People See Pact as the Answer to Dreams

IN a shop window in a tony section of Santiago, a woman's blouse is carefully displayed to show off the garment's red, white, and blue ''Made in USA'' label.

The emphasis placed on that label speaks volumes about Chileans' enthusiasm for NAFTA - a free-trade agreement they actually know very little about.

''Anything from the States, anything associated with the USA is positive, and so we get this blind enthusiasm for NAFTA,'' says Marta Lagos, general manager of MORI public opinion researchers here.

''Say 'NAFTA' and people think malls, the American lifestyle, and everything modern. There is absolutely no negative association with it.''

Actually, a lot of Chileans tend to think ''gasoline'' when they hear the acronym of the free-trade pact their government seeks to enter, since NAFTA is also the name of a type of gas here.

But even those who oppose Chile's entry into NAFTA acknowledge they have an uphill battle ahead of them if they are to sway public opinion on NAFTA to their side. After 17 years of international ostracism under the Pinochet military dictatorship that ended in 1989, Chileans are eager to embrace the world - and they see NAFTA as their ticket.

''We're not a big country, but we have our place in the world, and NAFTA will put us right at the table with the biggest, with the United States,'' says Pedro Espina, a middle-aged man selling shirts on a Santiago street.

This desire to be part of the world and to make a showing in the global economy causes Chileans to profess an eagerness for just about any trade accord or economic partnership that comes along, says Ms. Lagos - even when they know little or nothing about it. ''APEC, Mercosur, the [European Union], NAFTA, they want them all, but there's hardly any discrimination among them and no real knowledge of what each may be about,'' she says.

Still, she says, NAFTA has garnered special enthusiasm. That's partly true because entry negotiations are now taking place. But NAFTA's big draw remains the prospect of ''special'' association with the US. ''People are drawn to whatever is in their dreams, and in terms of lifestyle and culture, Chileans are drawn to their image of the US,'' says Lagos, describing what she calls the ''Miamization'' of Chile.

''When people go to the new malls and eat at the new food gardens with all their franchise restaurants, they are shopping for a future,'' she says, ''and what they are buying is America.'' Even if only in their hearts, she adds, since many of the shoppers make no more than $300 a month.

OF course, disappointment may lie ahead for some Chileans when NAFTA doesn't fulfill all the dreams they associate with it. (Many Mexicans were especially shocked by the peso crash in December and the ensuing economic crisis, since their leaders had told them that NAFTA membership put Mexico in the first world, where such crashes don't occur.)

Lagos recalls a recent dinner party she attended where a high official from the finance ministry was greeted with warm praise from a wealthy Santiago matron. ''I'm so glad you're getting us in this NAFTA,'' she said, ''It will be wonderful not to have to show my passport the next time I go to the States.''

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