THE WORLD FROM...Mexico City

War news may be hot in the US, but Bush's free-trade plan is getting the lion's share of Mexicans' attention

IN Mexico, the Persian Gulf fireworks are being seen through free-trade-pact Ray Bans. By tradition, Mexico is neutral. It has no troops, medical teams, nor ships in the Gulf. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has been almost mute on the actions of United States and coalition forces.

Here, the moral implications of the ``US war on Iraq'' are debated in the taco stands. But Mexico's political leadership, as in many developing nations, is focusing on the economic implications of the war.

How will the continued Gulf war affect tourism, already down 20 percent? Will the high oil prices that produced a $3 billion bonanza for this petroleum exporting nation return? Or will lower prices prevail, causing revenues to fall short of 1991 budget projections?

But above all, politicians and press wonder what will happen to the proposed North American free-trade agreement.

How will the Gulf war affect President Bush's popularity and his political influence in Congress? Will the war deepen the US recession, thereby reducing congressional support for an agreement that will likely shift US manufacturing jobs to Mexico?

War news here played second fiddle last week to the announcement of Canada's participation in trilateral trade talks. Mr. Salinas welcomed Canada's participation: ``A North American free-trade zone that will be the biggest in the world with 360 million inhabitants, including three nations with an economic production of $6 trillion, will place us in a singularly advantageous position to compete with the other big commercial zones that are being formed in the world.''

Initially, Mexico felt Canada's involvement might slow down the talks. Now, opinion has tilted in favor of having Canada's experience at the table; a US-Canada free-trade agreement was signed by President Reagan in September 1988 and became effective Jan. 1, 1989.

But other than in economic terms, the war has not yet been the focus of much political activity. There have been no polls to gauge public opinion about the war, as far as can be determined. To date, there has been only one significant peace march in Mexico City. Some protesters carried signs condemning ``US imperialist aggression,'' a longstanding concern in a poor nation that shares a 2,000-mile border with the world's biggest military power.

Surprisingly, the United Nations seems to have been singled out for more criticism than the US.

A new organization will be officially formed here Feb. 21 - the ``Mexican Assembly for Peace,'' which involves the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and other major political parties and unions. The group plans to solicit a United Nations-orchestrated cease-fire. But the group is also likely to call for reforms limiting the power of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. The perception is that the Council rubber-stamped US ambitions for war and that the Jan. 15 deadline short-circuited the diplomatic process. Politicians are asking why, in the post-cold-war era, should not countries such as Mexico, India, or even Iran have as much say in such crucial international matters as France, Britain, the US, China, and the Soviet Union.

Still, political historian Lorenzo Meyer views PRI support for peace as merely a sideshow to the main event. ``One or 10 crises like the Persian Gulf won't modify the chosen course,'' he says. ``The fundamental objective of Carlos Salinas's government is the signing of a free-trade pact with the US, which he considers will guarantee the success of Mexican economic growth.''

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