Clinton ends Mexico trip with praise of free trade President tours pyramids, mingles in a town square

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MEXICO CITY -- On his third and final day on Mexican soil,

President Clinton toured ancient pyramids, mingled in a small-town square and passionately proclaimed the wonders of free trade.

"Every day we use products that are dreamed up in one country, financed in another, manufactured in a third, with parts made in still other countries -- and then sold all over the world," Clinton said. "Like it or not, we are becoming more interdependent."

Clinton's speech, delivered to an invitation-only audience of several thousand dignitaries and business people at the National Auditorium here, capped a program that had all the trappings of a rally in support of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo introduced his American counterpart as the man who made NAFTA happen -- an observation that prompted applause.

The warm-up act was a pro-NAFTA film that lasted almost as long as Clinton's 25-minute talk. It featured Nobel laureates Robert J. Samuelson, an economist, and Octavio Paz, famed Mexico poet and writer, interspersed with dozens of workers and business executives on both sides of the border. All profusely praised NAFTA and closer U.S.-Mexico ties.

"President Clinton, we must unite our people, not divide them," said Mexican actress Salma Hayek.

Smiling aides

The film, produced by the Mexican government, left White House aides smiling. "Wouldn't it be nice to have your own Department of Propaganda?" one quipped.

But Clinton's own tone on NAFTA wasn't much different.

"Four years ago, together we led the fight for NAFTA," he said. "Many people in both our countries painted a dark picture of lost jobs and boarded-up factories should NAFTA prevail. Well, they were wrong. NAFTA is working -- working for you and working for the American people."

Clinton and Zedillo both proudly cited trade figures showing that in the three years since NAFTA was adopted, Mexico has closed in on Japan -- which has an economy 15 times as large -- as America's second leading trading partner.

Clinton also touched briefly on the two issues that have dominated the agenda here: drugs and immigration.

Taking care not to point fingers, Clinton nonetheless spoke bluntly. He termed illegal drugs the greatest "scourge" on Earth. VTC Echoing a refrain from the day before, he maintained that both U.S. demand for drugs and the ease with which traffickers operate in Mexico are to blame.

Drugs a 'common problem'

"Drugs are not simply a Mexican problem or an American problem," he said. "They are our common problem."

On immigration, Clinton was interrupted by applause when, after defending America's right to crack down on illegal immigration, he added that the balanced budget agreement he hammered out with Republican congressional leaders last week includes "a significant restoration of welfare benefits to legal immigrants."

Yesterday was Clinton's last day in Mexico before heading to Costa Rica for a summit with Central American leaders.

From here, Clinton, Zedillo and their wives rode helicopters to the town of Tlaxcala, the 500-year-old capital of Mexico's smallest state. There, enthusiastic crowds -- some of them bused in by Zedillo's ruling party and coached on when to cheer -- along the motorcade route cheered and showered the presidential cars with red, white and blue confetti.

Gesturing toward first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the president told his audiences that Mexico meant much to him for personal reasons: "Almost 22 years ago now, Hillary and I came to Mexico for our honeymoon. Mexico won our hearts then. Now, as then, 'mi encanta Mexico' ['Mexico enchants me']."

Most Tlaxcala residents seemed charmed by Clinton as well.

Boy welcomes Clinton

Nine-year-old Aldo Herrera held aloft a hand-colored sign welcoming him to Mexico. When the president autographed it, the boy and his mother hugged each other and started crying tears of joy.

"Buenos dias, Tlaxcala!" Clinton said when he made his way to the town square. "We have come just to celebrate Mexico's people and culture with you."

Clinton and the first lady, both sporting straw hats in the high-altitude sun, shook hands with members of the crowd and then sat as a children's choir sang and danced for them.

During the children's rendition of the tune "Cielito Lindo," Clinton sang along, though uncertainly. Afterward, he gave a thumbs up and told the kids, "Wonderful, great job! Congratulations." None of the children seemed to understand the words, but they certainly got the point -- they made the president happy -- and they left the stage beaming.

A few of their parents were harder to please. Despite the trade figures touted by Clinton and Zedillo, wages and employment are stagnant in Mexico, and scattered jeers and whistles of derision could be heard as the president's remarks were translated into Spanish.

For the most part, however, the president and his entourage seemed to leave Tlaxcala -- and Mexico -- believing they had accomplished what they came for, which was to mend fences and foster a climate of good will.

"We did a lot of good work here," said White House press secretary Mike McCurry.

Pub Date: 5/08/97

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