President Lagos, Chile’s Tony Blair, Visits Washington

  • Chilean President Ricardo Lagos’ foreign and domestic policy is rapidly gaining his country a reputation as Washington’s lap dog.
  • Chilean President Ricardo Lagos came to the White House yesterday to meet President Bush and discuss “democracy and trade relations in the Western Hemisphere as well as expanding economic opportunity in the region.” After this meeting Lagos convened with key U.S. foreign policy officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick. His high level Washington meetings reflect the extremely close ties that Santiago enjoys with the conservative U.S. administration. Since taking office in 2000, Lagos has worked tirelessly to strengthen links between the ultra-conservative Bush administration and socialist Chile, identifying himself with U.S. geopolitical interests, while ignoring the many voices within Chile that have opposed his concessionary strategy.

    Free Trade at a Price
    Seven months ago, a bilateral free-trade agreement between Chile and the U.S. went into effect after more than a decade of negotiations, rendering 85 percent of consumer and industrial commerce between the two countries tariff-free—the first successful agreement between a South American nation and the U.S., and only the second in the hemisphere, after NAFTA. The agreements were finalized in December 2002, ratified by both legislatures in fall 2003 and went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year. It still remains to be seen whether the bilateral agreement will solve Chile’s endemic income disparities; the poorest 10 percent of its population receives only 3.7 percent of the nation’s income, while the richest 10 percent of the population receives 53.4 percent.

    In 2003, the UN Security Council was at a stalemate over the pending situation in Iraq and the U.S.’ desire to use force against Saddam Hussein’s regime. A coalition of UN member states insisted that the U.S. delay a potential war against Iraq, hoping that Baghdad would comply with UN weapons inspection teams. With Lagos’ consent, Chilean Ambassador to the UN Juan Gabriel Valdés criticized U.S. unilateralism, insisting that the U.S. conform to the international body’s position and creating tensions between the two governments. Under pressure from Powell and other U.S. officials using the status of the fragile free trade agreement as leverage, Lagos fired Valdés and sent him to head the Chilean embassy in Buenos Aires. As a result, the White House expedited the signing and subsequent U.S. passage of the trade accord.

    Chile Suddenly Anti-Castro
    Beyond the humiliation of Valdés, a lifetime friend of President Lagos, Chile voted to condemn Cuba’s human rights record at the Geneva UN Human Rights Commission in April—a break from the solidarity normally shown by the majority of Latin American nations. Although a number of prominent members of Chile’s legislative body, including leaders of Lagos’s own Concertación coalition, called for the country to join Brazil and Argentina in abstaining from the Geneva vote, Chile isolated itself from the region’s historical sympathy for Cuba, demonstrating the growing influence of the U.S. in Santiago. In calling for abstention, the socialist Senator and chairman of Chile’s Congressional Committee on Human Rights, Jaime Naranjo, described the Washington authored condemnation as a “useless ritual which has failed to have any effect on civil liberties in Cuba.” Even the senatorial leader of Chile’s center-right Christian Democratic Party, Jorge Lavandero, called President Bush “the world’s worst violator of human rights,” in reference to U.S. actions in Iraq. Despite the resounding Latin American opposition to the U.S.’ condemnation of Cuba, Lagos, in the interest of remaining in Washington’s good graces, maintained his support for Bush’s policy. His actions have been a clear signal to most in the region that Washington now has Chile securely in its back pocket, to be unleashed when needed.

    Politically Motivated Compliance
    Obediently following Washington’s lead, Chile sent a small military brigade to the Middle East. Chile also supported the U.S. engineered ousting of Haiti’s constitutionally elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Yesterday’s summit meeting between Bush and Lagos is only expected to tighten Santiago’s ardently pro-Washington, pro-free trade foreign policies, especially given the approach of municipal elections this fall and what is sure to be a fiercely fought presidential election in 2006. Having dropped hints that he is considering a return to La Moneda for a second term, President Lagos unquestionably views securing a Concertación victory in local elections as a top priority for the remainder of his term. A key element in Lagos’ strategy will be an attempt to outflank the Chilean right—which has historically advocated for closer ties with Washington—by taking credit for Chile’s ascension into the U.S.’s inner circle of closest allies.

    Lagos has bet that his trip to Washington and the prestige associated with the U.S. alliance will distract the Chilean population from economic indicators that suggest Chile is moving in the wrong direction. He remains hopeful that the free trade agreement will improve Chile’s economic prospects. However, Santiago should be aware that its alliance with the U.S. could alienate the Andean nation from its Latin American neighbors.