With Trade Pact Pending,


By Nora Boustany

Washington Post
May 14, 2003

Juan Gabriel Valdes, Chile's outspoken ambassador to the United Nations, a socialist who irked U.S. and Spanish diplomats with his passionate defense of multilateralism at the most critical time leading up to the U.S.-led war against Iraq, is being sent to Buenos Aires in June. The former foreign minister, who was also his country's top diplomat in Spain, will be replaced by Heraldo Muoz, a former Harvard classmate of U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, in an apparent nod to American displeasure and to facilitate the promised signing of a free trade agreement with the United States.

The signing, due to take place last week, was delayed by Washington's disappointment with the reluctance of Chilean President Ricardo Lagos -- at the request of a wide spectrum of Chilean political parties and union representatives -- to support the Bush administration at the United Nations on Iraq. President Bush did sign a free trade pact with Singapore, a willing member of the alliance against Iraq, at a White House ceremony last week. Hours after the announcement in Santiago last Wednesday that Chile would change U.N. ambassadors, Bush offered encouraging words, saying, "We have an important free trade agreement with Chile that we will move forward with." Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also gave positive signals during a meeting with Chilean Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear, but no top U.S. official gave a definite date for the signing, pending an expected U.N. vote on a U.S. proposal to lift sanctions against Iraq.

Diplomats in Washington said Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick will probably sign the agreement on behalf of Bush in Florida this month. Sources at the Chilean Embassy confirmed that they were made aware of the same information but said they had not received any official notification. A spokesman at Zoellick's office declined to comment yesterday on "the specifics or the details" of the signing and reiterated the positive signals given by the White House. The Chilean newspaper La Tercera reported that the U.S. ambassador to Santiago, William Brownfield, welcomed the decision to replace Valdes with Muoz, saying, "It is very good news." Brownfield had complained to the Foreign Ministry -- as did the U.N. ambassador from Spain, a key U.S. ally on Iraq -- about the boastful "tone" and "tactics" used by Valdes to underline his president's refusal to go along with the war, and his zeal in defending that position. At the peak of the Iraq crisis, the newspaper reported that Valdes told Socialist senators that if Lagos ordered him to vote in favor of the United States, he would resign. Valdes did not return telephone calls yesterday to his U.N. office.

Valdes, whose family has stayed in Santiago because his wife is involved in a major environmental project, has indicated he had previously expressed interest in moving to a posting closer to Chile. Quoting Chilean opposition sources, the Spanish news agency EFE reported from Santiago last week that Valdes had become "persona non grata" in Washington and an impediment to improved relations with the United States. Was Valdes the fall guy in the uncertainty over the future of the free trade agreement?

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