THE wary gaze that Mexico has long held toward its richer northern neighbor lingers on in the eyes of Frumencio Segura Miranda.
A letter carrier in the Mexican capital's Coyoacan district, Mr. Segura ticks off some of the reported conditions that US politicians seek to impose on the $40 billion in loan guarantees promised to stabilize Mexico's finances. ``The United States would like to make us into a colony like Puerto Rico,'' he says.
To the nods of co-workers surrounding him at the postal workers' morning hangout, he adds, ``All the talk of becoming equal partners was illusion. The US wants to profit from our hard times to serve its own interests.''
This view doesn't represent all Mexicans. Many consider the bailout necessary to reestablish the country's economic stability. But the silence of the Mexican government on the issue is one indication of just how sensitive US-Mexico relations remain (US Congress debates bailout, Page 3).
With the North American Free Trade Agreement in place, many Mexicans believed their country had finally broken free of the distrust that shaped relations with the US at least since 19th-century Mexican President Gen. Porfirio Diaz uttered his immortal lament: ``Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.''
As equal signatories to a commitment with far-reaching ramifications, the NAFTA argument went, the two neighbors were forging a new relationship based on interdependence and mutual interests.
Many Mexicans still consider this to be true. ``What was a destiny of conflict was traded for a common project, and despite the challenges we'll continue to go in this common direction,'' says Monica Verea Campos, director of the Center for North American Studies at Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM). Some cite the US readiness to create a record-breaking rescue package as recognition of Mexico's importance to its northern neighbor's well-being.
But in the wake of Mexico's month-old peso collapse and the ensuing economic crisis, concerns about an overbearing influence from the US are showing new vigor. And with Mexican newspapers full of the economic and political requirements some US politicians want to attach to the loan package - as well as the aggressive language spicing the Washington loan debate - the more traditional views of Segura and associates are resurfacing.
``The US: ally, enemy, or what?'' asked political analyst Sergio Aguayo Quezada Wednesday, in the Mexico City daily La Jornada. Earlier this week he wrote, ``What cannot be doubted is that a good part of the decisions about our future will be made in Washington.''
US fingers in Mexico pie
Some analysts argue that even decisions being made in Mexico City are primarily designed to impress Washington - and New York investors. They say it is not just coincidence that this week the government of President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon made its first face-to-face contact with peasant rebels in the embattled state of Chiapas. Almost simultaneously, Mr. Zedillo's government signed a historic pact with the country's four main political parties that promised negotiations toward making Mexico a true democracy.
Observers say the Chiapas peace negotiations, democratic reforms to guarantee free and fair elections, and a genuine separation of powers were priorities for Zedillo likely to come along at some point. But with Mexico's international partners, particularly in the US, looking for political reforms to shore up stability, the issues became more urgent - especially with a vote in the US Congress on the loan guarantees pending.
Members of Congress are looking to use the occasion to impose on Mexico everything from further democratization and human rights progress to a requirement that Mexico drop its close economic ties to Cuba and take tougher action against would-be illegal immigrants.
Seeking to head off political impositions that US Secretary of State Warren Christopher said would be ``overbearing,'' the Clinton administration is itself talking tough. A draft loan document from the Treasury Department calls on the Mexican government to put up petroleum revenues as collateral. Though Mexico's nationalized oil industry, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), is singled out in the Constitution as part of the Mexican people's patrimony, finance officials say putting up oil revenues as collateral would be nothing new.
The document also calls on Mexico to pay a hefty cash premium to secure the agreement and to ``protect and advance US economic interests in a strong Mexico.''
At the Coyoacan mail carriers' two-table diner - called ``Sanborncito's'' after Sanborn's, the much bigger and tonier Mexico City restaurant chain - such words are not well-received. ``When they bring Cuba into this, it's clear they're after our sovereignty,'' says carrier Juan Dominguez Hernandez. ``And of course they want Pemex; it's the one jewel the Mexican people have left.''
Flip side of coin
Yet such views appear to be more the concerns of Mexican workers who also felt threatened by NAFTA and closer economic ties to the US. A few blocks away, outside one of the real Sanborn's, favored by Mexico City's middle and upper classes, Mexicans who favored NAFTA and the first-world advantages it was to bring to Mexico sound a different note on US-Mexico relations.
``Relations between the two countries are good, and I think the loan guarantees augur well for our common future,'' says David Morales, a nattily dressed administrative chief with the Mexican Army.
``There are always conditions with this kind of loan, so that shouldn't be surprising,'' says David del Villar, an architect just leaving a shoeshine chair.
``The important thing is that this is friendly help from a country with shared interests.'' As for linking oil revenues to the loan conditions, Mr. del Villar says, ``Oil is still identified with national sovereignty, but on the other hand we have to consider that the US has the capacity to help modernize Pemex.''
That point of view reflects a less ideological Mexico emerging among the country's middle and upper classes, says UNAM sociologist Victor Durand Ponte. At the same time, however, he says concerns about globalization show up as a new element in the US-Mexico relationship.
``In a globalizing context this economic crisis is just as serious for the US as it is for Mexico,'' Mr. Durand says. With its ability to trickle into Latin America, Mexico's weakness could spell trouble for the US as it battles Europe and Japan to develop growing trade markets, he adds.