Can Mexico Embrace The U.S. At Arm's Length?

Seasoned geopolitician that he is, George Bush has his eye on much more than a fistful of pesos in his push for a free-trade agreement with Mexico. Although the basic aim of the trade deal is to cement the two nations' economies, Bush has another agenda: using trade as a lever to realign power in the western hemisphere. As a first step, he expects a trade accord to transform Mexico, historically an opponent of U. S. influence in the region, into more of an ally. "Mexico could turn out to be a kind of interlocutor with the rest of Latin America," says Viron P. Vaky, an expert on the region at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In fact, in Bush's vision of a new world order, Latin America seems likely to emerge as a test case much more quickly than the Middle East.

Bush is already holding out the promise, through his Enterprise for the Americas Initiative, of negotiating free trade with other Latin American countries that reform their economies. And Mexico, which is also freeing up trade with countries such as Chile and Venezuela, can serve as a powerful model of the benefits from closer economic links to the U. S. Beyond that, Bush hopes that faster economic growth from Mexico to Chile will match some of Asia's dynamism and help tilt the balance of power in the Pacific Basin back toward its American rim.

Mexico's role in such a scenario will demand some fancy political and diplomatic footwork, however, by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. He wants free trade primarily because it offers the best chance in decades to break Mexico out of economic stagnation. But in moving closer to the U. S. in foreign policy, Salinas risks stirring a nationalist backlash at home. Recently, Mexico has helped further U. S. regional goals by supplying cheap oil to Nicaragua's U. S.-backed government and joining with the U. S. to prod El Salvador's rulers and rebels toward a settlement. "It's a long time since something like this was done by the U. S. and Mexico," says Foreign Affairs Under Secretary Sergio Gonzalez Galvez.

To forestall charges by domestic opponents that he is knuckling under to the gringos, however, Salinas must assert Mexico's traditional prickly independence--symbolized for three decades by its defense of Cuba against U. S. pressures. On May 24, for example, Mexico is expected to abstain, as in the past, rather than vote for a U. S.-backed proposal by the U. N.'s Economic & Social Council to send a mission to investigate human-rights abuses in Cuba. By encouraging other key Latin American countries to take a similar stand, Mexico hopes to avoid becoming a lone lightning rod for American hostility toward Fidel Castro's regime.

Right now, avoiding strains in U. S.-Mexico relations is crucial because Congress will vote soon on giving Bush "fast track" authority to negotiate trade agreements. For U. S. opponents of free trade, Salinas' own Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is a target of protests against Mexican human-rights abuses under its near-monopoly rule. To head off trouble from Cuba, meanwhile, Salinas is trying to persuade Castro to loosen his harsh rule--an effort that is generating feverish telex traffic between Mexico City and Havana, says a high-ranking PRI insider. Otherwise, if there's a U. S.-Cuban flareup, he warns, tensions between the U. S. and Mexico over Cuba "could bring the honeymoon to an end."

Barring such pitfalls, Bush's most potent foreign policy lever at a time of slimmer defense budgets and shrinking foreign aid may be trade--led by the pact with Mexico. In Bush's vision of a world order built on U. S. economic and political values, the new deal south of the border seems likely to prove a more solid cornerstone than the victory in Iraq.

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