A Stillborn Strategic Alliance: The Mexican-Chilean Partnership

  • In September 2004, President Ricardo Lagos met with President Vicente Fox in Mexico City to launch a “strategic alliance” between their two countries. Following the success of their bilateral free trade agreement, the presidents aimed to promote deeper integration and cooperation in the political, social and cultural spheres.
  • No matter the outcome of the OAS race – where each of the presidents’ close associates are in a tired pursuit of the secretary-general position – one of its certain casualties has been the Mexican-Chilean partnership. Trust, the pivotal element in the construction of any alliance, was dealt a serious blow last December.
  • By analyzing events following the zenith of Mexican-Chilean collaboration – their teamwork in the United Nations Security Council – it can be concluded that the strategic alliance was probably doomed well before its official birth.
  • The Two Amigos
    Vicente Fox and Ricardo Lagos have run almost parallel mandates. In March 2000, newly instated President Lagos received candidate Fox at La Moneda, where the two agreed on the need for regionally inclusive development in Latin America. The same year, Lagos attended Fox’s inauguration and the Mexican president-elect chose Chile as the first country to visit on his South American tour. In Santiago, Fox remarked at the time that Chile and Mexico were destined to come closer as both countries shared a commitment to surpass neoliberalist and statist formulas, replacing them instead with a Latin American third option.

    In those days, Fox aimed to position his government as the bridge between the United States and Latin America, by presenting himself as something akin to a reformist Christian Democrat-style leader. Chile was rightly perceived in Mexico as the South American country with whom it shared most values and goals. During this era, Mexico and Chile were achieving international standing due to the strengthening of their democratic institutions with both the Fox and Lagos administrations being vigorously committed to the idea of “improving globalization”.

    Good intentions between the two capitals were translated into joint action. Mexico and Chile responded with one voice to the Argentine crisis. In mid 2001 Fox and Lagos, during a visit of the former to Chile, demanded the reform of the IMF and the World Bank. Having only praise for one another, the presidents of Chile and Mexico reaffirmed their commitment to support Argentina in her economic recovery and to provide leadership to generate capitalismo con rostro humano.

    However, there was no more inspiring example of the fruitful cooperation emerging between the two countries than the teamwork exerted by Mexico and Chile, when they happened to have seats on the United Nations Security Council as non-permanent members at the same time. In the midst of an impasse regarding what many saw as the Bush administration’s desire to prematurely use force against Iraq, the countries pushed for a middle ground. They stressed the need for the permanent members to reach a compromise position and advocated the continuance of inspections for an additional frame of time. In February 2003, Mexico and Chile opposed the authorization of armed intervention and argued that the use of such force should be contemplated only as a last resort.

    Chilean and Mexican public opinion were overwhelmingly against the war. A united stance enhanced the governments’ capacity to withstand outside pressures while maintaining a position on the issue closely aligned to their constituencies’ wishes. At the moment, it was easy to foresee a future of closer collaboration. The countries would support the reliance upon multilateral processes to resolve international disputes and promote an agenda of democratic values, development and human rights.

    When President Ricardo Lagos paid an official visit to Mexico in September 2004, the time was deemed sufficiently auspicious to officially launch a “strategic alliance” between Mexico and Chile. Their bilateral free trade agreement would be broadened to incorporate ever greater political, social and cultural cooperation.

    The Apple of Discord
    Chilean Minister of the Interior José Miguel Insulza had been named as a likely candidate for the position of secretary-general of the Organization of American States, well before Costa Rica’s ex-President Miguel Angel Rodríguez was elected in June 2004. The argument that seemed to prevail then was that “it was Central America’s turn” to head the OAS and Insulza grudgingly stepped aside. When Rodríguez was forced to resign in October after being charged with corruption in his motherland, the region was baffled. Central American countries wished to retain the post and asked for time to choose another candidate, but before they agreed on one, Fox announced the candidacy of his Minister of foreign affairs, Luis Ernesto Derbez, on December 7, 2004.

    Chile was astounded by the Mexican move. Shortly thereafter, Lagos resuscitated the Insulza candidacy. Mexico formerly had declined to support Insulza’s earlier bid against Rodríguez by publicly committing to accepting the Central American argument of that area’s right to the OAS position. Insulza had particular reasons to expect a favorable nod from Mexico. He had lived in the country for years as an exile from the Pinochet dictatorship in the 80s, and had put together a significant network while teaching at some of Mexico’s most prestigious academic institutions.

    In an interview with Chilean newspaper La Tercera, Insulza stated his “surprise” at the Mexican decision when the countries still had “pending conversations on the matter.” The claim was supported by Congress woman Isabel Allende, who told the Mexican newspaper Reforma that there was an agreement between Chile and Mexico to coordinate on the issue, and that Mexico had not abided by it. The Fox administration quickly dismissed these allegations.

    Since then, accusations have been bandied back and forth. Despite official declarations that there was no strain on the bilateral relation due to differences over the OAS contest, it would be hard to assert that trust between the two governments has not been severely eroded by the question. As trust between the two was precisely the factor that allowed for a strategic alliance to be conceived in the first place, it can be concluded that no matter the outcome of the April 11 election, the Mexican-Chilean partnership can already be counted as one of the casualties of the OAS race.

    Doomed From the Start?
    The political landscape of the region has changed since 2000, when Lagos and Fox were champions of the Latin American Third Way. The victory of Tabaré Vázquez in the Uruguayan presidential elections is only the last example of a distinct regional trend of leftist governments assuming power. The Chilean president has reinvented himself as the “responsible” partner of the Latin American new left, maintaining open channels of communication with Hugo Chávez and identifying with the new left leaders’ focus on social policy. On the other hand, the Fox administration has struggled in adapting to the current environment. Fox drifted away from his initial left-of-center leanings and now it is clear that, ideologically, he is more akin to Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe than to any other of his Latin American counterparts.

    Vicente Fox introduced a main shift in Mexico’s diplomatic tradition by publicly acknowledging that the relationship with the United States was the country’s most important one. The negotiation of an immigration deal became Mexico’s top foreign policy objective. Understandably, the costs of not siding with the United States on the Iraq issue were harder on Mexico than on Chile. With the U.S. government concentrated on the war against terrorism, it became increasingly obvious for all concerned that migration talks had reached a stalemate just at the time that the mood in the nation had changed from pro- to anti-immigration.

    The Fox administration turned to Latin America. Mexicans across party lines have long supported the idea of closer cooperation with the region. The general view is that Latin American countries share history, values and international objectives, and that it is more effective to promote common interests as a front than to go at it separately. Thriving relations with Chile were in themselves proof of the positive dividends to be extracted from collaboration with countries of the region. The administration hoped that strengthened relations with Latin America would revitalize Mexico’s image.

    In a bold move, Fox presented Mexico’s application to join Mercosur at the summit in Puerto Iguazu, on July 8, 2004. The response to Mexico’s advances was surprisingly lukewarm. While promptly accepting Venezuela as an associate member, the Mercosur heads of state decided to postpone the acceptance of Mexico until the signing of a free trade agreement. Mexico’s consolation prize was to participate as an observer at the Mercosur meetings. Only Uruguay and Chile seemed to back Mexico’s aspiration to become a more active partner in South America. Countries in the region assumed Mexico was turning south only because the door was closed to the north and they acted accordingly.

    Another Mexican attempt to become more involved in South America was its proposal to mediate between Bolivia and Chile. At the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, on January 2004, Bolivian President Carlos Mesa called for hemispheric support to achieve Bolivia’s access to the Pacific. President Lagos responded by stating that there were no pending sovereignty problems with Chile and that the issue should be discussed bilaterally. President Fox rose to the occasion by offering to mediate between the two countries. Perhaps Chile would have preferred for its Mexican ally to keep to its own counsel on this matter.

    Lack of careful consideration of foreign policy options by the Fox presidency can be attributed to the fact that Mexico’s interest on enhancing its role as regional actor came by default. After the U.S.-Mexican agenda came to a standstill, the Fox administration realized that other steps had to be taken to improve Mexico’s international standing, beginning with this hemisphere. The nomination of Minister Derbez to head the Organization of American States can be understood as stemming from this new outlook.

    Unlike Mexico, Chile was not forced to reassess foreign policy goals after 9-11. From the start, the Lagos government made of Chile’s expansion of regional influence a main foreign policy priority. A vocal sponsor of closer integration with the Mercosur countries and of Latin America presenting a united front in international organizations, the administration also had concluded that nurturing a close relationship with the U.S. would be beneficial to Chile’s economic and diplomatic interests. This balancing act was not unanimously praised. There were some who identified outright submissiveness in the Lagos approach.

    Notwithstanding this criticism, Santiago’s less dependent position did allow it to construct a more diverse network of alliances than Mexico. If Minister Insulza wins the position of secretary-general of the OAS, this would definitely be counted by the Lagos administration as proof of its own effectiveness in promoting the recognition of Chile as a major player in the hemispheric arena.

    The OAS race has seriously eroded trust between Mexico and Chile but, in any case, the wishful strategic partners were bound to collide as Mexico’s choice of actions to regain international confidence happen to concur with Chile’s bid to be taken seriously as a regional big leaguer. No doubt an array of pragmatic interests will continue to bond Chile and Mexico together in small ways, but a true strategic partnership like that envisioned in last September’s rhetoric is not likely to develop in the medium term.