When Mexican President-elect Vicente Fox arrives in Washington Aug. 23, US leaders will get their first glimpse of a man who wants nothing less than to reshape the Western Hemisphere.
Since his July 2 election, ending 71 years of monolithic rule in Mexico, Mr. Fox has begun espousing an ambitious vision that both intrigues and alarms officials here in Washington.
Fox's central goal is a North America in which the US, Canada, and Mexico form a partnership similar to the European Union. Ultimately that would mean an end to immigration and customs barriers, and the introduction of a common currency.
Mr. Fox is also urging the US to abolish Congress's annual review of how well Mexico is fighting drug traffickers.
Though US officials concede that they have been caught slightly off guard by the directness of Fox's agenda, they are not entirely dismissive of his aims. In a sense, Fox's plans are consistent with two overriding themes of US foreign policy - globalization and free trade.
"I think he has some bold and fascinating ideas," says a senior State Department official. "We'll be challenged to respond creatively to him."
Washington feathers ruffled
But, the official adds, there are also those in Washington who are sure to be turned off by how casually he is tossing around contentious issues like immigration and drug policy.
"There are certainly people who think he's being a little brash," said the official, who asked that he not be identified. "The honeymoon won't last forever, and these are some real hot-button issues here."
It's not clear how deep Mr. Fox will delve into these topics during his trip. He doesn't take office until Dec. 1 and, after a visit today in Ottawa with Canadian Premier Jean Chretien, he will come to Washington to meet two lame ducks: President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
More important, perhaps, will be his meetings with the two major presidential candidates, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. So far, Democrats and Republicans have been gushing over Fox, a man of 6-ft., 4-in. stature and near-legendary political proportions after ending decades of one-party rule.
Whoever wins the US presidency will surely have to consider a new way to recognize and reward Mexico for the progress it has made in recent years, particularly democratization.
Already, Fox's advisers are pushing for increased US aid for development along the 2,000-mile border the two countries share.
The last major initiative between Mexico and the US was the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which both sides have hailed as a success. NAFTA opened Mexico up to US companies and it helped stabilize the troubled Mexican economy.
But, says Eric Olson of the Washington Office on Latin America, "Fox hopes to get rid of some barriers that were not addressed by NAFTA - [including] the free flow of labor."
Opening the border to labor and immigration would take considerable work in Washington. Some US officials are concerned that to do so would displace American workers. Meanwhile, Mexicans say it is the only way to create economic parity between the two countries.
In the meantime, Fox and his advisers reportedly want the US to raise the annual number of legal immigrants to 350,000 from 75,000 - an increase that would probably face stiff opposition in Washington.
Mr. Fox may have more hope of ending Congress's annual drug-policy reviews.
Enacted in 1986, the review process was intended to force other countries to apply tougher drug laws. If they didn't, the US would not certify them and they would be subject to sanctions.
But cooperation with Mexico is so important to US drug policy that Congress can hardly refuse certification. So, in effect, the annual review has become little more than a chance for lawmakers to publicly criticize Mexico.
Mexicans find the process demeaning and hypocritical - especially considering that the US is far and away the No. 1 consumer of illegal drugs. Also, they say, it breaks the sense of teamwork that is necessary for international antidrug operations.
Outdated drug policy?
US drug czar Barry McCaffrey has said that he thinks the certification process has outlived its usefulness and, according to a congressional staffer, "most of Congress is in favor" of changing the law.
Another issue sure to come up in this week's meetings is violence along the border. The Mexican press reports that so far this year 340 Mexicans have died trying to sneak into the US. Some have drowned and one was shot by vigilantes.
Fox is expected to urge the US to use more humane means to prevent illegal border crossings.
"This is a very emotional issue for most Mexicans, and Fox would really like to do something about it," says Mr. Olson, who spoke by telephone from Mexico.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society