Integration - a One-Way Road

Like Clinton, Mexico's new president may find it difficult to focus mainly on domestic issues

LISTENERS from the United States will find a familiar ring: When Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon assumes Mexico's presidency Dec. 1, some analysts say, he will focus the country on a domestic agenda.

After six years under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who took his country from self-willed isolation to unprecedented economic openness and international political involvement, Mexico under Mr. Zedillo is expected to turn to the social and political problems that top its ``to do'' list: poverty - which by official estimates affects 40 percent of the population - income distribution, small and medium business survival, judicial reform, and agricultural reform, to name a few.

Didn't we hear this elsewhere not too long ago? Ah, yes. But just as President Clinton found it impossible to stop the world while he tended to the problems at home, Mexico's new president is likely to find that his country, too, has become so integrated into the world that turning off the ``international'' tap and opening the ``domestic'' one cannot be done.

``Mexico has started down a road that it simply can't go back up,'' says one US observer here, pointing to a transformation that started with Mexico's accession to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1986 and reached its high point with President Salinas's drive for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

As one of the architects of Salinas's campaign to modernize and open Mexico, Zedillo would be little inclined to reverse the country's emergence even if he could. But some Mexican observers argue that Zedillo's true test will be managing the intertwining of domestic and international priorities that is the result of the opening-up process.

``Zedillo's task will be to preserve Mexico's good international image precisely so that he can hope to address the country's many serious domestic problems,'' says Arturo Sanchez Gutierrez, director of research at the Mexican Political Studies Institute here. One need only look at widespread predictions of fleeing international investors in the event of civil unrest after the Aug. 21 elections to understand what he means.

That task may be even more complex than what Salinas achieved by reversing Mexico's '80s image as a gasping, authoritarian state, Mr. Sanchez says. ``Now we have this good image abroad, but if you look closely inside the country there are holes everywhere,'' he adds, offering as an example the Mayan insurgency in the southern state of Chiapas, which he says is no isolated problem but a reflection of the frustrations building among the country's poor.

Another influence against any temptation Mexico might face to turn away from the world is the more-balanced relationship Salinas developed with the United States. Whereas Mexican foreign policy was once largely a set of reactions to the powerful neighbor to the north, both US and Mexican observers say the two countries' interdependence - acknowledged in a treaty like NAFTA - has allowed Mexico to develop a more mature, cooperative approach to the world.

Evidence of this may come soon, if the anticipated US-led invasion of Haiti is launched. Mexico won't support the initiative, analysts say, but it won't condemn it in the shrill terms once reserved for US-armed interventions in the hemisphere either.

A little farther down the road, Mexico may also be able to play an intermediary role between the US and Cuba - as a friend to both, who advocates an end to the US embargo of the island nation and the latter's democratic and economic transition.

In the meantime, Mexico under Zedillo will be busy, Sanchez says - ``tending international ties even while trying to address the domestic problems that will determine the country's reputation.''

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