March 28, 2003

Bush War Unravels U.S.-Latin American Ties

By: Andrew Reding


Much has been made of the split that has developed within the European Union over whether to join Washington in its war with Iraq. Almost unnoticed, though, is the rift that has developed in the Americas, leaving the United States virtually isolated in its own hemisphere.

To put it bluntly, France never got a chance to cast its Security Council veto because opposition from the United States’ closest economic partners in Latin America ensured that the resolution could not pass. France may be the scapegoat, but Latin America was the resolution’s undertaker.

Both of America’s NAFTA partners — Canada and Mexico — have broken with Washington over Iraq. Elsewhere in Latin America, the only sizable nation whose leadership backs Washington is Colombia — a war-torn nation that is the third-highest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel and Egypt.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, whose proposed compromise resolution was labeled a “non-starter” in Washington, says he will not back the military effort in any way. His natural resources minister openly criticized President George W. Bush, saying, “I think he’s let not only Americans, but the world, down by not being a statesman.”

As recently as last November, President Bush said that “the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico.” Bush’s first presidential visit abroad was to Mexico, and Mexican president Vicente Fox was the first foreign leader to be feted with a state dinner at the Bush White House.

That relationship has now soured. President Fox was disappointed with the White House’s unwillingness to pursue immigration reform following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. By May 2002, Fox was telling the Council of the Americas in New York, “There can be no privileged U.S.-Mexico relationship without actual progress on substantive issues...and there will be no substantive progress without comprehensively addressing the issue of migration.”

In January, Mexican foreign minister Jorge G. Castañeda quit in frustration after failing to secure concessions on migration by aligning Mexico more closely with Washington on foreign policy issues, such as human rights in Cuba.

In the past month, however, Bush unexpectedly found himself needing to ask a special favor of Fox. Mexico had won a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council in October 2001. Its support was now crucial to passage of the Bush-Blair resolution authorizing use of force against Iraq.

But Fox declined to provide that support, ultimately forcing abandonment of the resolution. It is not hard to see why. Public opinion in Mexico is overwhelmingly opposed to war with Iraq, and Fox’s conservative National Action Party faces difficult parliamentary elections in July. Absent a major concession from Washington such as a deal on immigration, a yes vote would have been political suicide at home.

The other Latin American country with a seat on the Security Council — Chile — likewise said no. It did so even though it is the only other Latin American country to have concluded negotiations for a free trade agreement with the United States.

With the exception of Colombia, all the other major countries of the region — Argentina, Peru, Venezuela and giant Brazil — opposed the resolution. Besides Colombia, only the Central American nations of Nicaragua and El Salvador lined up with Washington.

This is not the first time the Bush administration has found itself isolated in Latin America. When the White House briefly gave its blessing to the abortive military coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez last April, Mexico led 19 Latin American nations in condemning the coup. Only tiny El Salvador lined up with the United States.

Frustrated in its attempt to develop a new relationship with the “colossus of the north,” Mexico is again turning southward, reassuming its traditional leadership role in Latin America, and cultivating ties with the European Union. Short of a major change of attitude in Washington, Latin America will pursue its own path toward economic integration, with rising hostility to the United States.

“Anti-Americanism” has been signaled as a primary source of concern in the post-Sept. 11 environment. With anti-Americanism on the rise throughout the Americas, one thing is certain: Washington’s indifference to the concerns of its continental neighbors is beginning to compromise its own interests.

Andrew Reding (areding is a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute in New York.

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