Clinton's Aloofness Leaves Mexicans Barely Enchanted

Tight security during trip keeps US president from the people, despite official progress on drugs, NAFTA.

Bill Clinton's first presidential trip to Mexico this week brought an unexpected "Clintonmania," stated one Mexico City daily.

Unfortunately for Mr. Clinton, the reference was to unprecedented security measures that put thousands of police on the streets and kept him from making much public contact.

For a president set on using his famed communicative powers on Mexicans offended by recent US treatment, his trip was only a partial success.

On the three main topics of his trip - illegal drugs, immigration, trade - Clinton emphasized "cooperation," "mutual respect," and "dignity," all words Mexicans wanted to hear. But the distance he was forced to keep by cautious security forces reinforced what even Mexican officials complain has been US "aloofness" to Mexico and Latin America.

"I came here because our relationship with the United States is so important and because I think this president wants to treat even a poor country like Mexico with respect. But this was disappointing," said Roberto Aguilar, a luggage shop manager who waited two hours to see the Clintons when they attended a concert in Mexico City Tuesday night. Other than a speeding black limousine, he didn't get a glimpse.

The visit "was cordial, but it was rigorously controlled and watched over," says Sergio Aguayo, a Mexico City political analyst. Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len "didn't want one single incident."

Clinton had wanted to reach average Mexicans with a message of friendship and partnership in an era of interdependence and intertwined economies. With a potentially rocky three-year performance review of North American Free Trade Agreement beginning soon back home, Clinton was also out to convince wary Americans of the wisdom of working closer with Mexico. "The President [was] addressing both peoples" in his speech here on what has been accomplished by NAFTA, said Thomas "Mack" McClarty, counselor to the president.

Clinton demonstrated the skills he is known for. It's just not clear how many Mexicans felt touched by them.

Clinton quoted the revered former Mexican President Benito Jurez who said, "Respect for the rights of others is peace." And he won over thousands of business leaders and government employees when he told them, "Mexico me encanta" (I am enchanted by Mexico).

A new Mexico-US Alliance Against Drugs announced here, to result in a jointly agreed plan of action in nine months, began with a Binational Drug Threat Assessment that emphasizes the high cost to both Mexico and the US of the $50 billion US drug market.

Speaking to a people offended by the US certification process that annually grades drug-supplying countries on their antidrug effort, Clinton acknowledged that the US, with 5 percent of the world's population, consumes one-third of the world's cocaine. And noting that 200 Mexican police were killed in the line of duty last year, he said "the money we spend on illegal drugs fuels narcotraffickers who attack your police and prey on your institutions."

For the first time, a US president included meetings with opposition political parties in a Mexico visit. That signaled US acknowledgement of an increasingly pluralistic Mexico, and the end of what political analysts say has been unquestioned US support for the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), the government party that has ruled Mexico for nearly 70 years. Mexico faces national elections July 6, which for the first time could result in the opposition's control of Congress. Clinton's gesture "helps deflate the old idea that the triumph of the opposition will be chaos," says Mr. Aguayo.

ALSO drawing attention was Clinton's wreath-laying at the altar to Mexico's Nios Hroes, military cadets who defended their country to the death against invading US troops during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Several Mexicans said it was "offensive" to see the US flag flying alongside the monument. But "Mexicans who took Clinton's gesture as an insult are stuck in the retrograde thinking of 100 years ago," says Ismael Urquiso Flix, a cooperative farmer from Zacatecas invited to hear Clinton's NAFTA speech. "I took the gesture as a recognition of patriotism."

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