U.S. ambassador leaves Mexico with high marks

MEXICO CITY — MEXICO CITY -- Before John D. Negroponte ever arrived in Mexico City as the U.S. ambassador, he had made a good many enemies.

In the early 1980s, as ambassador to Honduras, he helped to establish a rear guard for the Reagan administration's guerrilla war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Mr. Negroponte was often called "The Proconsul," after the imperious governor of a pliant colony.


When he was sent to Mexico in 1989, months after an insurgent leftist movement nearly defeated the governing party at the polls for the first time in 60 years, Mexican intellectuals feared the worst, whatever they took that to be.

But as Mr. Negroponte, 54, a career diplomat, prepared for his departure from Mexico yesterday, it was with a whirl of farewell parties, warm praise from the government and mumblings of respect even from those who railed at his arrival.


"He conducted the smoothest, most discreet covert operation in the history of U.S.-Mexican relations," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a political analyst and commentator who joined in the attack on Mr. Negroponte four years ago.

"With a long-term, historical perspective, we will probably have a lot of nasty things to say about what Mr. Negroponte did here," he predicted, "but we don't know what those things are yet. In that sense, he was probably a superb ambassador of the United States."

Other political observers, including Mexican and U.S. officials, see a brighter future for the relationship between the countries and less menace in Mr. Negroponte's brief. But their argument is not so different.

As Mexico has moved closer to the United States under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, setting aside a history of bitterness and mistrust and pressing for approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, they say Mr. Negroponte has played an important role in shepherding the country forward -- in no small part by not seeming to. In a country deeply sensitive to meddling by Americans, he has given quiet diplomacy a good name.

The evolution of Mr. Negroponte's image in Mexico would seem to reflect a deep change in its relationship with the United States, with the suppression of interventionist instincts on one side and nationalist instincts on the other.

Then again, the man nominated as his successor immediately detonated a new burst of outrage.

On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, R-N.C., wanted to know whether the ambassador-designate, James R. Jones, intended to press Mexico on such issues as the democratization of its political system, drug control and human rights.

In his written answer to Mr. Helms' long written question, Mr. Jones -- a former Oklahoma congressman, Johnson White House aide and chairman of the American Stock Exchange -- said simply, "Yes."


Subsequent editorials in leftist newspapers calling on the Salinas administration to reject Mr. Jones were perhaps to be expected. More striking was the evident anger of senior Mexican officials who, like Mr. Negroponte, have taken some pride in "compartmentalizing" thorny differences in the relationship.

By contrast, Mr. Negroponte has drawn occasional criticism of the sort he began to earn after first gaining the attention of such men as Henry Cabot Lodge and Henry A. Kissinger as a strapping, Vietnamese-speaking aide in his 20s during the Vietnam War. In general, his problem has been one of vigorous, effective carrying out of policies that have not enjoyed wide support.

In Mexico, he has been accused particularly of being too discreet. "He got too close to the government," said one congressional specialist on Latin American affairs.

In an interview some weeks before his departure, Mr. Negroponte protested that he had made a particular effort to ensure better treatment of U.S. citizens by the Mexican criminal justice system. As measured by the number of diplomatic notes sent in such cases, he said, the situation has improved.

He cited problems with narcotics control and other law-enforcement issues as "clearly still the most sensitive aspect of the relationship," but argued that Mexican politics were evolving steadily toward greater democracy. He was asked whether his embassy had pushed that evolution along.

"If we did," he said, "we wouldn't put it on the record."