Getting Along With Mexico Just Got Harder, but Healthier

Recent election brings more voices into the cross-border relationship

Now that Mexico is a true democracy, its neighbors may end up longing for simpler times.

When former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari submitted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the Mexican Congress in 1993, he had little trouble getting approval.

With his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dominating Mexico's Congress, a rubber-stamping of the complex and revolutionary law was wrapped up in three weeks.

US officials who deal with Mexico may soon look back on the NAFTA approval and find themselves sighing, "Those were the days."

Like other foreign governments and international observers, US officials are heaping praise on Mexico for the results of its July 6 vote. Not only were the national elections seen as largely free of the widespread fraud that has tainted Mexican elections in the past, but they gave the country a truly pluralistic Congress for the first time in seven decades.

But a more democratic Mexico won't in the short term be all roses. With more voices speaking up and expressing different opinions, Mexico will be a more complex neighbor, which in some ways will be more difficult to work with, analysts on both sides of the border agree.

Yet despite prospects for a bumpier, less predictable ride ahead, dealing with a truly democratic regime should also make for a stronger relationship, some observers say.

"This [election result] can only be helpful. Relations will be stronger when you know an agreement is based on a national consensus, and not simply on the imperial presidency delivering it," says Sidney Weintraub, a Mexico specialist at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

Before this month's vote, Mexico's PRI held absolute majorities in both houses of Congress and rarely murmured a discouraging word over presidential proposals. Since 1929, the president has always hailed from the PRI's ranks. After this month's vote, however, no party will dominate the 500-seat lower house and President Ernesto Zedillo will need the nod of more than just his own PRI to pass new laws.

In the Senate, the PRI will retain a majority, but will lose the two-thirds majority that would have facilitated its dominance over a more rebellious lower house. The tectonic shift in Congress, plus the election of prominent opposition leader Cuauhtmoc Crdenas as mayor of Mexico City, mean important changes for Mexico. Not only more political parties but special-interest and watchdog groups will add their voice to a political system that for decades has been a virtual solo.

But the changes also portend a new environment for the US - one it should be able to benefit from if it embraces Mexico's new reality. "This is an opportunity for the US to know Mexico better by working with it through a wider variety of channels and perspectives," says Gustavo Vega, coordinator of the Mexico-United States-Canada Program at Colgio de Mexico in Mexico City.

"There will be more paths for knowing different emerging sectors of Mexican society, and for not being surprised by them."

Mr. Crdenas set an example of the type of dialogue that may occur more frequently when he went to New York during his campaign to reassure investors that a Mexico City ruled by him and his leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) would both welcome and be profitable terrain for foreign investment. Crdenas has been one of Mexico's most prominent critics of market-oriented economic reforms and a staunch defender of nationalist policies.

The PRD, which will increase its representation in the lower house of Congress to 125 seats, may push for a new emphasis in two areas with significant impact on US-Mexico relations, Vega says: migration and drug interdiction.

The nationalist PRD, Vega says, is likely to encourage Mexico to pursue a drug-interdiction course that is more independent of US influence and agencies. It is also likely to push for the US, as the world's largest narcotics consumer, to do more about interdiction on its own side of the fence. The party can also be expected to push for the immigration issue to be formally addressed either within NAFTA or in the form of some other bilateral agreement, he adds.

One forum that should become more relevant is the annual binational meetings that bring together US and Mexican members of Congress. "In the past, these meetings didn't have much meaning, because the US side knew the Mexican Congress was little more than an appendage of the executive," Vega says. Such meetings may now be more contentious on some issues, but they should also mean more and be more balanced.

A more democratic Mexico may have little short-term impact on the issues of drug-trafficking and immigration, most analysts agree. Over the longer term, the changes now taking place in Mexico should help reduce the country's widespread corruption by breaking up encrusted power structures and replacing them with more pluralistic local, judicial, and military administrations. And cutting corruption would help disrupt the officially protected channels on which drug-trafficking depends.

But one issue that should receive a quick boost from Mexico's democratic course is NAFTA, Mr. Weintraub says. "Ever since NAFTA went into effect, we've heard from the critics [in the US] that we shouldn't be doing business with an undemocratic government," he says. "We're seeing that argument taken away from them."

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