Dos and Don'ts for Clinton's Mexico Debut

Like squabbling siblings, strategic partners could use some sensitivity training for a brighter maNana

President Clinton's visit to Mexico (May 6-7) comes at a critical moment.

Like two siblings who can't set aside their rivalries, the United States and Mexico have returned to squabbles of old. After six years of relatively harmonious coexistence, the US is again pointing a "holier than thou" finger at Mexico for failing to combat illegal drugs and immigration, while Mexico has retreated to nationalistic clichs, believing it has been victimized by US double standards.

Mr. Clinton's trip could exacerbate the crisis, or be the catalyst for healing a vital strategic relationship. Some don'ts and dos:

*Don't overplay the the US bailout of the Mexican economy after the 1994 peso collapse. In the US it is politically expedient for Clinton to claim victory for his $13 billion bailout plan, especially after criticism from both parties in Congress. But most Mexicans do not see the early repayment, with interest, of US largess as a success - especially since the Mexican government paid with money borrowed from Europeans. The plan may have restored macroeconomic balance to Mexico's economy, but it did not put food on the table for the 19 million Mexicans earning less than $3 per day. Real incomes are below 1980 levels, and unemployment and insolvency are still a reality for many in the middle class and the impoverished lower class. The quickest way for Clinton to ignite nasty anti-American sentiments is to pat himself on the back for the "success" of the Mexican recovery and bailout.

*Don't appear to back the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico's critical midterm elections on July 6. Recent polls show that the opposition is leading in the first-ever race for mayor of Mexico City. This reflects the frustration most Mexicans feel over corruption and an elite that has ruled for the last seven decades. Clinton should resist temptations to make grandiose statements about the integrity and dedication of the current government, once again showing US insensitivity to Mexican efforts to establish a more democratic government.

*Don't appear to blame Mexico for US problems. Recall this spring's spat over the certification process, in which the US unilaterally passed judgment on efforts to combat illegal drugs in other countries. The US's tendency to point the finger at others for its own failures does little to improve bilateral relations - or solve the crises of abuse and addiction that fuel a $49 billion US market for illegal drugs.

How to be a better neighbor

As for the dos, whether in public or private talks, Clinton should:

*Emphasize US efforts to solve the drug consumption problem at home, and describe steps to crack down on drug kingpins in the US. Furthermore, the president should announce his intention to revamp US drug policy, find new ways to increase bilateral and multilateral cooperation, and terminate the annual certification process. Current certification requirements put the president and Congress in an impossible quandary when it comes to an important strategic ally such as Mexico. Strict compliance would suggest that Mexico be decertified. But the far-reaching implications of such a decision would effectively render this strategic relationship impossible.

*Announce an immediate end to US military assistance for Mexican antidrug efforts. Mexico's military commands police forces in two-thirds of the states, and it not only looks for drug traffickers but patrols the streets of Mexico City, directs traffic, and combats petty crime. By encouraging the militarization of Mexican society in the interest of combating narcotics, the US undermines its own long-term goal of a stable civilian democratic regime in Mexico. Clinton should redirect US resources and know-how to building strong civilian judicial institutions in Mexico that are publicly accountable and less likely to become corrupt.

*Make clear the US preference for a peaceful resolution to governmental conflicts with regional insurgencies. The US is right to remain uninvolved in these conflicts. It is unwise, however, for the US to ignore the troubling lack of progress in peace talks with the Zapatista Army in Chiapas and the dirty war against the Popular Revolutionary Army in Guerrero and Oaxaca.

If fundamental reforms are not undertaken by the federal and state governments, conditions that gave rise to these conflicts will persist or, worse yet, spread. Widespread conflict is in no one's interest, so Clinton should do what he can to politely nudge the Mexican government toward renewing the peace dialogue and respecting basic human rights.

*Announce, in the spirit of promoting respect for human rights, that the White House will not tolerate mistreatment of immigrants during implementation of new United States immigration law. Immigration is a highly emotional subject in both countries. Initiatives such as California's Proposition 187 and the 1996 federal immigration reform law are seen in Mexico as racist and xenophobic. Videos of US law enforcement officers chasing and beating immigrants only confirm these impressions.

One simple gesture that Clinton can make is to publicly announce zero tolerance for mistreatment of immigrants by border agents. There can be vigorous enforcement of immigration laws without resorting to abuses, and the president could defuse current hard feelings in Mexico if he made his position clear.

*Finally, leave no doubt that US neutrality in Mexico's partisan politics is coupled with strong support for democratic transformation in that country. This is necessary for the people of Mexico, and for our own interests. Mexico's July midterm elections are enormously important in that country's struggle for democracy. At stake are control of Congress, the mayoralty of Mexico City, and six governorships.

Listen to fledgling democrats

Historically, the US has depended on the long-ruling PRI to provide a stable, reliable ally across the border. But times have changed. The PRI can no longer guarantee a complacent and compliant electorate. The political system built by the PRI and based on patronage and local political bosses is breaking down as more and more Mexicans demand a truly democratic system in which candidates compete on a level playing field and incumbents are held accountable.

Mexico's fledgling but vibrant democracy movement is demanding a new era of fairness and respect for the will of the people. Clinton should make clear that US interests are best served by a democratic neighbor. He will only inflame Mexican resentment if he is perceived to side with the ruling elite that has dominated Mexico for so long.

No relationship is more important to the safety and security of the United States than that with Mexico. The stakes are high as Clinton makes his first state visit across the Rio Grande. It is time for the president to demonstrate his statesmanship and set down an agenda that will lead to long-term stability and productive bilateral relations for the next century.

*Eric Olson is the associate for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America and author of "The Evolving Role of Mexico's Military in Public Security and Antinarcotics Programs."

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