Mexico and Chile Walk a Tightrope

Times Staff Writers

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.

Chilean officials insist that Washington is not pressuring them and that the agreement is a matter entirely unrelated to a war in Iraq.

Still, a question hangs in the air when people here talk about Chile's stance on the war: Can a country of just 15 million people afford to alienate its most important trading partner?

"It would be horrible if there were a war in Iraq just because we wanted to have our free trade agreement," said Claudio Valdez, a 25-year-old office worker.

"War seems like stupidity to me. Everyone loses, and no one gains," said Esteban Vergara, a retiree.

Most of his countrymen feel the same way, he added. "But what we think is one thing. Our leaders have to think about the country's future."

For the last few weeks, the negotiations over Chile's vote at the U.N. have been the subject of much drama at La Moneda, the presidential palace.

On Feb. 25, Lagos held a summit on the war with leaders of Chile's most important political parties, many of whom cut short their vacations to attend. (February is the height of the summer holiday season here.) There was a broad consensus that Chile could not yet vote for war.

Three days later, Otto J. Reich, the U.S. special envoy for Latin America, arrived to lobby Lagos to support military action. And last week, a small group of activists stripped naked in front of La Moneda to protest war. Grim-faced police cleared them away with water cannons.

Chile has a long tradition of opposing "unilateral military aggression," said Sen. Carlos Ominami, a member of the Socialist Party, which is part of the ruling coalition.

Chilean presidents spoke out against U.S. interventions in Guatemala in 1954 and the Dominican Republic in 1965, he said. Even Augusto Pinochet, a fiercely anti-communist dictator, opposed the U.S. intervention in Grenada in 1983.

"Chile has to be consistent in defense of basic principles: peace, no to aggression and respect for multilateralism," Ominami said.

Tobar reported from Santiago and Dickerson from Mexico City. Times special correspondent Eva Vergara in Santiago contributed to this report.

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