With Washington paying so much attention to Iraq and the Middle East since the beginning of the year, it's not surprising that we haven't heard much about our closest southern neighbor - Mexico - during that period.
For example, Mexican President Vicente Fox visited President Bush in Texas last month for a meeting that was underreported by the major media.
The March 6 meeting at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, was designed to repair strains in U.S.-Mexico relations caused by illegal immigration, the Iraq War and capital punishment. Fox had been scheduled to visit Bush in August, 2002, but the Mexican leader abruptly canceled his trip because the state of Texas refused to halt the execution of a Mexican citizen who had been convicted of killing a policeman. Mexico, a Catholic country, is strongly opposed to the death penalty.
So the question is whether Bush and Fox repaired the strains in bilateral relations last month. The short answer is "No," but they did manage to paper over some of their differences. There were smiles all around as George and Laura Bush greeted Fox and his wife, Marta, at the ranch. Here's how the Associated Press reported the Bushes' welcome: "'El presidente!' Bush exclaimed, pumping Fox's hand and clasping both cheeks of his wife ... to deliver a pair of kisses. 'Hola!' Fox replied." This tender scene was soon replaced by serious policy discussions.
On the contentious issue of capital punishment, the World Court has "ordered" the U.S. to review the cases of dozens of Mexicans on death row in this country - including at least one in Nevada - to determine whether they were denied their right to legal help from their government. For the most part, however, American judges have ignored the international court and approved scheduled executions of Mexican citizens.
Bush and Fox simply agreed to disagree on capital punishment. On illegal immigration, the White House reaffirmed Bush's support for a thinly disguised massive amnesty proposal as Fox flew to Texas. Even though little has been heard about this flawed proposal since it was launched in January, you'll hear plenty about it during the election campaign as Bush courts Hispanic voters and businessmen who hire "undocumented workers." Although the president wants to issue temporary visas to millions of illegal aliens, it's highly unlikely that Congress will approve Bush's blatantly political plan.
And finally, Mexico and the U.S. remain far apart on Iraq. Bilateral relations began to sour shortly after the terrorist attacks against New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, when Mexico refused to back the U.S. at the United Nations. That's when Bush stopped saying nice things about Fox's "open borders" proposal, which is a terrible idea when we need to defend our borders against international terrorism.
But even though Bush and Fox don't agree on several major issues, they maintain cordial personal relations and seem to enjoy stomping around each other's ranches in their fancy cowboy boots. Fortunately, the two presidents can cooperate on economic relations. As New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman observed earlier this month, "One of the oldest one-party governments in the world (Mexico's PRI) was eased out with ballots, not bullets, and a poor developing country lowered its tariff barriers and became America's second-largest trading partner."
Friedman wrote that Mexico must modernize its economy and welcome foreign investment if it is to compete successfully in international markets. "It is hard to stay competitive when you collect the lowest percentage of taxes among leading western economies, or when you are an oil-rich country that imports energy from America ..." he commented.
"Not only is it next door, but Mexico's huge bubble of baby boomers ... are now entering their prime working years," he continued. "If Mexico can't develop an economy that can keep them at home, they'll flock to a theater near you." And that would dramatically increase the numbers of Mexican immigrants living and working in the U.S. According to the Census Bureau, those numbers have already more than doubled from an estimated 4.3 million in 1990 to nearly ten million in 2002.
One possible solution to Mexico's economic difficulties was proposed by Robert Pastor, director of North American Studies at American University in Washington. Pastor believes that Canada, Mexico and the U.S. must go beyond NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Association) and establish "a North American Community" to address continental issues, from trade to terrorism, in a wider framework. Among other things, Pastor thinks Canada and the U.S. should create a fund to invest in roads, telecom-munications and post-secondary education in Mexico. "Amazingly," Friedman notes, "there is no direct highway from resource-rich southern Mexico to the U.S. border." Instead, all roads run through the impenetrable Mexico City traffic maze.
Pastor's "North American Community" is an idea that Bush and Fox should explore at their next meeting because if they don't get serious about resolving economic disparities, things can only get worse. "The Bush team is just pretending that it has an immigration policy to win Hispanic votes," Friedman wrote. "But it has neither a policy nor a Mexican partner." Let's hope he's wrong (but I don't think he is). And meanwhile, illegal immigration is out of control. Help!
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat who has lived and worked in Mexico City.