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Borderline diplomacy

DOMESTIC POLITICS AND international diplomacy can be a poisonous mix, as California Speaker of the House Fabian Nunez discovered last week in Mexico City. While his naive assumptions made for some clumsy politics, he deserves credit for visiting the capital of the state’s most important trading partner, something Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has yet to do, and he may even have helped -- albeit inadvertently -- to increase U.S.-Mexican understanding.

Nunez’s main rationale for his trip is inarguable; Mexico’s importance to California’s economy can hardly be overstated. Mexico has been this state’s largest trading partner since 1999, buying more than $17 billion in goods from California in 2004. From 1988 to 2002, California’s exports to Mexico grew an average of 12.8% annually. California, in turn, imported $23.6 billion in Mexican goods in 2004 -- and the total so far this year is $12.4 billion. In 2004, this trade supported 177,000 California jobs.

Politically, however, Nunez (D-Los Angeles) was less sure-footed. He seemed to think he would receive a hero’s welcome in Mexico. But he arrived just days after calling for Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency on the border, a call that was wildly unpopular in Mexico. President Vicente Fox and the Mexican press took Nunez to task on the issue, and the speaker was forced to defend himself, explaining that he’d only meant to send Washington a message.

Nunez is right that California’s Republican governor should be pressing the Bush administration to focus on immigration reform. But the situation along the California-Mexico border is not akin to the chaos in parts of Arizona and New Mexico. The call for a state of emergency, which was never more than a political gimmick in the United States, allowed the Mexican media to portray Nunez as anti-Mexican.

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While Nunez may not have been pleased with the reaction, his visit did serve a valuable purpose by helping to clarify an increasing point of confusion in relations between the two countries: the misunderstanding in Mexico about the nature of the Mexican American community in the United States.

For quite some time now, the Mexican government has considered Mexican Americans a natural lobbying group for its interests. Even Washington has fallen for this misconception, as when presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton encouraged the Mexican government to rally the support of the Mexican American community behind the North American Free Trade Agreement. Yet American politicians of Mexican ancestry, such as Nunez, are not necessarily Mexico’s natural allies or intermediaries in its dealings with the United States.

Nunez was wrong to call for the state of emergency and may even have deserved the unkind reception. But if this episode shows that a Mexican American politician can be critical of our southern neighbor, then it may have served a useful purpose.


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