Despite the best efforts of President-elect Ronald Reagan to be more understanding of Mexico, Central America looms as the leading source of disagreement between the United States and Mexico.
The Mexican government seems to see the rise of leftist forces in Central America as inevitable. Mexican officials appear to be more concerned about possible North American intervention there than they are about Cuban or Soviet involvement.
Diplomats believe that Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party secretly provides funds to leftist groups in El Salvador. At a time when Reagan advisers are considering strengthening ties with the junta in El Salvador and the conservative leadership of Guatemala, Mexico's attitude toward those regimes runs from cool to critical. When Reagan advisers are thinking of cutting US aid to Nicaragua, Mexico has been strengthening its ties to Nicaragua's leftist leadership.
Apparently none of this was discussed at the cordial meeting between President- elect Reagan and Mexico's President Jose Lopez Portillo at Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Jan. 5. But it will be difficult to ignore Central America's crises and the Mexican view of them at future meetings.
For one thing, Mexico is too big to be ignored. It has increased its political and economic activity in Central America over the past year or two. And in many ways, Mexico itself is vastly more important to the United States than all of the Central American countries put together. At some 70 million, its population is three times that of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama combined. Mexico is, moreover, now exploiting vast oil reserves.
Mexico's disagreements with the United States over Central America stem in part from a vastly different view of the regions's history and from longstanding Mexican sympathy for the Cuban revolution.
Mexicans remember North American interventions into Mexico and into neighboring countries that go back to the last century as though they occurred yesterday. When asked recently to list the most important US interventions or disputes between the United States and Mexico starting early in the 19th century , a historian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico came up with a list of 15 dates that he said the Mexicans considered significant.Most North Americans would be hard put to recall any of the items on this list other than the war between the US and Mexico of 1846 to 1848 and the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala of 1954.
When it comes to Cuba, the late Mexican historian Daniel Cosio Villegas once stated that the principal element in Mexico's popular sympathy for the Cuban revolution was a conviction that the revolution had sought to benefit "the poor and defenseless." But he also noted that an "incidental element" was "the natural sympathy for any David who fights a Goliath" -- Goliath in this case being the US.
Many Mexicans are not happy with Cuba's heavy dependence on the Soviet Union, and this has lessened their enthusiasm for the island nation. But they still see the reduction of social and economic injustices in Cuba as an improvement over the prerevolutionary situation there.
Diplomats think the Mexican government maintains its support for Cuba and for leftist forces in Central America in part to try to appease Mexico's leftist political opposition. Mexico traditionally has leaned to the left in its foreign policy, while pursuing more conservative policies at home. Certainly Mexico has used its foreign policy to symbolize its independence from the United States.
But in subtle ways, the Mexicans appear to see themselves as competitors as well with the Cubans in Central America. They do not think, for instance, that it would be wise for Nicaragua to follow the Cuban model. President Lopez Portillo has indicated that he thinks Nicaragua should maintain a society that is more "pluralistic" than Cuba's one-party state.
Mexico was the first nation to recognize last year's takeover of Nicaragua by the leftist Sandanistas. It is aiding Nicaragua in the fields of agriculture, education, and oil exploration.
At the same time, Mexico is helping Cuba explore for oil and remodel a refinery. Mexicans believe the US economic boycott of Cuba simply drove Fidel Castro into greater dependence on the Soviets.
Mexican officials do not see leftist takeovers in Central America leading domino-like to a stronger leftist influence in Mexico. Diplomats and other longtime observers of Mexico say that this nation's leaders have had much more success than the leaders of most Central American nations against their leftist opponents.