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Chile and US Relationship Grows Increasingly Close

As Chile and U.S. Relationship Grows Increasingly Close, Lagos Risks Further Isolation in Latin America

• Despite Santiago’s close relations with Washington, the Bush administration was unwilling to support José Miguel Insulza’s candidacy for OAS Secretary General, a key factor in his decision to withdraw his bid. As pressure mounts for new OAS head Miguel Angel Rodriguez to resign due to corruption charges in his native Costa Rica, Santiago’s recent actions and “carnal relationship” with the U.S. could jeopardize Insulza’s prospects if the OAS Secretary-General race reopens, and the latter again decides to run for office.

• Chile has been a faithful consort of U.S. initiatives in the UN and has pragmatically sought to gain financially and diplomatically from close ties with Washington.|

• Chile embarrassingly deferred to the U.S. by yanking Juan Gabriel Valdés from his post as Santiago’s UN ambassador after the highly regarded diplomat adamantly refused to back the White House’s timetable on invading Iraq. Lagos made this move in order to win approval of a pending bilateral trade agreement with Washington.

• The Lagos administration voted to condemn Cuba’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Commission’s gathering in Geneva earlier this year, ignoring Brazilian and Argentine efforts to persuade Chile to join them in abstaining.

• Chile remained completely silent during the U.S.-orchestrated removal of Haiti’s constitutional President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and, in spite of strong domestic opposition, Santiago sent both military and financial aid to Haiti following Aristide’s ouster.

• While over ninety percent of Chileans opposed the war in Iraq, Lagos has turned a blind eye to the numerous Chilean mercenaries now operating in that country.

• In a major setback, the troubled legacy of the War of the Pacific continued to reverberate as Bolivia decided to construct a multi-billion dollar natural gas pipeline through Peru, rejecting the cheaper alternative via La Paz’s historic rival, Chile.

• Recent diplomatic spats between Chile and bordering Bolivia and Argentina have raised tensions in the region as the Lagos government appears increasingly isolated among its neighbors.

• President Lagos would do well to heed the voices of his critics or risk greater alienation of his country within Latin America as Chile becomes increasingly thought of as Washington’s caddie in the region.

Problems at the OAS
During this past year, Chilean Minister of the Interior José Miguel Insulza was often discussed as a candidate to become the Organization of American States’ (OAS) new Secretary General. However, last February, Insulza withdrew his bid after failing to receive U.S. endorsement. During the OAS’s General Assembly session in Quito this past June 7, former Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodriguez was elected. Since Argentina’s economic collapse in 2000, Santiago has maintained its aspirations to be South America’s next regional leader; a Chilean official elected to the OAS post would have been a giant step for its regional ambitions. Yet, despite increasingly intimate relations with Santiago, Washington still was not ready to press for the Chilean as its “second in command” in the Americas, particularly since Insulza, like former Chilean UN Ambassador Juan Gabriel Valdés, took the principled position of ardently opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Hence, President Bush was quick to support the Rodriguez nomination. The White House’s rebuff was a signal to Santiago that it must cure its fractious relations with its neighbors and be a more reliable liegeman to Washington’s controversial policies, before it can achieve its aspirations to truly be Washington’s primus inter pares in Latin America.

Less than two weeks after officially becoming the new OAS Secretary General, Rodriguez has come under heavy scrutiny for accepting $140,000 from José Antonio Lobo, former head of Costa Rica's electricity company. Lobo testified last week that the money was Rodriguez’s share of an over $2 million prize provided by the French telecommunications firm Alcatel, for winning a $149 million cellular telephone line construction contract in 2001, during Rodriguez’s presidency. Now that these corruption charges have come to light, some OAS members have been swift to call for Rodriguez’s resignation. Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco has been joined by Costa Rican legislatures and top Nicaraguan, Mexican and Argentine leaders to demand Rodriguez step down. With pressure mounting, the OAS may soon have to find a new Secretary General, and Insulza conceivably could once again become a top candidate for that position. However, Santiago’s recent alienating behavior may cost Insulza the Latin American votes he normally could have counted upon to become the OAS head. Regrettably for this talented figure, if a new election were held, it certainly would be an uphill battle for him to get the backing of his country’s immediate neighbors.

Cozying up to Washington at the UN
While Washington failed to support Insulza’s bid, over the last few years Chile has displayed a consistent tendency to support controversial U.S. initiatives in the UN and elsewhere, at times deferring to Washington in order to receive its political and economic kudos. In December 2002, negotiations for a bilateral free-trade agreement between Chile and the U.S. were finalized, the first between a South American nation and the U.S. During the spring of 2003, as debate raged in the UN over Washington’s intentions to invade Iraq, the agreement had still not been ratified. At that time, and under Lagos’ instructions, Chile’s UN Ambassador Valdés criticized U.S. unilateralism over Iraq. He insisted that the U.S. should comply with the international body’s resolutions, thereby increasing tensions between the two governments. But under pressure from Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. officials, who used the still unratified free trade agreement as diplomatic leverage, Lagos caved into Washington and withdrew Valdés from his post. According to Chile’s La Tercera, Valdés had told some Chilean senators that if ordered to support the war, he would resign.

Heraldo Muñoz, a classmate of National Security advisor Condoleezza Rice at Harvard and a man held in high esteem by Washington, replaced Valdés and as a result the White House expedited the signing and subsequent Congressional passage of the trade accord, which officially went into effect on January 1, 2004. As the BBC noted at the time, many Chilean officials felt “War is inevitable and it is not worth losing Washington's friendship when there is a crucial trade pact at stake.” This type of pragmatism bespeaks a willingness to blur principles if the bottom line is improved. In truth, it can be said that Chile is preeminently a bottom line country.

Furthermore, on a number of other occasions, actions taken by the Lagos administration favored the U.S. while alienating Mercosur countries, with which Chile is associated, and other Latin American nations. In April 2004, Chile voted to condemn Cuba during a meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights. The resolution barely passed with a vote of 22-21, with ten abstentions. Many in Chile wanted their nation to abstain along with Mercosur partners Brazil and Argentina. Socialist Senator Jaime Naranjo, who heads the Congressional Committee on Human Rights in Chile, called the resolution “A useless ritual which has failed to have any effect on civil liberties in Cuba.” Brazilian President Inacio Lula da Silva dispatched several of his top officials to meet with Lagos to attempt reaching a compromise that would have had Chile join Brazil and Argentina in abstaining on the resolution, after which all three would subsequently issue an announcement endorsing civil liberties. Fortunately for the Bush administration, Lagos refused to abstain; without Chile’s vote, the resolution would not have passed.

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