Latin America

The Region: Another Battlefield Casualty?

Latin American governments that opposed the Bush administration’s failed bid for a United Nations Security Council resolution to support a war in Iraq will find Washington a far less receptive partner in free-trade negotiations in coming months, most regional commentators agree. The Bush administration’s indefinite postponement of its signing this spring of a free-trade agreement with Chile sent a clear signal that those who balked at unilateral U.S. action in Iraq would pay a steep economic price—though some have seen their approval ratings surge at home.

“Unanimity does not prevail,” observed Jorge Elías in the conservative La Nación of Buenos Aires (April 3). “Seven [Latin American] governments approved of the war, seven opposed it,...and three remained ambiguous, according to an the Latin American School of Social Studies in Chile.” The four governments that expressed outright opposition were Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Venezuela. Chile, Mexico, and Peru preferred a less direct line, regretting that Washington chose not to continue diplomatic efforts through the U.N. The positions of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Uruguay were more ambiguous; by contrast, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Central American governments publicly supported the United States.

For regimes reluctant to damage their close ties with Washington, “The dilemma was much the same as the one that haunted the countries of the Arab League—how to reject the war and, at the same time, not oppose the United States,” Elías noted. “In certain cases there were economic incentives,” he added, “as occurred with the countries of Central America that are currently negotiating a free-trade agreement.”

The message of U.S. displeasure was made clear to Chile’s President Ricardo Lagos—who opposed a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military action—when President Bush invited Central American leaders, but not Lagos, to the White House in mid-April to discuss a regional free-trade pact. Santiago’s conservative La Tercera (March 30) reported that Washington also informed Chile that it was decoupling the Chilean free-trade pact from a parallel U.S. trade deal with Singapore, due to be signed in May. “It was a hard blow....‘The White House no longer considers us as an ally,’ government sources said.”

In Mexico, President Vicente Fox was treading a fine line, seeking to blunt U.S. displeasure over his lack of support for the war by emphasizing the importance of maintaining a strong bilateral relationship. Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez argued in Mexico City's independent Reforma (April 7) that Fox may actually have enhanced his domestic political position in the run-up to congressional elections in July by assuming an independent stance. “Imagine if the president had succumbed...and thrown his support behind the military operation,” Silva-Herzog wrote. “While gaining absolutely nothing....his presidency would have been dealt a devastating blow.”