Growing unease in relations with US

Carlos, a successful young Mexican painter, explains the anti-Americanism felt by many Mexicans this way: ``Ever since I've been a child we have been told about US invasions and interventions. We have been brought up with it,'' Carlos says. ``One can't deny that among the Mexican population as a whole there is a general feeling of anti-Americanism, and every time the US puts more pressure on Mexico, that sentiment increases.''

Today, that is precisely the perception -- that the Reagan administration is putting increasing pressure on this country.

At the same time, Mexico's economic crisis is making the country increasingly dependent on the United States -- a development that adds to the discomfort many Mexicans feel towards their relationship with the US.

Mexicans are aware that US attitudes -- governmental and public -- toward their country have changed considerably since the late 1970s. Then, Mexico felt the US was more cooperative about issues such as trade and immigration and less likely to interfere in Mexico's relations with Central America.

But the international economic uncertainty of the 1980s has prompted US concern over a variety of issues: immigration, drug traffic, trade relations, potential Mexican instability, and how such instability might affect the US. Issues dividing the US and Mexico

Many prominent US and Mexican academic analysts feel the Reagan administration is translating these concerns into a more conservative, nationalistic, and interventionist approach in Mexico than has been seen in many years. Mexican views on most of these issues are often the antithesis of US views.

Every year 4 to 6 million unemployed Mexicans illegally cross the border to work in the US. For Mexico this represents a crucial escape valve. It lessens otherwise intolerable population pressure and produces a needed influx of dollars, since the migrants send money to their families back home.

The US reaction, however, is more complex. US labor unions denounce US workers' loss of employment, and Congress has passed a series of laws attempting to stop illegal immigration. But these laws are difficult to enforce, because the cheap labor provided by illegal immigrants serves the purposes of an important sector of the US economy.

Mexico's relations with Central America particularly concern the US. The US considers left-wing subversion and Soviet maneuvering to be the main problems in Central America. The US says that poverty is at the root of much of the area's political unrest. But it believes that poverty can be overcome with time, money, and the free-enterprise system if only the left-wing subversion is controlled.

Mexico views the key problem in Central America as social injustice, which can be lessened by, among other things, profound social change. Only when social injustice is substantially reduced, Mexican leaders say, can the region become less explosive.

Mexico's ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (known by its Spanish initials, PRI), has traditionally been more inclined to sympathize with radical Central American revolutionaries than with the conservative oligarchies and the military.

Having experienced its own revolution in 1910, Mexico believes other countries have the right to revolution.

Throughout the '70s, as the Mexican government's policies remained distinctly nonradical at home, the more liberal elements of Mexico's ruling elite were partially mollified by Mexico's increasingly militant foreign policy. This ambiguous situation prompted some cynical observers in the region to state that Mexico promoted revolution in Central America in order to avoid it at home.

Many Mexican analysts stress that divergence on basic issues between the US and Mexico is nothing new.

``There is a large history of issues in which, for basic structural reasons, the interests of both countries are contradictory,'' says Lorenzo Meyer, a Mexican academic expert on US-Mexican affairs.

``If unchecked, this US desire to more actively shape and manipulate Mexican foreign and domestic policy will become a key source of tension between Mexico and the US in the remainder of this decade and beyond,'' says Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California in San Diego.

However, ``the relationship is not bad [between the US and Mexico],'' one Western diplomat says. ``It is just going through one of its phases of misunderstanding. Most people in Washington don't understand Mexico and most people in the Mexican government don't understand `the crazy gringos.' ''

``The Mexicans don't really want to have to deal with us. They don't understand [the US] system, which is different from what they know,'' he says. ``If they understood it, they would have a lobby in Congress to make their case. But they have a lot of psychological hang-ups which stem from their history and have to do with excessive national sensitivity and the fear of appearing to approach the US hat in hand. So they don't have any lobbyists, and this holds them back.''

US-Mexican relations reached a low point last spring after the murder in Mexico of US drug enforcement agent Enrique Camarena.

Most Mexicans believed that Washington used the issue of drugs entering the US from Mexico as an excuse to flex its muscles and make clear to Mexico the immense leverage which the US has on that country's economy. Many Mexicans were convinced that Washington was sending their country a message to back down from its Central American policy, which does not line up with US policy.

Also last spring, before Mexico's July midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections, the PRI became increasingly distressed with the US because it feared that the US had a new view of what it wanted in Mexico. Mexican view of US aims

Mexican leaders believed that, after decades of accepting the Mexican system as it is, the US wanted to change the basic rules of the political game here. Based on their interpretation of actions taken by Washington and what they saw as interventionist public statements by the US ambassador to Mexico, John Gavin, Mexicans came to believe the US wanted to change Mexico from a one-party to a two-party state -- a change favoring the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and its conservative allies in the private sector.

But a Western diplomat here denies that this was the US aim. ``The idea that Mexico should become a two-party system was being discussed in Washington . . . ,'' this diplomat says. ``This, however, was the talk of individuals and did not reflect any real official policy sanctioned by the Reagan administration.''

What Mexico sees as deliberate policy, this diplomatic analyst suggests, is simply the reflection of a widespread mood of nationalism and political conservatism in the US.

``Many Americans feel that unless the Mexicans support US-style democracy and the private sector, the US should not help Mexico out,'' he says.

Since the elections, the main concern has become economic, especially Mexico's repayment of its $96 billion debt, most of which it owes to the US. The debt issue came to new prominence earlier this year when oil prices fell and a new round of inflation damaged the Mexican economy and its ability to pay back the money owed. The unspoken influence

In one way, the most important US influence on Mexico is one that is almost never explicitly stated.

In many ways, the US helps define the basic rules of Mexico's economic and sociopolitical structure, say some analysts here. Specifically, it limits the ways structure can be altered. When Mexico's leaders consider ways Mexico's economic and political system can be changed to work better, some alternatives must be ruled out because of the US.

After Mexico's economic crisis peaked in 1982, newly elected President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado decided to ease the situation by encouraging an export-oriented economy based on renewed foreign -- largely US -- investment. Many Mexicans criticize this policy as one that increases dependence on the US without raising the living standards for most of Mexico's population.

If the Mexican economy becomes more open to foreign trade, if trade barriers are lowered, if tariffs fall, critics say the US will benefit. US goods will flood the Mexican market. Many Mexicans fear that the jobs produced by Mexican industries, which export goods to the US, will not be balanced by the jobs destroyed by the import of American-made goods.

These critics, many of them within the ruling PRI, want a more radical but noncom-munist alternative that involves greater economic self-reliance and stricter economic controls to prevent the private sector from shipping its money abroad.

But ultimately, even proponents of this approach doubt that Washington would ever ``permit'' Mexico to take such a course. They know that the US possesses enough economic leverage to express its displeasure by reducing the Mexican economy to a shambles.

The issue of Mexican private-sector money leaving the country exemplifies how the US limits Mexico's alternatives.

In 1982-83 when Mexico was faced with an economic crisis, Jos'e L'opez Portillo, then President, shook private-sector confidence by nationalizing the banking system. Mexico's upper and middle classes sent about $28 billion in savings and investments abroad, mostly to the US. It would have taken tremendous efforts by both governments to control capital flight from Mexico to the US.

Even if Mexico continues on its present course, some analysts at the San Diego Center for US-Mexican Relations say, excessive US concern with Mexican economic stability and a conservative ideology in Washington might prevent Mexico from taking the kinds of populist measures (wage hikes and more expansionist economic policies) necessary for political stability as it begins recovering from its economic crisis.

These observers expect US opposition to become more intense if the government takes measures that would address longstanding popular demands for fairer income distribution in Mexico. This could lead to a serious situation in the long run, because, as Wayne Cornelius says, ``Most independent analysts of modern Mexico concur that this problem [of fairer distribution] must be addressed forthrightly and effectively by future Mexican governments if serious social disorders and militarization of the political system are to be prevented.'' Mexico's stability

``The US is forgetting where the stability and basic legitimacy of the Mexican political system comes from,'' says one moderate Mexican columnist and poltical analyst. ``It comes not just from the private sector and the other powerful interest groups represented in the ruling PRI coalition, but also from the great mass of the Mexican people.''

Much of the US impulse to intervene in Mexican politics stems from a basic fear that the Mexican political system is headed for rough times and possibly even disintegration. Some sectors within the Reagan administration fear that the kind of political instability and guerrilla warfare occurring in Central America could spread to Mexico.

US critics do not look at longstanding structural problems with the Mexican development model when analyzing Mexican weaknesses. Instead, as Mr. Cornelius says, they ``focus on weaknesses within the Mexican state: corruption, misallocation or inefficient use of resources, irresponsible political leaders . . . the ossified ruling party, etc.''

``As in the past, the US will be tempted to take advantage of this situation: to turn Mexico into a virtual ward of the US, denying the need for major structural changes to correct imbalances in the Mexican economy and society, and rejecting the legitimacy and domestic political importance of a Mexican foreign policy that is independent of Washington,'' Cornelius says.

Economic issues are a possible source of controversy between the US and Mexico. A Mexican academic expert says that the US has, especially under the Reagan administration, been pressing Mexico to open up its market to more trade with and investment by the US, a strategy that might entail a severe political cost for President de la Madrid.

If de la Madrid's export-oriented recovery strategy is to succeed, there will have to be a continued strong growth of the US economy and increased access to US consumer markets. But the trend in US-Mexican trade relations has been, and probably will continue to be, toward greater rather than less protectionism in the US, say US and Mexican academic and diplomatic analysts. Next: Mexico and Central America

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Growing unease in relations with US
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today