Clinton's Mexico Trip Offers Fence-Mending Opportunity

When President Clinton visits Mexico next month jeers may drown out cheers, for these are hardly the best of times between Americans and Mexicans. The reasons are many and emotional, and this trip, Clinton's first to Mexico, holds little hope of erasing them.

Under American tradition, the visit is overdue. Beginning with Harry Truman, every president had gone to Mexico in his first term, and these visits were unfailingly warm. But that's not likely this time. A dark panoply of issues--the drug war, trade problems, corruption charges, immigration crackdowns--has gathered over the presidential mission.

Mexico's frustrations with Washington began in 1993, during the North American Free Trade Agreement debate, when opponents of the pact painted Mexico and its leaders in disparaging terms at best. Then came the anti-Mexican rhetoric of California's Proposition 187 in 1994 and the rough language of the 1996 presidential campaign. Much of the heat was felt by Mexican Americans, tarred by the issue of illegal immigration and concerned that tightened immigration laws ignore or belittle the contributions Mexican immigrants have made to America.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress' authority to "certify" or "decertify" a country for its record in fighting the international drug trade soured relations not only in Mexico City's presidential palace but out on the streets as well.

That's the Mexican view of the relationship. North of the border, Americans have not been hesitant to air their grievances: the pro-Mexico imbalance of trade under the North American Free Trade Agreement, illegal immigration, the drug scandals--every time Mexico's transition toward a full democracy appears to gather momentum, a killing, kidnapping or revolt seems to knock it off the rails.

Perhaps the biggest irritant for many American sectors is the perception that Mexico is not doing enough to crack down on the corruption bred in 68 years of rule by a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The debilitating effects have spread into law enforcement agencies, the army and other Mexican institutions and have contributed to the growth of drug trafficking.

The fact that the United States does not speak about these problems with a single voice has confused many Mexicans: Is America's true sentiment being expressed by Ernest Hollings when he stands in the Senate and calls for the destabilization of Mexico?

In May, President Clinton will have an opportunity to emphasize to the Mexicans that democracy is a messy political system in which everybody can speak his or her mind. But his belated visit to our southern neighbor will require much more than that. Support of NAFTA would help, though it's a difficult political message for Clinton to deliver. In July, he must submit a NAFTA review to Congress. Labor-backed opposition will be strong.

On the Mexican side, nothing could send a more positive message north than a crackdown on corruption and the arrest of major drug lords. That could open the door to a U.S. initiative that would pose the drug issue in hemispheric terms, one that focuses on partnership. Every player would have to get tough.

Like any neighbors, Americans and Mexicans need to work on the relationship. Clinton's trip presents an opportunity. A dark panoply of issues--the drug war, trade problems, corruption charges, immigration crackdowns--has gathered over the presidential mission.

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