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California and the West

Governor triggers a furor in Chile

Schwarzenegger's support of a `Buy California' produce campaign is ill received in South America.

October 25, 2006|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — For a while, it looked like sour grapes out of Chile, and the villain was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

First, a daily newspaper in Chile reported that the governor, as part of his reelection effort, was looking for the farm vote by backing a "Buy Only California" campaign.

The news was quickly picked up by other South American media in what one reporter called "journalism mayhem." The story suggested that Schwarzenegger was urging voters to eat home-grown produce and spurn Chilean avocados, peaches and table grapes.

On Tuesday, the newspaper El Mercurio of Santiago ran a cartoon showing Schwarzenegger as the "Terminator" movie character, busting up a box of Chilean grapes. "The Terminator Attacks Chilean Fruit," read a front-page headline.

The reaction was swift in Santiago, the capital city of Chile, where agriculture is a pillar of the economy.

"People are very, very upset," said Michael Grasty, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Chile.

The Schwarzenegger administration, meanwhile, scrambled to quell the criticism. "The governor is a great champion of California produce, but there's no such commercial that criticizes another country's produce," spokeswoman Margita Thompson said.

She explained that the state's "California Grown" program to boost consumption of domestic produce, which began in 2001, uses the slogan "Buy California," not "Buy Only California."

At the request of the governor's office, the U.S. Embassy in Santiago put out a statement Tuesday asserting that the governor never talked condescendingly about Chilean produce. Chile's Agriculture Ministry followed with a statement that Schwarzenegger "never said anything against Chilean fruit."

"We lament the disinformation is generating worry among producers and exporters and a climate of unnecessary uncertainty about a partner of great importance like the United States," the Chilean government said.

California Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura stressed in a statement released in Santiago that "California has an excellent trade relationship with Chile; in fact many of our grocery stores stock a variety of Chilean products."

The disclaimer, hopefully, will quell the media firestorm, said Craig Kelly, the U.S. ambassador to Chile. "My prediction is this will settle down pretty quickly."

Chile exports about $1.3 billion of produce to the U.S. a year.

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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