Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, pressing his campaign to win backing for a North American free-trade agreement, appealed Monday to leading California business executives, educators and politicians for support in modernizing Mexico's once-insular economy.
On the third and final day of a four-city barnstorming of California, Salinas pledged to broaden Mexico's ties with the United States and other countries as a way to gain access to world markets.
"We want trade, not aid, to generate more employment-- free trade," Salinas said to sustained applause as he delivered the keynote address in a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of Stanford University.
"We do not want to see the century come to an end and find that new (international) arrangements have been made without us," Salinas told the audience of about 5,000 students, professors and dignitaries gathered in Stanford's oak-encircled Frost Amphitheatre.
Salinas began Monday at Stanford, then delivered a luncheon speech in San Francisco before flying to Los Angeles in the afternoon. Later in the day he toured a cultural center on historic Olvera Street and joined inaugural festivities at a landmark exhibition of 30 centuries of Mexican art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He also met with the County Board of Supervisors and city officials.
The Mexican president's activities were designed largely to woo Mexican-American support for the free-trade agreement, mollify the concerns Americans have about the pact and defuse opposition from U.S. environmental groups.
At Stanford, in San Francisco, and again in Los Angeles, demonstrators protesting human rights abuses and alleged electoral fraud in Mexico greeted Salinas. A small group heckled briefly during his morning speech at Stanford. Many of the protesters came from the Democratic Revolutionary Party, an opposition force in Mexico.
Then, about 60 people who accused the Mexican government of hurting the environment marched outside a San Francisco hotel where the president lunched with the Commonwealth Club and the World Affairs Council.
The demonstrators held aloft two huge blue balloons in the shape of dolphins to symbolize the killing of sea mammals by Mexican tuna fishers, a practice that has led to a U. S. ban on Mexican tuna. The protesters claimed that pollution and other environmental troubles are likely to worsen if the free-trade agreement is approved.
Salinas, meeting later with editors, executives and reporters at the Los Angeles Times, sought to affirm his government's interest in environmental concerns.
"There is a new environmentalist culture in Mexico," Salinas said, sounding a theme he reiterated throughout the trip. "Economic recovery can go hand in hand with protection of the environment."
Salinas came to California to promote the trade agreement, an economic opening on which the Mexican president is pinning much of his broader agenda of political and economic policies aimed at modernizing his country.
"The governments of our countries view the agreement as a driving force for international trade," Salinas said in his San Francisco luncheon speech, "and not as a closed bloc that would arouse apprehension in other countries and (cause) a trade war that would benefit no one.
"Underlying the agreement," he continued, "is a new, broad, long-term vision that holds the promise of a better world, a world characterized by respect and cooperation, a world that will share resources and combine efforts to raise levels of well-being."
Salinas and supporters of free trade maintain that easing the flow of capital, goods and technology will provide a boost to economies on both sides of the border and discourage illegal immigration to the United States by creating more jobs in Mexico.
But opponents fear that U.S. companies will move south of the border in search of cheap labor and lax regulations, especially rules governing industrial waste.
As part of his mission to drum up support for the plan, Salinas seemed intent during his visit on reassuring California's politicians and businessmen that Mexico can be trusted as a trade partner.
"There is tremendous interest here in having a look at what the president of Mexico is like," James L. Coplan, membership director of the Commonwealth Club, said of the well-heeled audience of 1,200 bankers, business leaders and others attending Salinas' luncheon address in San Francisco.
"They are interested in his ideas and (in) hearing how Mexico is doing economically."
Improving Mexico's image on issues ranging from human rights and drug trafficking to pro-democracy political reform is considered crucial to winning support for the trade agreement.
The proposed agreement, which would lift tariffs and ease trade restrictions throughout the North American continent, has drawn fire from environmentalists, labor and farm groups. In addition, the lingering U. S. recession threatens to spell trouble for the agreement, which is enthusiastically supported by the Bush Administration.
Salinas' visit to California came as part of a full-scale public relations campaign launched by Mexico earlier this year to win support for free trade. Mexico has hired several high-powereS. publicity firms and plans to spend $100 million to promote the agreement and counter criticism.
At Stanford, Salinas again sounded the environmental theme, citing the numerous species of turtles that flourish in Mexican waters. He switched to English to make his point--a taboo in Mexico's nationalistic presidential politics before Salinas.
The Salinas government last week had announced it was outlawing tuna fishing practices that caught dolphins and would place inspectors on fishing boats.
In his remarks in the Bay Area and on Saturday in San Diego, the first stop in the presidential tour, Salinas also described his government's campaign to crack down on drug traffickers and put a stop to human rights abuses.
Two human rights groups--Amnesty International and Americas Watch--issued scathing reports this month that accused Mexican police of committing torture and other abuses "with impunity." In apparent response, the Mexican government announced the arrest last week of a police chief accused of being the mastermind of the 1990 murder of a human rights activist.
Salinas also sought to make overtures to Mexicans who live in the United States and to Chicanos.
"We want a closer relationship with (the Mexican-American) community because they have enormous pride . . . in their heritage. . . , " Salinas said at The Times. "I believe that the (free-trade) agreement will mean an additional opportunity for the Mexican-American community to do business with Mexico."
The potential political clout of Mexicans and Chicanos in the United States has been recognized in recent years by a growing number of Mexican politicians. Leaders of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party--as well as their political opponents--have been making campaign-style stops in Los Angeles in the last few years in search of financial and moral backing.
"It has dawned on Mexican politicians very recently that it is important to have . . . California's very large Mexican population . . . on their side," said Nora Lustig, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, "both for Mexican and U. S. policy purposes."
But for all the talk about reaching out to Mexican residents of the United States and Chicanos, Salinas had little contact with anyone other than the elite. Except for the Los Angeles meeting at The Times, he was kept at considerable distance from the press, with aides supplying occasional, sketchy briefings on the substance of his conversations.
In Palo Alto on Sunday, he met with about 300 Mexican students and Stanford alumni, gathered in the ballroom of a Hyatt hotel. Two handpicked students offered speeches, and then Salinas spoke. No questions were allowed.
As Salinas delivered his comments, three members of the audience silently held up small signs that they had smuggled into the room: " Alto a la represion " (Stop the repression); "Clean elections in Mexico!" "Stop human rights abuses!"
If Salinas noticed the signs, he did not mention them.
"Since no actual dialogue was permitted, we had to do it this way," one of the Mexican-born students, Claudia Sheinbaum, said in explaining her method of protest.
California is seen as crucial to the free-trade pact for several reasons. Two of the groups most strongly opposed to the agreement--environmentalists and farmers--are well-entrenched in the state. California's large congressional delegation was almost evenly divided on the issue when a related vote came up in the House of Representatives earlier this year.
The Mexican government also appears concerned that the stubborn recession gripping the U. S. economy could jeopardize American acceptance of the free-trade agreement.
The issue was discussed during a 90-minute working session Sunday between Salinas and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at Stanford's Hoover House. Canada already has a free-trade agreement with the United States. Mulroney was in Palo Alto to attend Stanford's centennial.