Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, probably the best friend the United States ever had south of the Rio Grande, is preparing his people for possible rejection of the North American Free Trade Agreement by a feckless U.S. Congress.
Knowing full well that such a rebuff will only inflame traditional Mexican resentment toward the gringos, Mr. Salinas is asserting national pride while downgrading the importance of a treaty he had hoped would be capstone of his presidency.
"We have no desire to be like others," he acidly commented in his final state of the nation speech, "or to share their deficiencies." This is just a taste of what is to come if Americans once again give the back of their hand to their southern neighbors. Until Mr. Salinas came along, Mexican politicians regularly played to a deeply held sense of grievance. But the Harvard-trained president has sought reconciliation as part of his campaign to open up his country economically, politically -- and psychologically.
Mr. Salinas is still doing more than his part to reassure quaking legislators on Capitol Hill that NAFTA is not going to cause big job losses or setbacks in the huge U.S. economy. He has made concessions on sugar, citrus, vegetables, flat-glass and wine even though the treaty is a done deal.
All politics is local, however, and as he prepares to select the next presidential candidate of his party, Mr. Salinas needs to reassure his compatriots. His government, after all, had built up NAFTA as the instrument of Mexico's emergence as an economic tiger. Now his message has to be that strictly by national means Mexico will continue to welcome outside investment, privatize inefficient state enterprises and improve trading relationships with some 70 other nations beside the U.S.
"We can compete with the world on equal terms," he told his parliament. As for NAFTA, he said its benefits (if approved) would not be "spectacular" or substantially alter economic trends.
There was a bit of bravado in those remarks. While NAFTA is essentially a political question in the United States, where the forces of protectionism and isolationism are on the march, the agreement is part of a Salinas drive that already has moved 1.4 million people out of extreme poverty, reduced inflation from 52 percent to 8 percent a year, led to the dissolution of 80 percent of the nation's 1,555 state enterprises and halved the national debt. These achievements have aroused hope that Mexico could chuck off its Third World status. If NAFTA fails, the pace inevitably will falter and advocates of a resentful, insular, hunkered-down Mexico could make a comeback.
As members of Congress approach a decision that will affect U.S. relations throughout Latin American for decades to come, they should realize they are dealing with the sensibilities and well-being of a Mexico that, in people terms, has a greater immediate impact on this country than any other nation in the world.