President Clinton's two-day visit to Mexico next week was supposed to be an easy feather in the cap of a second-term president looking to guarantee himself high marks on foreign policy in the history books.
The visit was to spotlight the successes of the United States-Mexico relationship, especially in trade, and underline the wisdom of Mr. Clinton's controversial financial bailout of Mexico in 1995. With the president also traveling to Costa Rica and the Caribbean next week, the visit was to signal a more active US role in Latin America after two years of slumber.
Instead, when Clinton arrives here Monday, his mission will be to replace the distrust and rancor that have bloomed in recent months with signs of understanding and cooperation. With Mexicans still furious at the US over its immigration and antidrug policies, the trip won't be the easy declaration of a solid and strengthening friendship Clinton once anticipated.
"Friends... but at Their Convenience!" screams the current cover of the popular newsmagazine VIVA! The US president's challenge will be to convince both Mexican and US audiences that one of the world's most complex binational relationships is heading in the right direction.
"Clinton's job now will be like healing wounds after a battle," says Jorge Chabat, director of international studies at Mexico City's Center for Economic Research and Teaching. "It's a reconciliation trip." Speaking to both Mexican and US public opinion - both of which have ratcheted up their criticism of the other - Clinton "will be putting the accent on the positive sides of the relationship," says Mr. Chabat.
To a large degree, Clinton will be playing to his home audience. The administration must present Congress with a performance review of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by July 1, so his emphasis will be on refocusing the US-Mexico relationship onto what he will tout as the positives of mutual job creation and economic growth.
Testiness is not a new feature of relations between the US and Mexico. For as long as the two have existed, Mexico has accused the US of failing to recognize that its southern neighbor is a sovereign nation. Clinton will be the first US president to visit Mexico City - which the US invaded and briefly held 150 years ago - since President Kennedy came here in 1962.
Part of Mexico's continuing self-consciousness stems from its economic dependence on the US: Eighty percent of Mexico trade is with El Norte, while Mexicans working in the US send billions of dollars back home every year. At least 1 out of every 8 Mexicans has a relative living in the US, migration experts estimate.
On the other hand, the relationship has grown increasingly important to the US as well: Mexico is the US's third trading partner. Its importance to the US was exemplified by Clinton's decision to toss Mexico a $20-billion financial lifeline after the December 1994 peso crash.
It was in the context of what looked to be a more solid, mature relationship that Clinton began planning his first trip to Mexico, as part of his first major foray into Latin America.
But US concerns about Mexico's corruption-ridden battle against drug trafficking hit new heights in February during the annual certification process in Congress of drug-producing countries. The arrest of Mexico's drug czar on charges of protecting Mexico's most-wanted drug lord, began the souring. It continued with implementation of a new US immigration law, which threatens the deportation of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Mexican migrants.
Clinton's trip now offers him the opportunity to take back the Mexico issue from Congress and, to a certain extent, from the US media. And steps Mexico is taking indicates it wants to cooperate.
Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len has never wavered from calling Clinton a friend of Mexico, differentiating between him and the US Congress. Mexico paid back early all of the US emergency loan, giving the Clinton administration something to crow about. And after Clinton's tough fight with Congress to win Mexico's certification in the drug war, Mexico has turned up efforts to capture its top drug lords and is planning a thorough overhaul, with some US help, of its drug-interdiction agency.
Setting the cooperation-over-confrontation tone, Mexican Foreign Secretary Jos Angel Gurria says concerning drugs, "This is an issue on which we can stand together ... or we can stand apart and point fingers at each other. I'm afraid we've been doing too much finger-pointing."
The challenge for both Clinton and Mr. Zedillo will be to set a cooperative tone that can endure the criticisms the relationship must face. "The executives of both countries have less and less control over the many and growing number of actors involved in this relationship," Chabat says. Noting that NAFTA has left Mexico much more exposed to criticism from the US public, he adds, "The relationship will continue to be more conflictive because more actors are taking an interest in it."
WHY MEXICO MATTERS TO AMERICANS
* What has been called the "rust belt" in the US is shining up its manufacturing base, in part thanks to increased exports to Mexico - up 22 percent for Illinois in 1996 from the year before. Indiana's exports made a similar jump.
* Farm-state exports to Mexico rose even faster: 50 percent for Kansas, 122 percent for Nebraska.
* The US sold $56 billion in goods and services to Mexico in 1996, up 22 percent over 1995. The US trade deficit with Mexico last year was still $16 billion.
* About 11,000 Mexican trucks enter the US every day.
* In January, General Electric closed a plant in Hickory, N.C., and moved the operation to Monterrey, Mexico. Its North Carolina workers made $15 an hour; its Mexican workers earn less than $1 an hour.
* One of President Clinton's aims in traveling to Latin America this year is to boost US trade in the region. Last year, for the first time on record, Latin countries traded more with Europe than with the US. Latin America is expected to be one of the world's top economic growth areas through 2000.