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Zedillo’s Big Challenge: The 5 Northern 5 Neighbor : The Mexican president-elect’s foreign policy agenda

When Ernesto Zedillo is sworn in Dec. 1 as Mexico’s president, he will face domestic issues different from those faced by any of his predecessors. But in foreign policy he will confront one big challenge that every Mexican president has confronted--getting along with a friendly but sometimes intimidating northern neighbor.

Fortunately, in dealing with the United States Zedillo can count on a deep reservoir of goodwill built up by his predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the most pro-U.S. president Mexico has had in a generation. Salinas’ willingness to work closely with Washington was exemplified by last year’s historic North American Free Trade Agreement.

NAFTA was significant in its own right, as the initial surge in U.S. trade with Mexico proves, but it was also symbolically important. It showed that a new generation of Mexican political leaders like Salinas and Zedillo was willing to put aside the misunderstanding that often has marked U.S-Mexican relations and work for a mutually beneficial future.

That’s not to say NAFTA is flawless. Indeed, fine-tuning it is high on Zedillo’s agenda. Although large Mexican companies can hold their own against the U.S. firms now free to do business south of the border, Zedillo is concerned that small businesses and farmers may need temporary protection from the buffeting of economic change. Washington should hear him out, because bad business conditions in Mexico add to the flow of Mexicans seeking work in this country.

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Although Mexico’s economy and migration to the United States are closely related, the link too often is ignored. If border-arrest statistics are true indications, half of the U.S. illegal immigration problem could be solved if some way could be found to better regulate the influx of Mexican workers. Despite the fears of those who think those people are coming to the United States to stay, most serious research indicates many migrants return home after working here for a time. Zedillo has expressed an interest in discussing with Washington a cross-border labor agreement similar to NAFTA. The Clinton Administration too should be interested in such a discussion, which among other things might cool the overheated debate in this country over illegal immigration.

Another problem that Zedillo must not lose sight of is drug trafficking. Salinas was admirably candid in publicly acknowledging that illegal drugs are a problem not just for the United States but for Mexico too. Zedillo, during his political campaign, promised to root out official corruption and to make Mexico’s justice system more trustworthy. Both tasks will be made all the harder by the dirty money that drug barons spread around. Zedillo will need all the allies he can get--including U.S. law enforcement.

Finally, Washington should do what it can to help Zedillo make sure that as many of Mexico’s 92 million people as possible benefit from the wealth generated by NAFTA and Mexico’s rapidly modernizing economy. Zedillo, a former minister of education in Salinas’ Cabinet, believes that better schools and other education programs are key to that. Here too Washington should do what it can to assist him, if only out of enlightened self-interest.

After all, Zedillo is at ease with his occasionally overbearing northern neighbor not just because he grew up in the border city of Mexicali but because of the time he spent at Yale on a Mexican government scholarship. Those are two more portents, we hope, of good U.S.-Mexico relations during the Zedillo years.

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