilar Zinser said he repeatedly asked Fox whether he was overstepping his bounds, but Fox, who reaped mileage from appearing to resist U.S. demands, assured him of his support. "The Americans don't understand," said a Mexican diplomat at the time. "The more publicly they ask for his resignation, the more they are hammering him to his seat."

Aguilar Zinser's partner at the U.N., Chilean Ambassador Valdes, was not so lucky. Although U.S. officials deny asking for his recall, Chilean diplomats say they understood that if U.S.-Chilean relations were to advance, they would have to have a new U.N. envoy. And in July, Valdes was abruptly transferred to the post of ambassador to Argentina and replaced with a diplomat who was a university classmate of national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.

The Mauritian ambassador, Jagdish Koonjul, also was called home and warned to more accurately convey his government's pro-American stance in the Security Council.

After the war began, things changed for Aguilar Zinser. Bush froze out Fox, taking six weeks to return the Mexican president's phone call to explain his position. In Mexico, critics who thought standing on principle had become too costly grew more vocal. After midterm elections in July, more of those critics gained Fox's ear. Suddenly, Aguilar Zinser seemed to be out of favor.

In October, during Fox's first phone conversation with Bush in months, the U.S. president reportedly told Fox that he had a problem with his ambassador. Soon after, Aguilar Zinser met with Fox.

"I asked him again whether I was an asset or a liability for Mexico," Aguilar Zinser said. "I never got a straight answer."

This week, he said, the answer finally came.

Froylan Enciso in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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