Mexican policy shifts in Central America

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the Mexican government named an ambassador to El Salvador last week, many Mexicans saw it as a move to strengthen ties with Washington. Mexico's efforts to boost relations with the US-backed Salvadorean government is ``part of the general turnaround in Mexico's Central American policy,'' says Jorge Castaeda, a Mexican journalist and professor at the National University in Mexico City.

Mexican policy toward Central America has changed steadily over the last two years. In the early 1980s, Mexico's policy was almost diametrically opposed to that of the Reagan administration: The Mexicans supported Nicaragua's Sandinista government. They believed that the Salvadorean guerrillas should share power with the Salvadorean government.

Today, as an economic crisis has made Mexico more economically dependent on the US, Mexico's government is trying harder to avoid confrontation with the Reagan administration over Central America. Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado's conservative, business-oriented, economic policies have made him increasingly dependent on the cooperation of the Mexican private sector, which generally opposed a more radical Mexican foreign policy.

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The naming of Federico Urruchua as Mexico's ambassador to El Salvador is seen as a step away from the guerrillas and a step closer to Duarte's government and to US policy. Mexico has not had an ambassador in El Salvador since a Mexican journalist was killed there in 1980, although relations between the two countries were never actually severed.

Mexican officials stress that strengthening ties with Washington was more ``a favorable consequence'' than an actual reason for appointing the ambassador.

A conservative shift in Mexican policy is apparent in the cooling of the de la Madrid administration's support for Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

In 1982 and 1983, Mexico supplied practically 100 percent of Nicaragua's oil. For the first nine months of l985, Mexico supplied only l5 percent, while the Soviet Union supplied the remaining 85 percent.

Mexican analysts say it is unlikely that these figures will change significantly during the last three months of this year.

Mexico has also improved relations with Guatemala's right-wing government. Guatemalan refugees in Mexico have been moved away from the Mexican-Guatemalan border, as the Guatemalan government wished.

Finally, Mexico has largely abandoned its attempt to lead the Contadora Central American peace effort.

This retreat in Mexican policy, according to most analysts, was caused not only by the need to placate the US and the Mexican private sector, but also by the fact that the US was strong enough in Central America to stymie Mexican policy. US economic, military, and political influence on Central American governments like those of Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, was strong enough to block Mexican attempts at getting those countries to come to a peaceful arrangement with the Sandinistas.

Mexico helped found Contadora in the early '80s, in an attempt to counterbalance US influence in the area and bring about a regional settlement that would not be predicated on the overthrow of Nicaragua's Sandinistas and the crushing of the Salvadorean guerrillas.

In order not to arouse the strong nationalistic sentiments of the Mexican public and not to lose face with some of the country's Latin neighbors, Mexico is downplaying this shift in policy.

Mexican Foreign Ministry officials emphasize that oil shipments go to Nicaragua as usual. They stress that the new ambassador will help protect human rights. Most analysts, like Castaeda, say that ``Mexico is attempting to maintain the appearance of continuity in its foreign policy without paying the costs of continuity.''

Mexico previously stressed that the Salvadorean guerrillas represented a legitimate voice for social change. It called for negotiations between the Salvadorean government and the guerrillas, followed by some arrangements for sharing power between the two sides. Only after such negotiations, said Mexico, could there be free elections in which the guerrillas could freely participate.

But today Mexico seems to recognize the legitimacy of Duarte's government and of the 1984 Salvadorean elections. The Mexican government continues to call for negotiations between the government and guerrillas, but the calls for power-sharing have been muted.

All of this represents a political blow to the forces within the Mexican government which had supported Mexico's previous, more radical policy. These forces were headed by the current Mexican Foreign Minister Bernardo Sep'ulveda Amor.

Many Mexican analysts believe that, although Mexico has retreated from its old policy, a new policy has yet to evolve.

``Mexico is in total confusion about its Central American policy,'' says Adolfo Aguilar, a Mexican academic. ``It has no clear idea on what role it should play in promoting dialogue.''

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