Mending Fences South of the Border

U.S.-Mexico relations were a September 11 casualty -- and the Iraq war hasn't helped. Fixing those ties falls to new Ambassador Tony Garza

It's a good thing that Tony Garza, the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico, is a career politician. His skills as the former chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission and longtime confidant of President George W. Bush will come in handy as he navigates the chilly waters of U.S.-Mexico relations.

When Bush took office in early 2001, he proclaimed that no bilateral relationship was more important than that with Mexico. His first overseas visit was to Mexican President Vicente Fox's Guanajuato ranch, and Bush hosted Fox as his first official state visitor to Washington. On September 6, 2001, Fox addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress, and in a TV appearance on Larry King Live he boldly proposed that the two countries institute sweeping immigration reforms.

That was five days before September 11, which has changed everything, especially U.S.-Mexican relations. Suddenly, immigration reform was unthinkable with homeland-security issues thrust to the forefront. It didn't help that President Fox waited four days before phoning Bush with condolences over the terrorist attacks.


  Relations between Bush and Fox seemed to go on ice. Few memorial wreaths were placed in front of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Author Guadalupe Loaeza tried to organize a friendly "we're with you" ceremony outside the embassy, but fewer than a dozen of her close friends and relatives agreed to show up. In a way, it was further evidence of the ambivalent feelings Mexicans still have toward their Northern neighbor 155 years after the last U.S. invasion of Mexico -- which resulted in the loss of half the country's territory.

Mexico's behavior certainly raised eyebrows in Washington. After all, the country's exports have tripled in nine years, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And Mexico received a U.S.-sponsored $40 billion emergency loan that helped it recover quickly after the 1994 peso devaluation. So, when the Fox Administration, now serving a three-year stint on the U.N. Security Council, indicated that it wouldn't support a new U.N. resolution backing the war in Iraq, its favorite-neighbor stature was further diminished.

"The honeymoon was ruined by September 11th," says Rafael Fernández de Castro, dean of international relations at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "But the bilateral relationship has been in the deep freeze for some time now because Bush has shown no interest in spending precious political capital on Mexico."


  Enter Garza, 43, who arrived in Mexico early this year on a mission characterized by plainspokenness. In a Feb. 21 speech to college students in the city of Puebla, he minced no words: "There's an old Spanish proverb: 'In good times, all your friends know who you are. In bad times, you know who your friends are.' We often talk about the special relationship between our countries. The real test of that is stepping forward for each other in difficult times."

Mexico held firm. Even after Washington abandoned efforts to win a new U.N. resolution, Fox went on national TV to emphasize that Mexico would have voted no. Why did he risk further irritating the Bush Administration? The one-word answer: Politics. Mexico holds midterm congressional elections in July.

Fox, who in 2000 became the first opposition President after 71 years of one-party rule, needs a congressional majority lest he become a lame duck for the remainder of his six-year term. And he had been hurt by a perception that he had embraced the Bush Administration without getting much in return.


  Like Gerhard Schröder in Germany, Fox adopted an arms-length stance toward Washington, and his gamble paid off. Polls show 85% of Mexicans back Fox's position on Iraq, and even his political opponents praise it.

By resisting Washington's "either you're with us, or you're against us" pressure, however, Fox also contributed to growing anti-Americanism in Mexico. A poll conducted by Mitovsky International since the war began indicates that only 26.3% of Mexicans view the U.S. favorably, vs. 55% in October, 2001. Worse, 28% of those polled said they viewed the U.S. with "hate". That's up from 19% just 18 months ago.

Now, some Mexicans fear retaliation in the form of truckloads of Mexican goods being held up at the border or U.S. agricultural officials barring the import of Mexican avocados because of, say, mysterious skin blemishes. Garza say the U.S. won't play those games, although he allowed in a breakfast with foreign correspondents on Apr. 3: "During the [U.N.] debate, there was a sense that reprisals were a possibility."


  Instead, he says the "fallout" may be felt in Washington. "Big-ticket items may be more difficult to get through the U.S. Congress," Garza says. That includes expansion of a guest-worker program that would benefit Mexican immigrants, which he says has little chance of being discussed this year.

Some Capitol Hill lawmakers have raised the issue of reining in the 1.35 million identity cards issued by Mexican consulates to their expatriate citizens in the U.S. since the end of 2001. Designed to provide illegal immigrants with some valid proof of identity after September 11, they're now accepted by a few U.S. banks for opening savings accounts. And several states have agreed to issue driver's licenses to Mexicans who present the consular I.D. as proof of identity. But congressional critics complain that the policy has been too loose, heightening homeland-security concerns.

Clearly, Bush and Fox both raised expectations of a superclose U.S.-Mexican relationship way too high from the get-go. But who could have envisioned that an event as dramatic as September 11 would so quickly derail the American President's embrace of a next-door neighbor that had been held at arm's length since the U.S. was founded? "I don't know if we'll get back to where we were on September 6, 2001," Garza says now. "Expectations may have been a little unrealistic."


  A Texas native and the grandson of Mexicans who migrated to the U.S. during the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution, Garza says Bush intuitively understands the importance of improved ties with Mexico, having governed a border state with a large Hispanic population. Of the 33 million Hispanic Americans, 21 million trace their heritage to Mexico. Bush went to Washington with "a Texas-size appreciation for U.S.-Mexican relations" but ran smack into more modest "D.C. expectations," Garza explains, adding: "I think we can get back to the Washington-realistic, pre-September 11 expectations, but it will take some work."

Once the war in Iraq ends, the U.S. and Mexico have plenty of fence mending to do. Mexico can do several things to show it's interested in restoring close bilateral relations, says Garza. For one, it could make greater efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigrants across its ill-guarded southern border with Guatemala.

Mexico should also continue the unprecedented cooperation between the two countries' drug-enforcement agencies. Under Fox, Mexico has arrested 14 drug-trafficking kingpins and more than 300 cartel underlings. "President Fox has a very heartfelt commitment on drugs," Garza says.


  And Mexico could score points with some in Congress by supporting an upcoming U.N. resolution on Cuba's human-rights abuses. For years, Mexico refused to criticize Cuba, citing Mexico's tradition of nonintervention in other countries' affairs. But last year, Mexican officials met with Cuban dissidents, greatly irritating Fidel Castro's regime. "If they are consistent regarding human rights and Castro, there is a constituency in Congress that would appreciate their sponsoring a resolution condemning the Castro regime," says Garza.

Mending the U.S.-Mexico relationship will take time, Garza believes. And it will most likely start at the grass roots, aligned with social and economic priorities: Along the 2,066-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border, governors and mayors will lobby Congress for better infrastructure and greater cross-border cooperation.

Multinationals have a stake in making sure their goods flow back and forth with few bureaucratic delays. Energy executives will forge ahead with plans to create a North American energy grid, linking the NAFTA partners' electricity and natural-gas flows. Improved, closer relations will have to be achieved "issue by issue, member of Congress by member of Congress," Garza says. And it won't happen just because it's the "right thing" to do. Ultimately, he concludes, closer relations will happen because it's in the best economic interest of both nations.

By Geri Smith in Mexico City

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.