IT'S an impressive waiting line. Russian President Boris Yeltsin wants a summit. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and British Prime Minister John Major also put in bids.
But in an indication of the importance the incoming United States president gives to Mexico, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is leapfrogging to the front of the pack. Tomorrow, President Salinas will be the first foreign head of state to meet with President-elect Clinton. No other foreign leader is expected to receive such an honor before the Jan. 20 inauguration. That Salinas landed a spot on Mr. Clinton's agenda is due in part to dogged persistence.
Ideologically and personally, Salinas and President Bush were close. The Clinton victory caught the Mexicans somewhat flat-footed, analysts say. Jorge Montano, a new ambassador considered more in tune with the Democrats, was rushed to Washington in November. Salinas's closest adviser, Jose Cordoba Montoya, also flew to Washington in November to press Clinton aides for an early meeting.
The one-day summit in Austin, Texas, is about establishing the basis for continued smooth US-Mexican relations with an eye to ratifying the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA is a cornerstone of Salinas's economic strategy and is crucial to attracting foreign investment.
Clinton, after initial waffling, has conditionally endorsed the pact. The US Congress is expected to debate ratification in the first six months of Clinton's term. But Salinas wants any doubt about its approval cleared up as soon as possible.
"This is about establishing a personal relationship with [Clinton]. We've achieved a degree of maturity with the US, managing to isolate differences we have from the whole of the relationship," a Salinas spokesman says. "It's important not to let conflict get in the way of that relationship" he adds, hinting that nothing should derail NAFTA.
Clinton, who has told other foreign leaders that the US economy is his top priority, apparently sees NAFTA as compatible with that mission. Mexico is the No. 3 US trading partner, after Japan and Canada. NAFTA would create the world's largest free trade zone, encompassing roughly 360 million consumers. "We have a big stake in a stable and prosperous and growing Mexico. They have bought a lot more of our exports in the last few years," Clinton told reporters this week.
To endorse NAFTA, Clinton wants parallel legislation that would ensure enforcement of Mexican environmental and labor laws. This is important to Clinton supporters, particularly those who worry that NAFTA will cost the US manufacturing jobs. Due-process concerns
"Clinton will want to reassure Salinas that he supports NAFTA. But he'll make it clear that it won't be on the same terms as with Bush," says Andrew Reding at the World Policy Institute, a New York think tank. "There's a concern among the Democrats about due process in Mexico - be it enforcing labor practices, environmental standards, or human rights."
With US Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas becoming Clinton's treasury secretary, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, who has raised such questions about due process, will become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and will have a key role in NAFTA's ratification.
The announcement Monday of a Salinas Cabinet shuffle appears timed to reassure the Clinton administration. The new Mexican attorney general, Jorge Carpizo MacGregor, is widely respected for his work as head of the National Human Rights Commission formed two and half years ago.
The attorney general oversees the Mexican judicial police, the front-line drug enforcement agents who are frequently accused but seldom convicted of human rights violations, including torture.
"This is a signal," says a presidential spokesman. "Combating impunity is not just a fight against criminals but those police who have violated human rights." Mexican Cabinet changes
The Interior Ministry will now be run by hard-liner Jose Patrocinio Gonzalez Blanco Garrido - a signal to the opposition that political violence will not be tolerated, analysts say.
And Emilio Lozoya Thalmann took over as Secretary of Energy, Mines, and Parastatal Industries. His sudden elevation to Cabinet level puts him among the contenders for the presidency.
The pending presidential succession puts additional pressure on Salinas to see Clinton early and see NAFTA completed, analysts say. Salinas technically rules until December 1994. But tradition dictates that by November of this year Salinas will chose the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (which has not lost a presidential election in six decades) and essentially will become a lame duck.