To George W. Bush, Greeks may be Grecians, and the leaders of India, Pakistan and Chechnya may go unnamed. But when it comes to Mexico, even obscure officials are familiar territory.
“Tomas is terrific, worked with him a lot,” Bush volunteers of Tomas Yarrington, governor of Tamaulipas, a Mexican state that shares a lengthy border with Texas. “You know Patricio?” he asks an observer, referring to Patricio Martinez Garcia, the governor of Chihuahua, another Mexican border state.
For a man with a reputation as a foreign policy neophyte, Bush’s fluency in things Mexican may come as a jolt. But as governor of a state that exported $41 billion worth of goods to Mexico last year across 1,200 miles of shared border, Bush may be the most Mexico-savvy politician ever to run for president.
Critics contend that Bush’s record with Mexico, characterized by frequent visits and easy friendships with the country’s power brokers, is heavier on style than substance. And it is true that he has done little to tackle the toughest long-term issues on the border: drug trafficking, illegal immigration and pollution.
But a close examination of Bush’s years as Texas governor shows he has forged a substantial record on cross-border issues. His fixation on what he calls “missed opportunities” in the region suggests that U.S. policy in Latin America, particularly trade policy, is likely to undergo a considerable transformation if he becomes president.
Bush said in a recent interview that if he is elected, one of his first foreign policy initiatives would be to revive efforts to create the hemisphere-wide trade bloc first proposed by his father, former President Bush. The idea has languished during the Clinton administration.
The proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas would have 800 million consumers and a combined gross domestic product of $10 trillion. It would be the largest single market in the world, opening up the vast Latin American continent to the entry of competitively priced U.S. goods.
Bush and other proponents argue that the pact would spur economic growth in the United States and modernization and democratization throughout the Americas. It would make it no more difficult, in terms of duties and quotas, to sell an Ohio-built washing machine in Brazil than it is to sell the same product in Indiana.
But a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone is fiercely opposed by labor unions and environmentalists, who say it would spur U.S. companies to move their operations to Latin America, much as some firms have opened factories in Mexico since the North American Free Trade Agreement was adopted. They also contend it would undermine protection of worker rights and the environment.
Governor Supports Mexico on Trucking
Addressing a more immediate dispute, Bush said that as president he would move immediately to carry out a key NAFTA provision to permit Mexican trucking firms to operate on U.S. roads.
Implementation of the provision is being fought by the administration, which says Mexico has not adequately addressed concerns about the safety of its trucks. The issue has created a major rift with Mexico, which accuses the United States of reneging on a key element of the 1994 trade accord.
“This is something I know a lot about,” Bush said of the region in a recent interview on his campaign plane. “This is something I do feel comfortable with. And that’s going to make it a lot easier to get things done.”
Indeed, in his five years as governor, Bush has done far more than learn the names of Mexican officials. He secured money to build the bridges, highways and other infrastructure needed to handle the booming trade between Texas and Mexico.
Bush championed a program to help Mexico fight tuberculosis along the border. He arranged to lend Mexico water when it was crippled by drought, provided firefighters when it was ravaged by forest fires and contributed expertise that led to a small but real decrease in pollution on the border.
On the international stage, Bush bucked Republican Party orthodoxy during the anti-immigrant era of then-California Gov. Pete Wilson, condemning calls to cut services to immigrants. He worked against the tide in Congress by lobbying for the administration’s 1995 bailout of the Mexican peso.
In so doing, Bush has forged what might best be termed an independent foreign policy, not only with Mexico but with Latin America as a whole.
Some observers believe that, if he is elected president, his familiarity with the region might bring it out of the shadows of U.S. foreign policy.
“For a candidate sometimes accused of not having much of a foreign policy, Latin America provides him the opportunity to say, ‘I do have experience. I am from Texas, and I’ve seen the numbers. I’ve seen it work,’ ” said Georges Fauriol, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Bush’s unequivocal support of freer trade has boosted his popularity among business groups. It also stands to help some of his biggest political benefactors, including Tom Hicks, who with his wife has donated $95,000 to George W. Bush campaigns, and Ken Lay, who with his wife has donated $122,500. Hicks has extensive business interests in Argentina and Brazil, and Lay in Argentina.
But Bush’s public embrace of Mexico and other Latin American countries as equal partners has also helped him win friends among traditionally Democratic-voting Latinos in Texas. He won 49% of the Texas Latino vote in his 1998 reelection.
His Strategy Seeks to Engage Gore on Issue
So far, Bush has not sought to publicize his stance on Latin America on the presidential campaign trail, mentioning it mainly to Latino audiences and in interviews with the Latino press. But his advisors say in coming months he will seek to draw his differences with Vice President Al Gore on Latin America into the mainstream, a strategy that could gain him additional votes among the large and growing Latino electorate nationwide.
He may be on the way already. National polls show Bush enjoys a similar popularity among Latinos nationally, leading Gore by 11 percentage points in a recent survey.
Bush is not the first Texas governor to make friends in Mexico. Many of his initiatives build on those of his predecessors, who have recognized that Mexico’s consumer market and investment opportunities are important to the Texas economy and that problems in Mexico can easily spill over the border.
As a presidential candidate, Bush has sought to draw on that experience to push a larger free-trade agenda, one that differs significantly from that of Gore.
So far in his presidential campaign, Gore has not outlined a specific Latin America policy. And while he was involved in working for passage of NAFTA, in recent years Gore has muted his support of free trade in the Americas for fear of risking union backing.
“The vision of NAFTA is not just Mexico and Texas, or Mexico and America,” Bush said. “The vision of NAFTA is a hemispheric free-trade agreement where goods travel, flow freely and where the hemisphere is more able to compete either with a European union or an Asian union.”
One of his top foreign policy advisors, Bob Zoellick, was former undersecretary of State under President Bush and one of the architects of NAFTA.
“Free trade is the critical cornerstone and catalyst for relationships in the hemisphere,” Zoellick said. “Bush knows this cold. And he wants to use that knowledge to make his mark.”
Critics say Bush’s interest in Latin America is mainly focused on what the countries of the region can do for American business.
“It’s not that Latin America is not on his agenda. It’s that to the extent it’s on his agenda, it is through the lens of what’s good for business, not what’s needed to reform the stark problems of the very troubled border region,” said Chandler Stolt, a professor of economics at the U.S.-Mexican Studies Program at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s certainly not about compassion. His compassionate thing doesn’t seem to extend that far.”
Bush says his record as governor shows he has reached out to Mexico when it matters. He cites the program to help Mexico fight tuberculosis: The Texas commissioner of health secured $3 million from Congress for the program; an additional $13 million is in the pipeline.
He points to the program initiated by his administration to reduce hazardous waste along the border: By last year, participating border industries had reduced their generation of hazardous waste by 9,600 tons, according to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.
Within Mexico, it was Bush’s support after the 1995 peso crash that won him the most friends. At the time, the country’s economy was in free fall, and Mexico’s ruling party was darkened by the shadow of corruption.
“It was not a very easy time,” said Antonio Ocaranza, a former spokesman for Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. “We didn’t have anybody else who would agree to come to Mexico that year besides the Prince of Luxembourg. I remember that George Bush had a press conference in Los Pinos [the Mexican presidential residence] and he said, ‘I trust in this government, and I trust that Mexico will come out stronger.’ We in Mexico will never forget it.”
Bush has drawn on the reservoir of goodwill repeatedly. When Mexico threatened to impose stiff fees on people driving cars into the country, Bush lobbied top Mexican leaders to rescind the proposal. When it sought to limit the amount of purchases Mexican consumers could make in Texas, Bush complained to Zedillo.
Gun-Toting Youths Draw Bush’s Attention
When Mexico wanted to hike taxes on maquiladoras, the mostly foreign-owned assembly plants in Mexico’s border region, Bush again objected.
Mexico acquiesced in all three instances, responding not only to Bush’s entreaties but also to Clinton administration objections and domestic political pressures.
And when a number of young Texans were jailed in Mexico for strolling across the border carrying guns into the country, Bush went to Yarrington, the governor of Tamaulipas, to see what could be worked out.
“He was really worried about this. I explained to him there was not much I could do, because they were breaking the laws of our country,” Yarrington said.
“He said, ‘Well, what if you put up big signs in English at the border to warn them?’ We did, and the problem has diminished. There is a really solid relationship between us. He understands that our two states constitute a region and that what affects one will affect the other.”
Times staff writer Judy Pasternak contributed to this story.