Gavin to Quit as Envoy to Mexico : Tells of New Challenges After Five Years in Post

Times Staff Writer

John Gavin, the former film star whose unconventional political activism as U.S. ambassador to Mexico triggered both criticism and praise, said Monday that he is leaving the post to return to private life.

Gavin’s surprise resignation, effective May 15, was conveyed in a letter to President Reagan, a good friend and former Hollywood colleague who appointed Gavin to the ambassadorship nearly five years ago.

Gavin’s letter, read to reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, said his tour has been “a splendid challenge” but that “I have accomplished the major task you set for me,” and the time has come to “meet new challenges” in the private sector.

In a telephone interview, embassy spokesman Vince Hovanec said that Gavin “has not been willing so far” to specify his plans. However, he noted that Gavin had extensive business dealings in Latin America for 10 years before becoming ambassador.


Gavin declined to be interviewed but, through his secretary, denied a report that he was among a group of investors seeking to purchase Los Angeles TV station KMEX and 12 other U.S. Spanish-language stations controlled by a Mexican television magnate.

Reviewing Gavin’s tenure, a Latin American specialist, Susan Kaufman Purcell of the Council on Foreign Relations, called him “a controversial ambassador because he made no bones saying what was on his mind.” She added that “he broke with the old rules,” publicly refuting Mexican criticism of the United States on trade and other issues instead of filing diplomatic protests in private.

Much of the criticism of Gavin came from the Mexican press, which at the outset ridiculed his acting background and at one point accused him of interfering in Mexican politics--a charge that Gavin called “scurrilous.”

‘Conspiracy’ Charges


Gavin’s most serious clash with the Mexican press occurred in 1983, when he attended a dinner given by the business-oriented National Action Party, prompting charges that he was engaging in a “conspiracy” against the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Gavin, pointing out that U.S. officials had entertained officials of the ruling party at lunch that same day, said there was no intention to interfere in Mexico’s internal politics. “But,” he added, “we do have every interest in maintaining the friendliest possible relations with Mexicans from all legitimate political walks of life.”

On the other hand, the conservative actor-turned-diplomat won high marks Monday from Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente), a liberal who represents a large Latino district in East Los Angeles.

Noting that Gavin spoke fluent Spanish and had broad training in Latin American affairs, Torres said: “I found him to be very professional. He wasn’t a career Foreign Service officer, but, I’ll tell you, I saw him in action and I’d rate him first class.”


Economics Degree

Torres, who pointed out that Gavin has an economics degree from Stanford, praised his “dealing with the oil crisis in Mexico,” his “understanding of the international debt question,” his “tremendous performance after the earthquake” that killed thousands in Mexico last September and his handling of the “very sensitive extradition” of a Mexican police official implicated in the murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique S. Camarena last year.

Torres said that Gavin’s biggest plus with Mexicans was his access to Reagan. “The world knew he had the ear of Reagan because they were fellow actors,” Torres said.

Georgetown University government professor John Bailey, who lived in Mexico during part of Gavin’s tenure, said he “wasn’t sure yet” whether Gavin’s unusually high profile was effective.


“Even before he took up his post, he made a comment that the ... system of rural cooperatives was not very productive,” Bailey said. “It was a very sensitive topic and he just kept up that kind of outspokenness.”

‘Unproductive Dynamic’

In addition, Bailey said, Gavin publicly advocated “reforms that most people agreed were inevitable--a more open attitude about foreign investment, for example--but his remarks almost had the effect of slowing these reforms down. It made the Mexican government more defensive. It was kind of an unproductive dynamic.”

Embassy spokesman Hovanec said that Gavin “tried very hard to raise the level of discussion between the United States and Mexico, to move from the paternalistic we-vs.-they idea to dealing as equals, in which there was a mature give-and-take. He prided himself on speaking frankly. . . . He was not one to take criticism sitting down. He corrected errors but always with tact.”


In his letter to Reagan, Gavin emphasized this maturity theme in describing his accomplishments, saying: “We have affirmed the principle that a mature relationship between nations--as between individuals--can only flourish in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”

Line in Commercial

Gavin’s line in a TV liquor commercial before he became ambassador--"Have you tried the test of maturity?"--triggered endless plays on words in the Mexican press as it ridiculed his nomination.

“Perhaps we should name Cantinflas to Washington,” a Mexican official remarked sourly, referring to the Mexican comedian who played the part of Passepartout in the film version of “Around the World in 80 Days.”


Purcell recalled that when Reagan tapped Gavin to be ambassador, “many of my Mexican friends said: ‘That’s an insult, how can you send us an actor?’ I said: ‘You don’t understand, you should take it as the highest compliment. The President of the United States, who thinks highly of himself, chooses someone who is like himself.’ ”

The ridicule endured by Gavin was similar to that heard by Reagan himself--and eventually overcome--when he ran for governor of California and for President.