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Despite Points of Contention, Mexico Is Bullish on Bush

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PAUL BUCK/AFP

Bush listens to Mexico's President Vicente Fox speak last summer

On what issues will the Mexicans be hoping to focus President Bush's attention during his first presidential trip abroad?

PETER KATEL: Firstly, better treatment of Mexicans who cross the border to work in the U.S., including a more structured, legal way for them to cross so that they're not risking their lives or being horribly exploited on the American side.

The second concern would be to end the "certification" practice by which the U.S. government each year decides whether or not drug-producing or ľtransshipment countries are drug war allies.

Then there are a whole series of trade issues, which may be less conflictive, but are still important because of the upcoming Summit of the Americas to be held in Quebec in April. For example, a legal panel recently ruled that in terms of NAFTA, the U.S. must allow Mexican trucks to operate on U.S. highways. But how that gets implemented may be a matter for negotiation, on such issues as what standards would be required of Mexican trucks. There are other trade issues, also, such as whether President Bush will make it easier for Mexico to export tomatoes and avocados — which some say would allow more Mexicans to harvest them here, rather than going to the U.S. to harvest them there.

On the diplomatic front, Mexico may be able to help the U.S. in mediating the Colombian conflict. It has also put itself forward on Cuba, distancing itself from the embargo but promising a strong defense on human rights. And that could really help the U.S., because it would be pressure on Havana over human rights outside of the box of U.S.-Cuba conflict.

What is Fox's vision when it comes to Mexicans migrating across the U.S. border?

He has two sets of goals: The ideal he has talked about an open border. But that doesn't seem to be in the offing in the immediate future. More immediately, he wants some sort of system in which more Mexicans could work legally in the U.S. under temporary guest-worker visas. That's really a matter of expanding existing programs, but a number of issues arise, such as whether the legal status of a Mexican worker coming into the U.S. should be tied to a single employer.

How about the war on drugs? Where are the points of friction?

Fox is placing a lot of emphasis on getting rid of the certification mechanism, which he sees as counterproductive — others use the word "humiliating." At the same time, they're not taking a soft approach to stopping the narco-traffickers. Mexico is extremely worried by the inroads made by the big trafficking organizations, and it recently bought sophisticated surveillance aircraft from Brazil to police its southern border. That's a sign that Mexico is taking the threat very seriously. After all, the drug syndicates are a massive problem for Mexico — they've killed a lot of people here.

President Bush has been talking about Mexico's helping the U.S. meet its energy needs. How easily can Fox deliver on this score?

The energy issue gets enormously complicated. For all of Bush's talk about Mexico helping out, that's at best a very long-range scenario. It's not like the solution to the California power crisis lies in any steps that Mexico could take. It already exports oil, and Fox has affirmed that the national oil company, PEMEX, will remain a state-owned company. He did, however, appoint some leading businessmen to a PEMEX advisory board, so he may be hoping to get the best of both worlds — continued public ownership, which is so important to Mexico's politicians, and private sector management.

Mexicans appear to have higher expectations of the Bush administration than they had of the Clinton administration...

It's important to remember that Mexico-U.S. relations are now in the hands of a lot more people than only the two presidents. Everyone from mayors to governors to cabinet secretaries have all sorts of talks and agreements going on with their Mexican counterparts all the time.

But the perception that Bush and Fox share a common background and concerns have definitely given rise to the hope, here, that relations will improve with the new administration. President Clinton didn't show much interest in Latin America or Mexico in particular. President Bush, despite his limitations in foreign policy, does actually understand what Mexico means for Latin America and as a neighbor to the U.S. So there's a lot of optimism over what the Bush administration will mean for Mexico's relationship with Washington.