Mexico's welcome mat for Kennedy a signal to Carter

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's brief visit to Mexico City, together with the almost simultaneous arrival of new United States Ambassador Julian Nava, tell much about the present state of US-Mexican relations.

With the Kennedy name having tremendous appeal here, the Massachusetts senator received an extremely warm and cordial welcome. By contrast Ambassador Nava, although of Mexican descent, received a polite but lackluster welcome from Mexican officials and Mexico City newspapers.

The contrast was clear -- and Mexicans are hopeful the word gets to Washington and to an absent third person, Jimmy Carter.

Relations between President Carter and Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo have deteriorated sharply and dramatically since the US chief executive hosted his Mexican counterpart three years ago in Washington.

That was a time when both presidents were new in office. It was a moment when President Carter could have made major strides in shoring up longstanding differences over Mexican immigration, trade disputes, and other issues. President Lopez Portillo went to Washington breathing nothing but praise for President Carter and enthusiasm for the US.

But that is all changed. And Mexicans blame Mr. Carter directly -- and his various appointees indirectly.

The acrimonious nature of the 1977 Mexican-US talks over natural gas sales, together with what Mexicans regard as then Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger's acerbic remarks about Mexico, turned the warmth of the first Carter-Lopez Portillo visit sour.

President Carter, in Mexican eyes, did nothing to heal the situation, and, in fact, did something they could not understand: He ignored them.

When he finally visited Mexico in February 1979, two years after the first Carter-Lopez Portillo meeting, the US President made a number of diplomatic gaffes that shocked Mexicans.

That visit was not too friendly, and US policymakers must have gotten the message.

In succeeding months, the two nations worked out a number of differences, including one on natural gas that proved to be much more favorable to Mexico than the original agreements, scuttled by Mr. Schlesinger, would have been.

Mr. Lopez Portillo then traveled to Washington in September for a visit that was low key and underplayed by the US government.

The deterioration in relations, however, was merely slowed by the 1979 flurry of Washington interest.

Mexican officials talk of overhearing one Carter aide comment in February 1979, "Let's get this damn visit out of the way so we can get on with important matters."

Whether apocryphal or not, the comment sums up Mexican perceptions of how the Carter administration views their country.

That is why a Kennedy visit here is accorded such enthusiasm. Many Mexicans view the presidency of John Kennedy as halcyon days in US-Latin American relations, and many long for a return to that era.

Although Senator Kennedy has received some US criticism for making the Mexico City foray, Mexicans hope it will help him in his increasingly uphill struggle to wrest the Democratic presidential nomination from President Carter.

And it could well benefit the senator in the coming Texas primary -- especially among Mexican Americans. In addition, his visit to the Basilica of Guadelupe, Mexico's main religious shrine, could bring support fromRoman Catholic voters.

Mexicans say, moreover, that US critics of the Kennedy visit should be aware of President Carter's obvious attempt to capture the Mexican-American vote by naming Mr. Nava ambassador. A specialist in Mexican-North American affairs, he is the first US citizen of Mexican descent to occupy the embassy in Mexicao City.

Senator Kennedy and President Lopez Portillo conferred for more than an hour about migration, petroleum, and trade and agricultural issues.

The warmth expressed by President Lopez Portillo to his US visitor was clear to those attending the session.

One highly placed Mexican official sai: "This is the way we should be treated -- with respect and friendship that does not disappear. In short, we were treated as equals by Kennedy."

His meaning was obvious. Mr. Nava's role as ambassador will not be easy. But the slight improvement in ties between the two countries, noted in early April when US Secretary of Energy Charles W. Duncan Jr. was here, could help. The natural gas price paid Mexico was increased this past month.

And in late March, the Commerce Department rejected complaints from Florida farmers that Mexico was dumping its winter vegetables, mainly tomatoes, on the US market at below-cost prices.All this should help Mr. Nava as he begins his assignment here.

But he begins it with the very evident Mexican warmth toward Senator Kennedy, a man who would like to replace the President who appointed Mr. Nava. And he begins it with evidence that many Mexicans prefer Senator Kennedy to President Carter.

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