New ideas south of the border.
Every 12 years, the planets align in U.S./Mexico relations. That is, a U.S. president and a Mexican president are elected in the same year, giving the new leaders a special opportunity to form a closer-than-usual bond and to coordinate their policies for their countries' mutual benefit. Last year was such an astronomically significant year. It saw the historic election on July 1 of Vicente Fox as president of the United States of Mexico, followed four months later by the election of George W. Bush as 43rd president of the United States of America.
Expect good things. The last such planetary alignment in 1988 brought the election of Carlos Salinas de Gortari in Mexico and George Bush (father of the current U.S. president). They radically and permanently transformed U.S./Mexico relations by negotiating and signing the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Before then, the countries were "distant neighbors" (to borrow the apt title of Alan Riding's excellent 1984 book), linked by 2,000 miles of border but separated by language, religion, race, history, and philosophy. Since then, they have become partners.
U.S./Mexico trade has tripled since the agreement was implemented in the second year of Bill Clinton's presidency, and bilateral cooperation has improved in a host of key areas, including immigration, law enforcement, and drug eradication and interdiction. Because of the free-trade agreement, Mexico has vaulted over Japan to become the United States' second-largest trading partner, after Canada.
Messrs. Fox and Bush will try to build on their predecessors' success. Fox is refreshingly free of the anti-American complexes that afflict many Mexicans and that derive from the United States' conquest of nearly half of Mexicos territory in the mid-nineteenth century. The prospect of deeper and broader relations with the United States doesn't frighten him. Indeed, he sees it as a way to make Mexico an even better destination for U.S. trade and investment, which he hopes would help to raise the living standards of the half of Mexicans who earn $2 per day or less.
Bush, for his part, thinks that North American free trade is among his father's greatest legacies, and he would like to ensure that that legacy is preserved and strengthened. Furthermore, he would like to implement his father's stalled vision of a free-trade area stretching from "northernmost Canada to the tip of Cape Horn," as he averred during his campaign. He made good relations with Mexico a priority of his governorship of Texas. As a candidate for the nation's highest office, he promised to do the same for all of Latin America, to "look south, not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency"
Fox and Bush are ideologically compatible. They occupy the center-right of the political spectrum and are ardent believers in free markets and democracy Fox's English is much better than Bush's Spanish, but the grounding that each has in the culture of the other gives helpful perspective to both men. They have met and talked several times. During his campaign and as president-elect, Fox was a frequent visitor to Texas, where he sought to build political support among the large community of expatriate Mexicans.
Without North American free trade, there would be no Vicente Fox. The free-trade agreement locked Mexico into rational economic and political behavior, making it possible for the former Guanajuato governor and Coca-Cola executive to end the Institutional Revolutionary Party's 71-year stranglehold on power.
Fox is a visionary; he had to be to imagine the democratic revolution that he fostered. For example, shortly before taking office on December 1 he stunned U.S. politicians by proposing that NAFTA eventually be enhanced to permit the free movement of labor. But he is also a pragmatist. He knows that many years may pass before Americans are able to swallow the idea of Mexicans freely entering the U.S. labor market.
And Fox knows that there are some reforms that the majority of Mexicans are unwilling to accept, such as privatization of the inefficient national oil company, Pemex. But in other respects, he will try to build on the economic and democratic openings that helped to bring him to power in the first place.
Fox has assembled an able and diverse Cabinet. His all-important economic appointments pleased Wall Street. His predecessors had a deserved reputation for economic chicanery, and Fox correctly ascertained that he had to appoint people who would be perceived as competent and serious.
His environmental minister is Victor Lichtinger, a respected and committed former head of the trinational environmental commission established under a side accord to the free-trade agreement. His foreign minister is Jorge Castaneda, a leftist intellectual who carries a slight chip on his shoulder toward the United States but who poses no danger to the countries' relations. Regardless of how one feels about Castaneda, Fox had to find room for somebody like him in his Cabinet. In any event, the real power in Mexico nowadays is in the finance ministry, not the foreign ministry.
The tests for Vicente Fox are several. Can he stem the transiting of Colombian cocaine into the United States? Can he reduce Mexico's trafficking and production of heroin, marijuana, and amphetamines? Can he alleviate poverty so that fewer Mexicans will feel obliged to emigrate? Will he stand up to the telecommunications and electric utility monopolies that are gouging consumers and providing poor service? Will he defy public opinion and resume extraditions of Mexican murderers and drug kingpins to the United States?
In each case, the United States should desperately want for him to succeed, for Mexico's fortunes are intimately tied to our own, and other struggling Latin American countries might learn and take heart from his example.
NCEW member Timothy A. O'Leary is an editorial writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News and was a part of the NCEW trip to Mexico in January His maternal grandparents emigrated from Mexico to the United States.