The Washington Diplomat: November 1997
By Larry Luxner
Judging from his name and his barely discernible accent, you might never guess John Biehl was the ambassador of Spanish-speaking Chile. In fact, at a recent free-trade presentation before Congress, his hosts accidently introduced Biehl as the U.S. ambassador to Chile, while his counterpart in Santiago -- Puerto Rico-born Gabriel Guerra -- was incorrectly saluted as Chile's envoy to the United States.
But Biehl (rhymes with "peel") is used to that sort of diplomatic gaffe.
"If I had been named Juan like I should have been, there would be no problem. If you look at our history, Bernardo O'Higgins was our national liberator. Nobody thinks of him as a foreigner," Biehl told us during a recent interview at the Chilean Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. "Foreign last names have never been a problem in Chile. We're very much a country of immigrants."
So how did John Biehl get his Anglo-sounding name?
"My grandfather came from a small village in Denmark, near the German border," he explained. "Because we were born during the Second World War, people thought Biehl was a German name. So our father gave us all English names, and we became foreigners automatically. When I ran for president of my university's student federation, the standard joke was that I was from Texas."
The current debate over free trade, however, is no laughing matter -- and as the U.S. representative of Latin America's healthiest economy, John Biehl is right in the middle of it. Ever since 1992 -- when President Bush visited Chile and unveiled his dream of a "free-trade area stretching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego" -- Chile has been trying to win membership in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
It certainly hasn't been an easy fight.
"Our countries are in favor of free trade, yet politics is not always about rational things," said Biehl, 58. "Since the Mexican tequila crisis, it has been much easier to convey NAFTA's setbacks to the American people than the benefits. The rationale of NAFTA has so many positives, but with the way emotions have been manipulated, the negatives become overwhelming. So for the moment, in spite of the tremendous advantages we can reap, it's a very uphill battle."
In mid-November -- after much wrangling on Capitol Hill -- the House Ways & Means Trade Subcommittee voted to give President Clinton the fast-track authority he needs to negotiate trade deals with other countries. But many lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, remain wary of extending trade benefits to Latin America in the face of opposition from organized labor, environmental groups and other special interests which worry about the potential loss of U.S. jobs to lower-wage countries.
But Chile isn't Mexico, insists Biehl. Its distance from the United States, its small size (only 14 million inhabitants) and its successful export-based economy -- this year GDP is expected to jump by 7.5% -- are all reasons why Chile should be part of NAFTA, he says. In fact, some members of Congress -- notably Illinois Republican Phil Crane -- think Chile should have been admitted into NAFTA long before Mexico.
"Chile has never been an immigration threat or drug threat to the United Staets, and we are among the least corrupt countries in the world," says Biehl. "More Chileans are now returning to Chile than ever before, so the immigration argument is [purely] emotional."
Biehl, born in the Pacific port city of Valparaiso, isn't a career diplomat but a political appointee, named to his current post by Chilean President Eduardo Frei. A political scientist by profession, he was a founding director of the Institute of Political Science at Chile's Catholic University. From 1975 to 1988, he directed various United Nations Development Program projects in Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico and Panama, and from 1990 to 1994 served President Patricio Aylwin as a political advisor, during which time he was sent to Haiti to help restore democracy as part of a mission from the Organization of American States.
When Frei became president of Chile in 1994, he sent his advisor to Washington -- a job Biehl has obviously relished.
"Historically, the relationship between Chile and the United States has been a stable and stubborn relationship," he told us. "We have our viewpoints and our differences, but it has been very respectful. I think perhaps in the future, we'll have a kind of relationship that is new, different and much better than in the past.
"It's a small country that is saying we cannot resolve our problems alone. This is where our relationship with the United States has strengthened, because we agree so strongly in having free markets, strengthening democracy and promoting free trade. We think this will be a big equalizer for the future. Obviously, if we don't have open markets, we're never going to talk about equal opportunities in our own lands, and immigration will remain the best option for hundreds of thousands of people."
In recent years, Chile has scored points with connoisseurs for its outstanding varietal wines, abundant winter fruits and tasty salmon. In fact, it's been so successful in exporting fish to the United States that salmon farmers in Maine and Washington state have filed a lawsuit accusing Chile of dumping salmon in the U.S. at subsidized prices -- a charge Chile denies. Nevertheless, the U.S. Commerce Department has agreed to investigate.
Asked if the Commerce Department probe could jeopardize bilateral realtions -- as some Chilean politicians claim it will -- Biehl says "I hope not. Obviously, we're not the home team in this dispute. But I want to point out that we buy more from the United States than does India -- about $4 billion a year. The U.S. is our single largest trading partner."
Of the 50 states, Florida is by far the top exporter to Chile, shipping $483.4 million worth of goods to Chile, followed by California ($352.2 million) and Washington ($338.8 million). A study just released by the Chilean-American Chamber of Commerce concludes U.S. companies could sell even more to Chile if the two countries enjoyed free trade.
According to the report, U.S. multinationals suffered $480 million in lost sales last year because of the 11% across-the-board tariff imposed by Chile on U.S. pickup trucks, bulldozers, laptop computers and dozens of other products -- making them too expensive when compared to similar goods coming in from Canada, Mexico and other countries that have signed free-trade agreements with Chile.
Yet for all of Chile's success in the economic and political arena, few Americans know much about this mountainous, pencil-shaped country that ranks as one of the world's largest exporters of copper, silver, salmon, fishmeal and wood chips.
"It's absurd to pretend everybody knows about Chile," he says. "There are a tremendous number of people who know about our small country, but the big majority of Americans don't even know we exist."
One well-known Chilean does ring a bell with most Americans, however: Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Leader of the brutal dictatorship that crushed -- with U.S. support -- the freely elected, left-leaning government of Salvador Allende in 1973, Pinochet was responsible for widespread human-rights violations. Nevertheless, his 17-year regime -- which ended in 1989 -- has also been widely credited with encouraging foreign investment and spearheading Chile's current economic reforms.
Pinochet has remained as head of the Chilean Army, though he has promised to step down on Mar. 11, 1998. Asked if the 81-year-old general has been an obstacle to democracy, Biehl had this to say: "The behavior of the armed forces has been exemplary. Generally, it's difficult for people to leave power. When they are in the opposition, most of the time they try to destroy those in power. But the Chilean Army has never interfered. They've been absolutely obedient to the constitution."