CHILE was supposed to be the fourth member of the North American Free Trade Agreement by now, leading the way for the rest of Latin America.
Mexican and American trucks were supposed to be rolling freely through the border states of both countries as the first step toward free trucking throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico by 2000.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a hemispheric free-trade zone - a speed bump called the American presidential elections is getting in the way.
''We're like the people who receive a beautiful invitation, but when we show up for the party we're told it's been postponed,'' says Felipe Larrain, an economist at Santiago's Catholic University. ''We've done everything right to become a member of NAFTA ... but then we get caught in American politics and there's no action.''
With foreign trade developing into a major issue in the '96 campaign, several Republican candidates are sounding less than harmonious notes on the country's push for free-trade accords in general and a hemispheric free-trade zone by 2005 in particular. Candidate Pat Buchanan says flatly that as president he would cancel NAFTA, tying it to the decline in US workers' standard of living.
President Clinton is caught between his record of support for trade liberalization and polls showing American voters becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of foreign trade on jobs and income. With key voting groups in several must-win states fighting for protection from the consequences of lowered trade barriers, the administration is taking actions that look suspiciously like electoral politics.
The proposed Dec. 18 opening of Southwest border states to Mexican trucks as called for in NAFTA was postponed by Washington - much to the satisfaction of many American truckers and some border-state highway safety groups.
Florida tomato growers - whose populous state Clinton won in 1992 - have heard encouraging words from Washington in favor of higher restrictions on Mexican tomatoes. California avocado growers are lobbying for continued protection from Mexican avocados.
The message from the administration, as Latin America hears it, is ''Let's get Clinton reelected first, then we'll talk.''
Mexico is ''profoundly disturbed'' by the support it sees the Clinton administration giving what it considers violations or proposals that would violate the two-year-old NAFTA, says Secretary of Commerce Herminio Blanco.
In a letter to US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor last week, Mr. Blanco said Mexico would use trilateral talks among the NAFTA partners that began yesterday in Washington to protest US ''protectionist proposals.''
US officials are trying to paint the trade disputes as inevitable discords on the way to establishing freer international trade. In Mexico this week to open an exhibition of American food products, US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman called the rows ''bumps in the road'' that would be resolved soon. ''We don't want to stop imports,'' he said, ''but neither do we want to put the Florida [tomato growers] out of business.''
The trade controversy has spilled over from governmental hallways into business organizations and beyond. The American Chamber of Commerce here condemned the border opening postponement as a ''potentially dangerous precedent'' that ''could place [NAFTA] and the credibility of the parties to the agreement in jeopardy.'' For their part, Mexico's largest business organizations are calling on their government to respond more forcefully.
Mexico's veteran nightly news anchor Jacobo Zabludovsky recently told his millions of faithful viewers that actions taken in the US against Mexico's trucking industry could be blamed on electoral politics. ''The country's powerful Teamsters union has 1.5 million members,'' he explained, ''and that's 1.5 million voters - not to mention all the voting-age members of their families.''
Mr. Zabludovsky failed to mention that Mexico initially sounded no protest of the trucking measure's postponement. Some Mexican truckers, fearing the competition of their US counterparts, had also called for putting off the border opening.
Many analysts both in the US and across Latin America believe the climate for trade liberalization between the US and its southern neighbors will improve once the November elections are over, and no matter who wins the White House. Republican front-runner Sen. Bob Dole has called for a halt to the ''haphazard rush'' toward new trade agreements, but House Speaker Newt Gingrich supports Chile's entry to NAFTA, as does Clinton.
An erosion of commitments?
But some observers worry that the precedents won't be easily reversed. ''I'm afraid this could just be the first leak in the dam,'' says Chandler Stolp, associate director of the US-Mexico Policy Studies Program at the University of Texas at Austin. ''We could be headed toward an erosion of NAFTA's commitments.''
And Latin America seems unwilling to simply wait out the year. Last month Chile - tired of waiting for the US Congress to proceed on legislation to speed up its accession to NAFTA - decided to negotiate a separate trade agreement with Canada. A number of Canadian companies in mining, forest products, and energy expect the mini-accord will give them a head start in the race for business deals with a booming Chile.