Knots in US-Mexico tie: oil, trade barriers, immigrants

When former Mexican President Luis Echeverria Alvarez complained that living next to the United States was like having an elephant for a neighbor, he summed up Mexico's frustrations about its relationship with the US.

There are, of course, frustrations on the US side as well.

But there is also an essential goodwill between these two neighbors that serves as a useful backdrop for next week's meeting between current Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo and President Ronald Reagan.

Moreover, there is an aura of personal friendship between the two leaders, developed at their surprise meeting along the Mexico-US border in January before the Reagan inauguration.

None of this, however, minimizes the knotty problems on their agenda this coming week in Washington. Nor does it assure successful resolution of some major irritants.

Oil, trade, and immigration are key topics on the agenda. The US would like more of Mexico's oil, now gushing forth at 2.7 million barrels a day, but is unlikely to win any Mexican concessions. Mexican protectionism and subsidies for its exports are causing howls of protest from US businessmen.

And the continuing flow of job-seeking Mexicans into the US causes anguish in US labor circles, among Hispanics who are longtime residents in the US, and among members of Mr. Reagan's voting constituency who for a variety of reasons want to keep the flood tide of Mexicans out of the US.

But Mr. Reagan favors a system of temporary permits for Mexican workers as "guest workers" to ease unemployment pressure in Mexico. He is likely to make a formal proposal when he meets Mr. Lopez Portillo June 8 and 9.

Worrying Mr. Reagan and his Mexican policy advisers are the social pressures that continue despite the current Mexican boom.

With unemployment in Mexico running well over 20 percent and with the inability of the Mexican government to keep up with the social needs of its burgeoning population, now 75 million and certain to reach 100 million by 1995, the Reagan administration wants to do all it can to keep Mexico from exploding from its social pressures.

The US does not want social and economic chaos across the 2,000-mile border it shares with Mexico.

There are also some possible disagreements on policy toward Central America.

Mexico verbally supports leftist revolutionary movements in Central America -- like El Salvador's -- which the US opposes.

In part this attitude springs from Mexico's own revolutionary tradition, often more honored in rhetoric than in actuality. In part it also reflects a need to play up to the left wing of Mexico's ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional, which has controlled Mexican politics since the early 1930s.

Mexico also sees the Salvadoran leftist movement as the likely eventual winner and reasons it is better to support the winner.

Yet Mexico has worries about the effects of the revolutionary struggles to its south, worries not unlike those of the US. A victory for El Salvador's leftists would likely boost the prospects of Guatemala's leftists. That could, in turn, have an effect on incipient guerrilla activity in Mexico's southern states close to the oil fields responsible for much of Mexico's current boom.

President Reagan is certain to urge closer US-Mexico consultation on Central America. To this end he is likely to outline for Mr. Lopez Portillo some of the US thinking about a broad Caribbean-Central American economic aid package now being studied by his administration.

Such a package, with Mexican participation, might well appeal to Mr. Lopez Portillo.

He is expected to stress economic aid to the area when he meets June 5 with John Gavin, the new US ambassador to Mexico, at a brief credentials presentation ceremony in Mexic o City.

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