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Dos and Don'ts for Clinton's Mexico Debut

Like squabbling siblings, strategic partners could use some sensitivity training for a brighter maNana

By Eric Olson / May 5, 1997

President Clinton's visit to Mexico (May 6-7) comes at a critical moment.

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Like two siblings who can't set aside their rivalries, the United States and Mexico have returned to squabbles of old. After six years of relatively harmonious coexistence, the US is again pointing a "holier than thou" finger at Mexico for failing to combat illegal drugs and immigration, while Mexico has retreated to nationalistic clichs, believing it has been victimized by US double standards.

Mr. Clinton's trip could exacerbate the crisis, or be the catalyst for healing a vital strategic relationship. Some don'ts and dos:

*Don't overplay the the US bailout of the Mexican economy after the 1994 peso collapse. In the US it is politically expedient for Clinton to claim victory for his $13 billion bailout plan, especially after criticism from both parties in Congress. But most Mexicans do not see the early repayment, with interest, of US largess as a success - especially since the Mexican government paid with money borrowed from Europeans. The plan may have restored macroeconomic balance to Mexico's economy, but it did not put food on the table for the 19 million Mexicans earning less than $3 per day. Real incomes are below 1980 levels, and unemployment and insolvency are still a reality for many in the middle class and the impoverished lower class. The quickest way for Clinton to ignite nasty anti-American sentiments is to pat himself on the back for the "success" of the Mexican recovery and bailout.

*Don't appear to back the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico's critical midterm elections on July 6. Recent polls show that the opposition is leading in the first-ever race for mayor of Mexico City. This reflects the frustration most Mexicans feel over corruption and an elite that has ruled for the last seven decades. Clinton should resist temptations to make grandiose statements about the integrity and dedication of the current government, once again showing US insensitivity to Mexican efforts to establish a more democratic government.

*Don't appear to blame Mexico for US problems. Recall this spring's spat over the certification process, in which the US unilaterally passed judgment on efforts to combat illegal drugs in other countries. The US's tendency to point the finger at others for its own failures does little to improve bilateral relations - or solve the crises of abuse and addiction that fuel a $49 billion US market for illegal drugs.

How to be a better neighbor

As for the dos, whether in public or private talks, Clinton should:

*Emphasize US efforts to solve the drug consumption problem at home, and describe steps to crack down on drug kingpins in the US. Furthermore, the president should announce his intention to revamp US drug policy, find new ways to increase bilateral and multilateral cooperation, and terminate the annual certification process. Current certification requirements put the president and Congress in an impossible quandary when it comes to an important strategic ally such as Mexico. Strict compliance would suggest that Mexico be decertified. But the far-reaching implications of such a decision would effectively render this strategic relationship impossible.

*Announce an immediate end to US military assistance for Mexican antidrug efforts. Mexico's military commands police forces in two-thirds of the states, and it not only looks for drug traffickers but patrols the streets of Mexico City, directs traffic, and combats petty crime. By encouraging the militarization of Mexican society in the interest of combating narcotics, the US undermines its own long-term goal of a stable civilian democratic regime in Mexico. Clinton should redirect US resources and know-how to building strong civilian judicial institutions in Mexico that are publicly accountable and less likely to become corrupt.