AMERICAN ambassadors to Mexico stand with Gen. Winfield Scott, who seized Mexico City in 1847, and Gen. John (Black Jack) Pershing, who pursued Pancho Villa across the border in 1916, as irresistible targets of abuse by Mexican journalists and politicians. Such outsiders are vulnerable during crises such as the one now afflicting this heavily indebted, oil-dependent nation. Often novices in diplomacy, sometimes ignorant of Mexico's heritage, and occasionally untrained in Spanish, US ambassadors to Mexico have in some instances earned the wrath heaped upon them. Yet the recent announcement of John Gavin's resignation has sparked an unusually strong outpouring of invective. Francisco C'ardenas Cruz, a political writer for the centrist Universal newspaper, called the envoy ``one of the most abominable American ambassadors we have suffered.'' An editorial cartoon in the business daily El Financiero sneered at Mr. Gavin's film background by asking whether President Reagan ``will [next] send us Woody Allen or Jerry Lewis''?
Clearly, Gavin has had his difficulties. Lax administration has contributed to desultory morale problems within the 500-member embassy. His overreaction to the media criticism inflicted on any prominent American has emboldened the local press to bait him, and his high profile, reflected in whirlwind helicopter tours of devastated areas after the September 1985 El Grande earthquakes, annoyed Mexico's lackluster and indecisive President, Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado.
Still, Gavin's five-year watch has been important to the evolution of US-Mexican relations. As a forceful individual boasting excellent contacts on Capitol Hill and in the White House, he took charge of bilateral affairs. That the United States began speaking with a single voice -- in contrast to the Babel emanating from past administrations -- facilitated the August 1982 bailout of a nearly bankrupt Mexico, the signing of an import subsidies pact, closer energy cooperation, and massive relief to earthquake victims. Although harrumphing at police inaction on highway banditry, the actor-turned-diplomat helped spike the issuance of a US travel advisory on Mexico that would have crippled its vacation industry.
To his credit, Gavin has relentlessly urged Mexico to convert its hugely protected, petrolized, and statist economy into a diversified one invigorated by liberalized trade, privatization of spendthrift public firms, and investment by domestic and foreign entrepreneurs. Such a message proved an anathema to inefficient producers, used to turning fat profits behind protectionist barriers, as well as to a ``comeback tomorrow'' bureaucracy. Spurring exports is crucial to promoting growth, creating jobs, and winning favor with the international financial community. Mr. de la Madrid's recent commitment to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade underscores the wisdom of the Gavin's persistent counsel.
Above all, Gavin has refused to patronize his hosts with talk of their being ``so far from God and close to the United States.'' In impeccable Spanish (his mother was born in Sonora), he has extolled their cornucopia-shaped nation's physical and human resources, its importance on the regional and world stage, and the opportunities offered by being contiguous to the world's most robust market.
Nonetheless, he has stressed that lenders, investors, tourists, and congressmen will be apprehensive about any country that fails to crack down on drug traffickers, pursue roadway desperadoes, combat official corruption, and curb spending.
When Gavin departs in mid-May, no monument to his honor will be erected in Mexico City's Z'ocalo plaza. His legacy, however, lies in having spurned the big brotherism that has, over the decades, instilled in Mexicans a sense of inferiority toward the US. In so doing, he may have awakened key Mexican leaders to the upsetting fact that most of the causes of, and solutions to, their vexing problems lie below, not above, the Rio Grande.
George W. Grayson is John Marshall professor of government at the College of William and Mary and author of ``The United States and Mexico: Patterns of Influence.''