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16 November 2005
Vicente Fox and Mexico's new foreign policy
As I reported yesterday, the diplomatic spat that began last week at the Summit of the Americas and which saw Mexico President Vicente Fox insult more than one person, has now turned into a war of words between Fox and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. It has left Mexico fairly isolated in the rest of Latin-America, as countries such as Argentina are now taking Venezuela's side in the dispute. Meanwhile, at home, Fox's position looks increasingly lonely. Neither of these situations would have come to pass had Mexican foreign policy not changed to orientate the country towards the USA and away from her traditional friends.

Historically, Mexico's foreign policy aimed at keeping the USA at arm's length and respected the sovereinty of other countries. In return, Mexico expected other countries to recognise its sovereignty with regards to Mexico's internal affairs.

The rare occasions when Mexico left this path can really be counted on the fingers of one hand. The country sent arms to the Spanish government in the 1930s during the civil war, and refused to recognise the dictatorship that was installed afterwards. During this period many thousands of Spaniards sought refuge in Mexico, and they were joined in the 1980s by many more refugees from the American inspired wars that raged in Central America. Given this willingness to accept Hispanic refugees it is small wonder that an unknown Cuban lawyer chose the country as his refuge after a failed attempt to overthrow the government in Havana. Fidel Castro Ruz lived just outside Mexico City in what was then farmland and used the isolation to train his men for the next, rather more succesful, attempt to liberate his country. Probably because of this, and also because Mexico refused to sever diplomatic relations with Cuba during the 1960s, relations between Mexico City and Havana have always been warm. At least until recently that is.

A sign that things were changing came in 2002 at the Inter-American Summit in Monterrey. President Fox asked Fidel Castro to leave the summit before the Chimp arrived from Washington. Fox later denied asking this of Castro, but that wily old bird had recorded the telephone conversation between the two men and played it back to anyone who wanted to hear it. Relations between the two countries were strained for a time, but eventually go back on an even keel. Besides, this problem was as nothing compared to the diplomatic ructions that are going on right now between Vicente Fox and most of South America.

Fox went to last week's summit in Argentina with one thing in mind: he wanted to push forward the Free Trade Area for the Americas (FTAA) plan that has stalled in the face of so much Latin American opposition. The Chimp was expecting oppositon at the summit and seems to have decided to take a back seat: Fox stepped forward and lambasted those countries that opposed free trade.

None of this means that Fox is an American puppet - he cannot be compared to Tony Blair in that respect. During the run-up to the war against Iraq, Mexico held one of the non-permanent Security Council seats and the country came under enormous pressure to vote for the second resolution that the Anglo-American axis wanted. It is to the great credit of Vicente Fox that he instructed the Mexican ambassador to vote against this resolution. Once the putative aggressors realised that the measure would not pass it was withdrawn. Furthermore, a puppet would not have signed up to the International Criminal Court. In doing so Mexico went up against some strong American pressure, but the country ratified the court. Whatever else Vicente Fox is, an American puppy he is not.

What seems to be happening is that Fox is a true believer in the cause of free trade. It is the panacia for all the ills of the world and anybody who objects must be brushed aside with the irritation that he demonstrated last week. According to one writer, he is "a member of the one true church, on a mission to spread the gospel" of free trade and open markets. If Fox does see himself in this light, then his attitude becomes more understandable: he was speaking to heretics who needed to be opposed at every turn.

Aside from alienating most of Latin America, Fox has now found himself isolated at home. Only his own party has rallied to his cause - and they are a minority in the Congress. All the others have blamed Fox for the dispute, and claims that Mexico's isolation leaves the country further dependent on the USA are gaining ground.

It is possible that Fox, aware that he only has a little over eight months left in office, wanted to ensure his place in Mexican history by getting Latin America to sign up to the FTAA accords. If that is so then he has failed, and failed badly. Opposition has grown, not diminished and the chances of any FTAA agreement being reached in the forseeable future seems to be about nil.

Update at 12.45am: It looks as if Fox is slowly backing down, at least as far as the dispute with Venezuela is concerned.

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