MEXICO CITY — Mexico and Venezuela pulled their ambassadors from each other's capitals Monday after the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez refused to apologize for belittling Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Chavez, a frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy, last week called Fox "the puppy" of the Bush administration. When the Mexican government announced that it would expel the Venezuelan ambassador here if the Chavez government did not apologize within 24 hours, Venezuela responded by ordering its own ambassador home.
Mexico then recalled its ambassador to Caracas, with Fox saying: "We cannot allow people to offend our country."
The two countries fell short of breaking off diplomatic ties, leaving room for compromise. In the meantime, relations will be handled by commercial attaches, officials on both sides said.
However, the verbal tug-of-war underlies a growing regional split in Latin America that was apparent at this month's Summit of the Americas in Argentina. Chavez used the occasion to lash out at the Bush administration's support for a hemispheric free-trade agreement.
Fox, an ally of the U.S. on trade issues, found himself exchanging criticism during and after the summit with Chavez, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner and even Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona.
The presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela have assailed U.S. trade and monetary policies, which they say contribute to poverty in Latin America. But Fox and most Central American leaders have sought more relaxed trade ties with the United States.
"It's sad to see how Fox surrenders," Chavez told a national television audience Wednesday. "How sad that a country like Mexico has a president who is the puppy of the American empire."
In Mexico, politicians of all stripes rallied behind Fox, calling Chavez's remarks an offense to Mexico's national honor.
"It matters to us as Mexicans," said Juan Jose Garcia Ochoa, a congressman with the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. "We don't want any head of state to insult the president of Mexico."
But veteran observers in Mexico called the spat the latest in a series of Fox's foreign policy missteps.
"What Fox has done here is to throw a small rock at a professional boxer, because Chavez is someone who loves this kind of fight and excels at it," said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, editor of the Spanish-language edition of Foreign Affairs magazine.
"Without wanting to, and without deserving it, Fox is being seen as the spokesman for the Bush administration in Latin America," Fernandez added. "And no U.S. president has ever been as unpopular in Latin America as President Bush."
Bush attended the Argentine summit at the resort of Mar del Plata with more than two dozen other heads of state from the Western Hemisphere, but he made little progress advocating a free-trade agreement of the Americas, the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region.
Fox blamed the host for the failure to reach an accord, saying Kirchner had sacrificed diplomacy to score points with the Argentine public, which is solidly anti-Bush. And Fox criticized Maradona for calling Bush "human trash" at a Mar del Plata rally attended by Chavez and thousands of anti-globalization protesters.
"He's good at kicking the ball, but he's not good at talking," Fox said of the former soccer star. "His head is full of smoke, full of ideology."
Fox was conspicuously absent at the summit's farewell dinner.
Kirchner responded by saying that Fox "should worry about Mexico, and leave Argentine matters to me." Argentine and Mexican diplomats quickly smoothed over the differences, however.
But Chavez has repeatedly opined on the summit since returning to Venezuela, lashing out at Fox and Bush with sarcastic humor during his many extended television appearances.
"I'm like the thorn in the blanket," Chavez said Sunday. "Don't mess with me, sir, because you might get poked.... The president of Mexico is bleeding from his wound."
Mexican diplomats then demanded that Venezuela apologize by the end of Monday.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez called the deadline an "ultimatum" and "senseless aggression." In a statement, the Venezuelan government blamed the diplomatic row on Fox's statements at the summit.
Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, a onetime diplomat and spokesman for Mexico's Foreign Ministry, said Fox's government had handled the dispute poorly.
"Chavez showed a complete lack of courtesy ... but getting into a shouting match with him is not a good idea," Guerra said. "The danger here is that our relationship with the rest of Latin America continues to weaken and that Mexico loses its position as a regional leader."