Mexico’s Fox Woos Washington at Great Cost

The current spat between Venezuela and Mexico will soon pass, yet it should be seen as far more than a trivial matter, springing as it does from deep roots in the collective psyche of each country. Even more importantly, it also reflects the depth of the disagreement in Latin America over Washington’s controversial free trade proposals.

The current spat between Venezuela and Mexico will soon pass, yet it should be seen as far more than a trivial matter, springing as it does from deep roots in the collective psyche of each country. Even more importantly, it also reflects the depth of the disagreement in Latin America over Washington’s controversial free trade proposals. The dispute also reveals how far President Fox’s star has fallen, along with those of other Latin American leaders who have allowed themselves to be docilely tethered to Washington’s dock.

Shortly after the Summit of the Americas gathering in Mar del Plata concluded in disagreement over Washington’s FTAA proposal early this month, Mexico’s President Vicente Fox publicly decried the meeting’s “failure.” Fox, who has begun to trump even Washington’s Central American satrapies in emoting fawning acquiescence to Washington’s game plan, went on to blame the breakup on the narrow opposition of a few hemispheric leaders. Fox’s broadside was clearly targeting his Mercosur counterparts – among them Brazil and Venezuela – but he specifically blasted the meeting’s host, Argentina’s President Néstor Kirchner, whom Fox accused of being more interested in courting public opinion than making the summit a success.

Perhaps the Mexican president might have done well to follow Kirchner’s lead in defending his own citizenry rather than supinely adopting the U.S. Treasury’s view on the issue as well as that of the Washington-based international lending agencies. The Fox presidency has been harmed by his never having been a man for the streets, and has consistently ignored the weight of popular public sentiment – both in his own country and in the region – and this obstinacy has grieviously weakened his presidency and most likely has irreversibly tarnished his legacy as Mexico’s first presidential democratic reformer. His recent decision to champion the FTAA and almost obsequiously bend his knee to Washington’s grand economic design for the region puzzled many observers, since the only possible motivation for such servility was the forlorn hope of encouraging an otherwise elusive immigration agreement with the U.S. But such a strategy represents a gross distortion of reality, and a wide-of-the-mark miscalculation, since given his own domestic pains, President Bush is in no position to tender a credible offer on the subject at the present time. For Bush to try and fail at this would be one thing; for him to come forth with lame excuses while sitting on is hands is quite another.

Furthermore, it is a matter of ongoing contention by Mexican authorities that free trade of the variety Washington continues to hawk has been a boon to the country, as was the claim of former President Carlos Salinas, who oversold NAFTA to the Mexican public by using deceptive figures, only to leave office in the midst of an economic meltdown of his own making. For a majority of Mexicans, poverty and inequality have only increased since NAFTA was signed in 1994, and as a result, popular sentiment certainly hadn’t favored Fox’s ardent backing of the White House’s latest self-serving trade concoction. What his behavior did suggest is that Fox was content to get one more round of smiling photo-ops with President Bush when he should have been working to gain hard concessions from the U.S., which would mean more jobs in Mexico, legalization of Mexican immigrants already in the U.S., and the sanctioning of the guest workers program that would stabilize this supplementary U.S. work force.

So when Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez retaliated against Fox by lambasting him as a “puppy of imperialism” for his ebullient pro-U.S. script at the summit, few Mexicans – or for that matter, few Latin Americans – really disagreed with that churlish description, as they inwardly chuckled over the right-on accuracy of the remark. Rather than try to paper over the dispute, which eventually will produce no winners, bumbling diplomacy was allowed to take over, with the rift ending up escalating throughout the region and on to the front pages. Furthermore, few of Fox’s countrymen actually perceived any slight – despite the leader’s claim of a grievous national insult – beyond the mordant, but bulls-eye, shot at Fox’s widely known personal weaknesses of indecision, disloyalty to his aides, and a predilection for rhetorical flights from tough decisions.

The Fox-Chávez sparring has been played out along predictable lines. This is not the first time that Fox has publicly served a higher authority on the international stage: one can remember the recall of Mexico’s envoy to Cuba, the flap with Fidel Castro at the Monterrey Millennium conference, and his dastardly firing of Mexico’s spirited ambassador to the U.N., the late Adolfo Aguilar (who recently tragically died in an auto crash), as a result of pressuring by Secretary of State Powell over the highly regarded Mexican diplomat’s opposition to the Iraq war. At the same time, this is not the first time that Chávez’s infuriating bons mots have led to a diplomatic incident – Chile briefly recalled its ambassador in 2004 after the Venezuelan leader puckishly declared his desire to “bathe on a Bolivian beach,” a clear reference to Chile’s refusal to grant Bolivia a corridor to the sea.

While this episode may be more about Fox’s typical obduracy and Chávez’s proclivity for grandiloquence, it nevertheless reveals that Washington, and what regional critics perhaps unkindly would describe as the hemisphere’s malinches who faultily back it, no longer necessarily prevail in Latin America. The feud appears to be ongoing, as Chávez refuses to back down from his comments, and Fox insists on proclaiming that the FTAA is the “vision of the future.” Yet repetition does not always make for truth, and Fox’s comments have hardly resonated well throughout the region. Rather, he has become a figure for vilification.

As the Andean countries of Peru, Colombia and Ecuador commence another round of negotiations of a free trade agreement with the U.S., they will not be taking their cues necessarily from such Washington facilitators as Fox, but rather from the perhaps less than fully dignified caudillo in Caracas, along with his counterparts in the Southern Cone trade bloc, who staunchly have resisted attempts to impose unbalanced FTAA measures on their people. While this verbal jousting most likely will turn out to be simply a temporary quarrel, the widening bifurcation of the two streams of opposing ideology that it reflects is both profound and lasting. The submission to, or defiance of Washington’s bringing to bear its asymmetrical power regarding the FTAA could register as the hemisphere’s defining battle of the century.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns and Research Associate Michael Lettieri.