When poor relations strike oil

The people of the United States have long thought of the Mexicans to their south as poor relations who could be treated in any manner suiting northern interests of the moment.

When the northerners wanted Mexican land, they took it. First, in 1836, they took Texas away from Mexico by sending down a lot of colonists who declared Texas a republic. And when the Mexicans kept objecting they then in 1846 sent a substantial army down. It captured Mexico City and imposed a "peace" treaty on the Mexicans in 1848 under which the northerners added not only Texas to their official holdings.

The northerners rounded out those Texas holdings with what is now New Mexico, the southwestern half of Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California.

The Mexicans to the south of the Rio Grande have never quite forgotten either the humiliation of military defeat or the loss of those vast territories which could, if still in their own hands today, give them the two things they presently need most: space for their teeming population, and the farmlands on which they could grow enough food to feed their people.

Add to the list of memories which still rankle among Mexicans the facts that in 1914 the US Navy shelled and then captured the Mexican port of Vera Cruz and in 1916 US Gen. John J. Pershing led a punitive expedition into Mexico in an unsuccessful effort to capture Mexican revolutionary leader Francisco Villa.

US President-elect Ronald Reagan dropped in at Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, on Monday of this week to pay a courtesy call on Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo. It was a notable courtesy. Previously US presidents have received Mexican presidents-elect, and presidents, in Washington.This was the first time a US president-elect had gone first across the border, a courtesy which reflects a change in the old US attitude of condescension toward its southern neighbor.

And high time that there be a change, because Mexico is the poor relation who has suddenly struck it rich, and has something those to the north would much like to get -- oil.

No one is quite sure how much oil the Mexicans have found, but it is a lot. Some experts think the great Mexican pool of oil will turn out to be as bountiful as all that lies under the desert sands of Saudi Arabia. Other estimates put it lower, but there obviously is enough there to ease the US dependency on oil from Saudi Arabia and Iran, provided the Mexicans are willing to sell it to neighbors who have treated them so carelessly.

The Mexicans see no reason to go out of their way or outside their own interest just to be considerate of their US neighbors. It is just as popular in Mexico to run for office on an anti-US platform as it is in the US to run on an anti-USSR platform. A Mexican politician with ambitions must cultivate an anti-US rhetoric if he is to stay in power.

It is simply natural for any Mexican government to avoid foreign policies which parallel or complement those of Washington. Just because the US is anti-Castro, Mexico automatically cultivates best possible relations with Mr. Castro. The Mexicans also feel that they have a stronger interest in events in the Caribbean than does Washington.By their lights, US policy toward Central America should be cleared with Mexico City and subordinated the Mexican thinking on the subject.

Mr. Reagan talks of seeking to improve US relations with Mexico. His visit to Ciudad Juarez was a good opening gesture. May he persevere. It is certainly to the general interest of the US not only to be able to buy Mexican oil and natural gas at fair prices but also to reach for easier and closer harmony in foreign relations. Too often in the recent past Mexico has felt it to be its duty to counteract US policies not only in Central America but throughout all of Latin America. Nothing could ease US relations with Latin American more than to have Mexico working in harmony rather than in opposition.

The road to a new harmony in US-Mexican relations is not going to be an easy one. It must overcome those memories of US soldiers storming the heights of Chapultepec, of the US Navy shelling Vera Cruz, of Pershing marching at will into Mexico, and most recently of a US President behaving as though the US had some sort of divine right of access to Mexico's new wealth of oil.

The Mexi cans are no longer poor relations.

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