Bush abroad: a cowboy summit

Bush and Fox saddle up to search for common ground between US, Mexico.

When a cowboy rode onto someone else's ranch for the first time in the Old West, suspicion often greeted his arrival. But when President Bush digs his boot heels into the red earth of Rancho San Cristobal in Mexico tomorrow, he'll be received by Mexican President Vicente Fox as an old friend.

That's just what the cowboy presidents say they are: two amigos with a common vision of prosperous relations for two countries that are deeply connected on many levels.

Personal chemistry can be a crucial ingredient for diplomatic relations. And there seems to be plenty to build on. One president is a former oil man from Texas, the other a former Coca-Cola executive from central Mexico's Guanajuato state. Both are openly religious and love spending time on their ranches.

The two will saddle up (Bush on a mare named Maximiliana, Fox on his stallion El Rey) and tour Mr. Fox's working ranch tomorrow morning.

Bush will use his first (albeit brief) foreign trip as president to demonstrate a command of foreign affairs - in the hemisphere he considers a priority (see story, page 2). Fox will use his impeccable democratic credentials - as the man who ended 70 years of single-party rule - to put on display a Mexico whose president can now stand shoulder-to-shoulder (in this case, hat brim-to-hat brim) with his US counterpart.

Officials and political analysts alike are calling the visit "historic" for what they expect it to say about the changing relationship between Mexico and the United States. The tone will be set by two leaders who want to send the same message: that the traditional suspicions and inequalities of the past have been replaced by a new equilibrium and dedication to serving mutual interests.

Interviewed by reporters Sunday in the small town outside his 1,126-acre family ranch, Fox said of the visit, "We're going to talk about each of our problems, but above all we're going to talk about each one of our opportunities."

That spin reflects the leaders' can-do spirit and the optimism with which both say they will approach a relationship that has more often been seen as problematic. Speaking to reporters Tuesday aboard Air Force One, Bush said, "I think [the visit] is going to be a good signal to the Mexicans, and others in our hemisphere, that the best foreign policy starts at home."

No one from either camp expects any major, substantive decisions from the five-hour meeting. The presidents are expected to discuss immigration, drug trafficking, trade and economic development, and energy policy.

It is how those issues are addressed that officials say will signal change in the relationship.

"The meeting will be an opportunity to begin the process of achieving closer ties between the United States and Mexico and expanding areas of cooperation," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in announcing Bush's visit.

"On the one hand this will be a get-acquainted session, but in terms of the agenda it sets, it will be much more than that," says a high official in the Fox administration. Mexico has long been careful about what it puts on the table with the US, for fear of what it might get back, the official adds, "but Fox is an adventurous diplomat." The Mexican government believes Bush, too, "wants to be ambitious in the scope of relations with Mexico."

In Mexico, historians and columnists commenting on the visit hark as far back as 19th-century Mexican President Porfirio Diaz - remembered for lamenting that Mexico is "so far from God, so close to the United States."

But just the difference - economically and politically - between today and six years ago is graphic enough.

Mexico is now the No. 2 trading partner with the US (after Canada) - with a footnote. Since NAFTA went into effect in 1994, Mexico's exports to the US have nearly quadrupled to about $150 billion annually.

In December 1994, Ernesto Zedillo had just taken office as Mexican president when the peso collapsed, presenting a still-new President Clinton with a potentially destabilizing crisis south of the border. Mr. Clinton opted for a $40 billion bailout plan that saved Mr. Zedillo and Mexico - but which also perpetuated a lopsided relationship akin to one between a needy child and a powerful and arrogant older brother.

The picture is different now. Fox, who dethroned Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party from its seven-decade rule in elections July 2, personifies legitimacy - in Mexico and in foreign circles.

The so-called "democratic bonus" Fox has earned for Mexico is having an effect in formerly hostile venues including the US Congress. Even Fox's foreign minister, the one-time Marxist academic Jorge Castaneda, was well received in Washington by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, long considered a "Mexico basher" here.

Bush, on the other hand, arrives in Mexico with the memory of the most questioned US presidential election in decades. Shocked Mexicans viewed the US election as a parody of the kind of electoral shenanigans they finally grew out of July 2. The effect is a US president with less of the kind of "moral legitimacy" that Fox says he earned for Mexico.

But Mexican officials say they don't see the way Bush won the US presidency affecting his ability to work with their country. Nor do they want it to. "Our strength is not in any weakness of the president of the United States," the Fox administration official says. Mexico needs a strong US president who can rally Congress behind new approaches to common problems, the official says.

What interests Mexican officials more is how they see their "audacious" president able to move the US-Mexico relationship into bolder initiatives.

They hold up immigration as a case in point. Last fall, when then-president-elect Fox visited Washington, his Europe-like vision of an integrated North America with open borders and a common labor market a decade down the road didn't go over well. Clinton was cool to the idea, as was candidate Bush.

But now the US Congress is debating a Mexican guest-worker program and other ways to legalize the flow of Mexican labor north - moves that would go some distance in realizing Fox's vision. The two presidents will take up the guest-worker issue in San Cristobal.

Still, some Mexicans have openly wondered why Bush's visit will be so short. Some Mexican observers speculate snidely that Fox doesn't want Bush to see the real Rancho San Cristobal, a poor village lacking decent housing for many residents and where most working-age men find it necessary to migrate to the US.

But Fox has a different explanation for Bush's short drop-in at his ranch. "We are both," he says, "quick men."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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