Despite the 2,000-mile border it shares with the United States, Mexico has often found its powerful northern neighbor with its back turned, gazing across the Atlantic to seemingly more pressing foreign-policy matters in Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Concentrating the mind
Now Mexico has come into focus for the United States. The prospect of political instability next door in a nation of 90 million mostly poor people is clearly unsettling.
President Clinton patched together a $50 billion rescue plan, including $20 billion in U.S. guarantees, in an effort to stabilize the peso. Even so, the U.S. trade surplus of $1.5 billion with Mexico last year is expected to become a $10 billion to $15 billion deficit this year as Mexicans eschew expensive American imports and Americans snap up cheap Mexican exports.
The Mexican economic slide will cost the United States 380,000 jobs over the next two years, a recent study estimated. With Mexico's minimum wage now the equivalent of $3 a day, more Mexicans will cross the U.S. border to find work that pays. If the Mexican crisis doesn't ease, the U.S. government says, illegal immigration could increase by 500,000.
There's an old Mexican saying: When the United States sneezes, Mexico catches a cold. And when the United States catches a cold, Mexico gets pneumonia.
Now there should be an American corollary: When Mexico gets pneumonia, the United States at least sneezes.
James Bock is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun and its former bureau chief in Mexico City.