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Mexico, Venezuela escalate a dispute

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico and Venezuela pulled their ambassadors from each other's capitals yesterday, after the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez refused to apologize for his remarks belittling Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Chávez, a frequent critic of US foreign police, last week called Fox ''the puppy" of the Bush administration. When the Mexican government announced it would expel the Venezuelan ambassador here if the Chávez government did not apologize within 24 hours, Venezuela responded yesterday by ordering its ambassador home.

Mexico then recalled its ambassador to Caracas. Fox said: ''We cannot allow people to offend our country."

The two countries fell short of breaking off diplomatic ties, leaving room for an eventual compromise. In the meantime, relations will be handled by commercial attaches, officials on both sides said.

However, the verbal tug of war underlies a split in Latin America that was all too apparent at this month's Summit of the Americas in Argentina. Chávez used the occasion to lash out at the Bush administration's support for a regionwide free-trade agreement.

Fox, an ally of the US on trade issues, found himself exchanging criticisms during and after the summit with Chávez, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, and even Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona.

The presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela have all sharply criticized US trade and monetary policies, which they say contribute to poverty. But Fox and most Central American leaders have sought more relaxed trade ties with the United States.

''It's sad to see how Fox surrenders," Chávez told a national television audience on Wednesday. ''How sad that a country like Mexico has a president who is the puppy of the American empire."

In Mexico, politicians of all stripes rallied behind Fox, calling Chávez's remarks an offense to Mexico's national honor.

''It matters to us as Mexicans," said Juan José García Ochoa, a congressman with the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution. ''We don't want any head of state to insult the president of Mexico."

But diplomats in Mexico called the spat the latest in a series of foreign policy missteps by Fox.

''What Fox has done here is to throw a small rock at a professional boxer, because Chávez is someone who loves this kind of fight and excels at it," said Rafael Fernández de Castro, editor of Foreign Affairs en Español magazine.

''Without wanting to, and without deserving it, Fox is being seen as the spokesman for the Bush administration in Latin America," Fernández added. Bush attended the Argentine summit at the resort of Mar del Plata with more than two dozen other heads of state from around the Western Hemisphere, but made little progress in talks for a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, a cornerstone of US policy for the region.

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