Clinton, Zedillo Seek Common Ground : Both presidents will gain by stabilizing bilateral relations

President Ernesto Zedillo is in Washington today, telling the government that Mexico is putting its financial house in order and inviting U.S. political leaders and investors to trust in his country's recovery.

The meeting could benefit both President Clinton and Zedillo. To prove his point, Zedillo will argue that last winter's $12.5-billion bailout was neither charity nor foreign aid, but a line of credit that produces interest ($400 million so far) and that the debt is being serviced ahead of its repayment schedule, with $700 million already returned.

Clinton courageously put the package together when Mexico fell into financial crisis. Now Mexico needs to prove to foreign markets that it makes long-term sense to invest in Mexico again. Clinton, meanwhile, should benefit from these talks by showing that he was right in lending Mexico a helping hand, stabilizing the economy of an important neighbor.

Both presidents are likely to raise the NAFTA flag as well, since trade between the two partners has grown 17% in the pact's first year. NAFTA performed as a safety net during the December financial crisis and should receive some credit for the fast recovery. Despite Mexico's current recession, U.S. exports to Mexico now exceed pre-NAFTA levels.

Nonetheless, the agreement remains controversial because there are both costs and benefits that the two countries can attribute to it.

But what remains the case is that during 1994, Mexico was the second-ranking commercial partner for the United States; after the December crisis and until today, Mexico retains the same ranking.

For personal political reasons, both presidents have to set a solid, unequivocal tone for the bilateral relationship in this reunion. Otherwise, the timing for these talks could be negative for both leaders. Due to growing interdependence between both countries, Mexico has become an issue in the U.S. presidential election and politicians like Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot most likely will use the occasion to bash Mexico in the media.

Zedillo must understand that the best way to calm cross-border American rhetoric is to put his own political house in order. For instance, it does not build trust north of the border to permit the type of scandalous political turmoil that has swept Mexico for the past two years.

The still-unresolved assassinations of church and government leaders are a thorn in Mexico's soul. The judicial system must abandon smoke and mirrors and produce credible results in those investigations.

Nor is open hostility between the past and present administrations in Mexico the right way to build faith among Mexico's foreign friends and investors.

Along with burnishing its political image with practical, open politics, the Zedillo administration must face squarely the two issues that touch ordinary Americans: the expansion and impunity of the drug cartels in Mexico and their corrupting association with political and judicial officials. It will take money and manpower and some hard political decisions, but demonstrable success will begin to repair the image that Mexico needs if it's going to deal with America on an even footing.

Immigration is a less clear-cut issue but an equally important one, and the two countries clearly have some differences on the question.

It is encouraging, however, that Clinton and Zedillo are seeking common ground in well-based ideas like the newly created Mexico-U.S. Binational Commission on Migration.

In the coming political season, divisive issues will surely rise. But geography has put the two nations together, and, ultimately, both must strive for understanding.

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