SAN CRISTOBAL, MEXICO — SAN CRISTOBAL, Mexico - In a folksy meeting with a fellow world leader and rancher, President Bush paid a visit yesterday to President Vicente Fox of Mexico, during which both men pledged to work as partners on such issues as immigration, drug trafficking and energy.
The two presidents met for several hours on Fox's sprawling ranch here, in cowboy boots without jackets or ties. They reached no specific agreements, but both men spoke warmly of their plans for cooperation and of their nations' common hopes.
"Geography has made us neighbors," Bush said. "Cooperation and respect will make us partners. And the promise of the partnership was renewed and reinvigorated today."
Bush's first foreign trip as president was upstaged by air attacks on radar installations in Iraq carried out yesterday by U.S. and British warplanes. Bush tried to play down the strikes, which he authorized Thursday, saying they were part of routine enforcement of the "no-fly" zones in Iraq.
But as he stood alongside Fox on the lawn of the ranch, Bush was peppered with questions from reporters about the attack, clearly diverting attention from the summit. Even Fox was asked whether the attack had cast a shadow over the meeting. Trying to put the focus back on the summit, Fox said, "We are full of confidence that we can see the future with a more optimistic approach as of today's meeting."
Still, U.S. and Mexican officials portrayed the meeting as an incremental step toward eventually rewriting polices that affect both countries. Bush expressed particular willingness to work jointly in stemming the flow of drugs. That has been an issue that raised tensions in the past when the United States lectured Mexico on its failure to aggressively pursue drug-traffickers.
Yesterday, Bush struck a more sympathetic tone, saying: "The main reason why drugs are shipped through Mexico to the United States is because United States citizens use drugs. And our nation must do a better job of educating our citizenry about the dangers and evils of drug use."
The two presidents also directed their Cabinets to hold formal discussions on immigration policy. The goals will include providing better conditions for Mexican migrant workers in the United States.
Fox and Bush released a joint statement, saying, "There should be an orderly framework for migration which ensures humane treatment, legal security and dignified labor conditions."
Fox has called for the United States to relax its immigration laws to allow Mexican laborers to cross the border, find jobs and perhaps gain permanent residence.
Kevin Middlebrook, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican studies at the University of California at San Diego, said that the agreement to work closely together on immigration marks a major step forward, given that the two countries avoided the topic as the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement was being brokered.
"Even though they're just at a study level, it's a significant change," Middlebrook said.
The Mexican president said that "this is not a meeting in which decisions or details are going to be reached" but added that "certainly there is a new attitude; there is a new way of approaching things, much more positive approach to things on this issue of migration."
Creating a democracy
Fox is laboring to fashion Mexico as a true democracy that can be a leading voice on the world stage. When Fox became president in December, he ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
During the one-party government, Mexico was often devastated by government corruption, and in part for that reason, had trouble building credibility and good will among leading democracies.
In discussing drugs yesterday, Bush said the new Mexican president should be given the chance to work as a dutiful partner in cracking down on drug-trafficking before the United States considers apportioning blame.
"I trust your president," Bush said. "He's the kind of man you can look in the eye and know he's shooting straight with you."
Bush has a chance to make good on that statement. Congress is considering whether to exempt Mexico from drug "certification," a process whereby the U.S. government determines whether a nation is enforcing anti-drug laws satisfactorily. Mexico considers the process humiliating, and Fox wants it ended.
Bush has not taken a position, saying he wants to study the issue. But his comments about giving Fox leeway to advance his policies could be a hint that he may be ready to see the certification process erased for Mexico.
The two presidents also discussed how their nations could work together to deal with energy shortages in both countries.
Experts have said the best hope will be for the presidents to agree to let private U.S. companies invest in the state-controlled energy industry in Mexico to boost output. No decisions were announced at the summit.
Partners and friends
Aside from specific policy, both nations celebrated yesterday as an achievement in the fashioning of Fox and Bush as partners and friends who regard one another with respect.
The presidents strived to show their close relationship. Upon arriving in Mexico, Bush stopped in San Cristobal, near Fox's ranch, to greet Fox's mother at her hacienda. "You look great," he told the gray-haired woman, seated on a couch on her back patio.
As soon as Bush and Fox arrived at the ranch, they shed their jackets, ties and formality. They spent the rest of the day wearing cowboy boots, loosened collars and gleaming cowboy-style belt buckles. At one point, Bush stopped to pet Fox's horse.
Fox said he wanted Bush to consider the ranch "his house," and, speaking for a few moments in English, said: "President, you know that we consider you a friend of Mexico, a friend of Mexican people, and a friend of mine."
There seemed to be a mood of pride yesterday in this area of Mexico, two hours north of Mexico City, that an American president had put so much stock in his relationship with their president, visiting here before any other country.
As the motorcade carrying both presidents traveled 30 miles from the airport outside the city of Leon to San Cristobal, the route was lined with placards showing flags of both countries and a depiction of two hands joined. Many stood alongside the road, waving American and Mexican flags.
One service station hung a sign that read, with exuberance if not perfect accuracy, "The staff at this gas station welcomes U.S.A. President George G. W. Bush."
Fox and Bush seemed relaxed and in high spirits throughout the day, even after reports about Iraq surfaced. Bush was asked if he likes broccoli. (His father is known to hate the vegetable.) The issue arose because Fox has a broccoli garden on his ranch.
Bush first gave a "so-so" sign with his hands, but then pointed his thumb downward.
"Make it cauliflower," Bush said, offering a thumbs-up.
In a sign that the Bush-Fox friendship may endure, Fox grows cauliflower on his ranch, too.