U.S.-Mexican affairs expected to improve


WASHINGTON - Educated at Harvard, fluent in English, once employed by Coca-Cola, Mexican president-elect Vicente Fox knows the United States well and has pledged to address corruption, drug smuggling and other areas of U.S. concern.

But while Latin America specialists expect the U.S.-Mexican relationship to thrive under Fox's administration - especially at first - they caution Washington not to expect quick improvement on the issues that divide the two nations.

"The major problems in the bilateral agenda are unlikely to change very rapidly," said Kevin Middlebrook, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California at San Diego. "These are long-standing problems - some of them with roots deep in U.S. society."

Fox is a right-of-center free-marketeer who, along with his National Action Party, has pledged to narrow the income gap between rich and poor and boost education spending. His landmark victory Sunday ends seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

"I think there will be a honeymoon in U.S.-Mexican relations for at least a year," said M. Delal Baer, chairman of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The PRI, fairly or unfairly, had lost a fair amount of credibility and affection in some Washington circles," Baer said.

President Clinton praised the election yesterday as "the freest and fairest in the nation's history" and said he looked forward to working with Fox.

At the top of the list of U.S. grievances against Mexico, along with drug trafficking, is illegal immigration. High unemployment and low wages in Mexico push millions of unlawful migrants across the border to compete for jobs with Americans and to use U.S. social services.

Fox's marquee immigration proposal is vehemently opposed by U.S. officials: amending the North American Free Trade Agreement to allow the unimpeded flow of workers between the nations.

Some analysts describe the idea as an effective piece of campaign populism rather than a serious policy measure.

But they cite it as evidence that a new ruling party in Mexico will not necessarily generate a long-term improvement in U.S.-Mexican relations.

In fact, Fox's U.S. connections were something of a liability in the election campaign.

Opponent Francisco Labastida accused him of being in the pocket of Mexico's northern neighbor. As a result, Fox may see a need to demonstrate his independence from Washington, said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico specialist for CSIS.

"He will have to maintain a certain arms-length distance," said Peschard-Sverdrup.

"He's pragmatic enough that he will maintain a fine balance on making progress with the United States on issues that mutually affect them while at the same time addressing the Mexicans' sentiment for their own sovereignty," he said.

U.S. officials hope Fox will be more vigorous in rooting out corruption and prosecuting drug kingpins than his predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, whose term ends Dec. 1.

But they expect him to continue, and perhaps accelerate, the privatization of government businesses and other economic reforms that Zedillo initiated.

Mexico's economy has made an impressive recovery from a recession in the mid-1990s, and analysts expect Fox to keep working to attract foreign investment by boosting shareholder rights and promoting the rule of law.

"There may be a new emphasis on income distribution, but this is a reasonably pro-business conservative party that's taking over," said C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics in Washington.

One indirect favor Fox could do for Washington is to ensure that Mexico's economic recovery continues, analysts said.

"If we help Mexico to create jobs in Mexico, most of the people will stay there," said Otto Reich, former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and an international business consultant.

In the long run, the simple fact of Fox's historic election may do more for U.S.-Mexico relations than any policies he could devise, enthusiastic officials suggested yesterday.

"It can't mean anything but good in terms of U.S. interests," former Secretary of State James A. Baker told the Associated Press. Baker was in Mexico monitoring the election for the International Republican Institute.

"The United States is interested in promoting democracy around the world, and this is the first peaceful transfer of power at the ballot box, in a closely contested election, in 71 years," he said.

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