Las Americas

by John Ross

Ten years ago, Mexico put its Juan Hancock on the NAFTA free trade treaty with Washington and Ottawa, thereby transforming itself into the southernmost region of North America rather than the northernmost outpost of Latin America, an address change that estranged this nation sometimes described as being “so close to the United States and so far from God,” from its traditional Spainsh- and Portuguese- speaking neighbors. At the time, then-president Carlos Salinas justified the realignment as a pragmatic necessity under the New World Order-with the fall of the Wall and the consolidation of unipolar power in Washington, Mexico had little choice but to join forces with its northern neighbor, the winner of the Cold War.

A decade later, with U.S. unilateralism rocketing out of control, Mexico is looking south again, a tilt not much in favor here since the early 1980s. South-South solidarity was perhaps most inscribed in memory at the 1981 North-South summit in the Caribbean luxury resort of Cancun, where, led by Mexico, Latin leftists challenged Washington’s aggressions in Central America.

Now, with another U.S. aggression polarizing the world, Cancun was recently the site of a fresh revolt from the South at the fifth ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization. Spurred on by Brazil and backed up by Mexico, among other southern hemisphere powers, 22 developing nations stood up to U.S.-European Union-Japanese brow-beating on agricultural subsidies and the Doha or “development” round of trade liberalization negotiations—and perhaps the WTO itself—crashed in flames.

Mexico’s tilt to the south was once again on display at the mid-September 58th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The annual gathering, described by The New York Times as “tense” (it was convened on the morning after the Iraqi resistance bombed U.N. headquarters in Baghdad for the second time in three weeks), was keynoted by a noticeably weakened George W. Bush, who in 2002 failed to persuade the United Nations to back up Washington’s unilateral invasion of Iraq.

This year, the U.S. president had the unenviable task of trying to cajole 191 member nations into easing the white man’s burden by contributing troops and cash to the United States’s faltering occupation of that harried Islamic nation.

In a surprisingly forceful response, Mexican president Vicente Fox demanded an end to the occupation and immediate restoration of Iraqi sovereignty—Mexico’s refusal to back up Bush’s invasion last March has led to bitter discord with Washington. Fox also campaigned for long-overdue reform of the U.N. Security Council that would grant permanent membership to Asian, African, Latin American, and Islamic nations, and advocated the requirement of a double veto to limit Washington’s frequent use of this mechanism to thwart the Council’s will—the U.S. has exercised its veto power 96 times since the U.N.’s founding, most recently to support Israel’s decision to exile or liquidate Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat.

Fox reiterated the somber assessment of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who earlier had rebuked the United States for its unilateral invasion of Iraq, that “the survival of the United Nations is at stake.” U.S. political analysts characterized the Mexican president’s speech as “hostile” toward Washington.

In the deep freeze since 9/11, U.S.-Mexican relations are chillier than ever. Seated one setting away from each other at a breakfast hosted by Annan on the opening morning of the session, Fox and Bush did not even exchange small talk—a scheduled 10-minute huddle between the two was subsequently scratched and Fox pointedly stood up Bush at a lavish evening cocktail party thrown by the U.S. president. There have been no state visits between Fox and Bush since September 6, 2001, when Bush hosted the Mexican president at the White House and toasted his southern neighbor as “our most important foreign relation.” But a landmark immigration reform accord cooked up in the heat of all this good will collapsed five days later beneath the rubble of 9/11. Relations grew gelid when Washington perceived Mexico as being slow to send condolences for the terrorist attacks.

A year later, at the October 2002 Asian Pacific Economic Summit in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with Iraq very much on the front burner, Bush could find no time to meet with his host. The two had touched base briefly the previous March at a Monterrey U.N. Development summit, but only after Fox issued a White House-dictated ultimatum to Fidel Castro, insisting that the Cuban leader leave Mexico before Bush touched down, a move that has leveled relations with that beleaguered island ever since.

In France last spring during a G-7 summit, the Fox-Bush interchange was limited to polite nods. Now Mexico’s foreign relations ministry is touting an extended tete-a-tete at the late October APEC conclave in Thailand, but given the tattered state of bilateral affairs, this seems more hyperbole than a done deal.

Bush’s refusal to move ahead on immigration issues that affect 3.2 million undocumented Mexican workers north of the border is poisoning the soup. The annual Mexico-U.S. inter-parliamentary exchange last June in Tennessee broke up in accusations and mutual recriminations—Arizona Republican Jim Kolbe, a veteran of 17 such seances, told reporters he could not remember when bilateral relations had been so bad. Now Colin Powell’s definitive turn-down of any immigration reform in the foreseeable future as communicated to Mexican foreign minister Luis Enrique Derbez during a September Washington pow-wow, seems to leave Mexico with little left to gain from backing up U.S. unilateral aggressions.

Frustrated by Bush’s intransigence, Mexico has turned south for solace—in particular toward that other Latin American giant, Brazil. Now governed by Luis Ignacio de Silva, “Lula,” a socialist ex-steel worker whose election had Washington contemplating coup, Brazil has been in the vanguard of the South’s newly revived resolve to stand up to commercial domination by the North. As the most visible leaders of the G-22 rebellion at the WTO’s Cancun meet, the Brazilians earned the vilification of U.S. Trade rep Robert Zoellick, who blamed them for the collapse of the talks.

Brazil, India, South Africa, and China, along with Mexico, point the finger at the U.S.-E.U.’s reluctance to cut $300 billion annually in agricultural subsidies that are putting poor farmers in the South out of business as the real reason for the fracas.

The disintegration in Cancun, which unquestionably strengthens both the solidarity of the southern bloc and its bargaining position in future trade talks, cast a long shadow in distant Dubai, where the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were meeting outside of Washington. Holding the wealthy, industrial North to task, Bank president James Wolfensohn calculated that the U.S.-E.U. refusal to strip back agricultural subsidies would depress world trade and leave 144 million poor farmers in poverty.

Brazil compounded its role as star villain at the U.N. session in New York. Availing itself of its traditional role as lead-off speaker to the General Assembly, Lula lashed out at runaway U.S. unilateralism and the collateral damage it has wrecked upon the United Nations. Like Fox, Lula called for radical reforms to save this battle-scarred international forum, among them a permanent place for Brazil on the Security Council.

While the two Latin giants have been driven closer by U.S. unilateralism, Brazil vs. Mexico is not just a soccer match. Conflict over which would occupy the wished-for permanent Latin seat on the Council is one potential faultline in this reborn South-South alliance. Until recently, Mexico eschewed a seat on the Security Council because membership placed its foreign policy “under the hooves of the horse,” i.e., subjected it to U.S. pressures, and contradicted Mexico’s long-standing position that the General Assembly should become the U.N.’s dominant voice. But with the ambitious ex-foreign minister Jorge Castañeda at the helm, Mexico steered itself into an impermanent seat on the Council—and right into the eye of the storm over Iraq.

In an insightful analysis in the daily Reforma, Castañeda, now an unannounced independent candidate for president, reflected on the state of the world since he quit the Fox government at the maximum moment of the U.S. squeeze to vote the Iraqi invasion up. Marveling at how the “unilateralists” in Washington have “miscalculated” Iraqi resistance to that invasion, Castañeda warns that “here we are again,” referring to the Bush full court press to convert the U.N. into a fig leaf for his doomed occupation.

Although Mexico would have abstained or cast a ballot against the U.S. invasion of Iraq last March if it had been brought to the Security Council for a collective decision, U.N. ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a one-time Castañeda ally, voted in favor of sending inspectors into Iraq at the behest of the United States and, more recently, to recognize the White House-created Iraqi Provisional National Council. Mexico has also twice voted to uphold immunity for U.S. troops from International Criminal Court war crimes charges. But now, if Fox’s no-bones speech to the General Assembly on Iraq is to be believed, Mexico will be obligated to vote against the latest U.S. dictate. Nonetheless, diplomatic duplicity is a Mexican art form.

Lula and Fox capped their U.N. outing by flying south for a Mexican honeymoon. One first fruit of the September 19, Mexico City huddle between the two new friends—the prospect of a free trade treaty between Mexico and Lula’s pet Mercosur common market. Such a pact would present a fresh challenge to Bush’s cherished Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA or ALCA, as it’s known in Spanish), a U.S. scheme to extend NAFTA’s dubious benefits all the way to Tierra del Fuego, whose 2005 start-up Brazil opposes. Although Fox pays lip service to ALCA, Mexico is leery of the FTAA because it would lose privileged trade status with the U.S. should the hemispheric treaty become a fact.

During his 16-hour lightning stop-over here, Lula found time to schmooze with his old friend Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. The Left leader is weighing a fourth bid for the Mexican presidency (Lula won on his fourth try). From Mexico, the popular Brazilian leader hopped over to the Isle of Cuba to hobnob with another old comrade—Lula and Fidel Castro first met at the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution in Managua in 1981, a high-water mark in South-South solidarity.

While in Cuba, Brazil’s president nixed a meeting with representatives of the opposition—such meetings have become mandatory for visiting dignitaries in Washington’s stern eyes.

Since 9/11, Latin America has “fallen off the map,” an unnamed diplomat told Miami Herald Latin pundit Andres Oppenheimer during last June’s Organization of American States summit in Santiago, Chile. Despite the fact that “leftist” regimes now rule the roost in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, and Venezuela, a decades-old war is stalemated in Colombia, and incipient revolution brews in Bolivia, Washington doesn’t seem to get it, Oppenheimer argues. Colin Powell’s mantras in Santiago about “tyrants, traffickers, and terrorists” failed to stir Latin leaders who increasingly view U.S. unilateralism as a more present danger to hemispheric security.

The new South-South vibes will be given a workout in the upcoming months at a mid-October OAS Hemispheric Security summit convened at Washington’s request in Mexico City (human rights groups here are alarmed at preliminary documents), the December FTAA ministerial meeting in Miami, and a hastily called Summit of the Americas set for somewhere in Mexico at a yet-unannounced date in January.

As Washington’s unilateral aggression flunks out in Iraq and Bush’s popularity and power wanes at home, the South has a rare window of U.S. vulnerability to climb through and exercise its long-muted voice.

John Ross is off to pick olives in Palestine.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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