For Bush And Fox, The Beginning Of A Beautiful Friendship?

When George W. Bush meets with Vicente Fox at the Mexican President's ranch on Feb. 16, there will be plenty of photo ops of the leaders in their cowboy boots engaged in down-home talks over the future of U.S.-Mexican relations. The visit, coming less than a month after the inauguration of the new American President, raises the prospect "of a kind of relationship with Mexico we've never had," says a Bush Administration official.

Indeed, after centuries of mutual distrust, both countries appear ready to work together to harvest the benefits of an expanded partnership. Fox, to be sure, has the bolder vision: He wants eventually to create a North American Common Market, with free movement of labor and possibly a single currency. Bush has shorter-term goals, but no less challenging. He aims to find solutions to political hot potatoes such as illegal immigration and drug trafficking. He's also keen to build on his father's legacy as U.S. architect of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

STICKY ISSUES. Drawing on his experience as Texas governor, Bush seems ready to treat Mexico as a political equal rather than a subordinate partner. It helps that Mexico has moved to full democracy with the ouster of the often corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party last year. And since NAFTA took effect in 1994, U.S.-Mexico two-way trade has nearly tripled, to $253 billion, turning Mexico into the U.S.'s No. 2 trading partner, after Canada. "It's impressive how quickly we're progressing toward a closer, better relationship," says Rafael Fernandez de Castro, dean of international affairs at Mexico's Autonomous Technological Institute.

Under the two new Presidents, officials from the U.S. and Mexico are hoping to make headway on issues that have long marred their relations--including illegal immigration and drug trafficking. Fox wants an amnesty for the 700,000 or more illegal Mexican workers already in the U.S. And he has proposed expansion of a guest-worker program that would help fill labor shortages in U.S. industries such as agriculture and restaurants. Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) plans to propose immigration legislation in the coming months.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 30, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would would suspend for two years the annual "certification" process whereby Washington grades countries on their efforts to fight drug trafficking. Mexico has long resented Washington's finger-wagging on this issue. Now, Congress seems willing to give Fox a chance to make good on his promises to crack down on cartels.

TRADE DREAM. For Bush, working with Fox to expand NAFTA may be one way to start building his legacy. Both men want to cooperate on energy, including two-way traffic of electricity and natural gas. And Bush is already lobbying for so-called fast-track authority to cut trade deals--helping him create a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) before his four-year term ends. Although Mexico has nothing to gain from giving up its exclusive access to the big U.S. market, Fox is expected to support quick passage of the FTAA--and to intercede with Latin American leaders reluctant to open their markets. The issue will be debated at a Summit of the Americas in Canada in April.

Both Bush and Fox have ambitious agendas. But it's not too soon to begin searching for common ground. A low-key meeting at a Mexican ranch may be just the place to start.

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