MEXICO CITY -- President Clinton arrives here tonight in hopes of forging stronger ties with a nation inexorably linked with the United States by commerce, history, immigration -- and mutual misunderstandings.
Clinton comes anticipating a warm welcome from Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who is expected to hail his U.S. counterpart as a statesman who fought for NAFTA, rescued the peso and prevented a belligerent U.S. Congress from declaring Mexico uncooperative in the war on drugs.
Yet the president's visit has also sparked protests at the U.S. Embassy, prompted complaints that he's insulted Mexico's Congress by not planning to address it and unleashed historic fears among Mexicans -- including Zedillo himself -- that the true aim of the United States is to dominate, not help, its neighbor to the south.
"The relationship is one of paradoxes," said Jorge Bustamante, president of a research institute in Baja California Norte. If the Americans aren't careful, he added, the whole visit could be "a comedy of errors."
U.S. officials insist that they will avoid that pitfall. Aware that Clinton is arriving in campaign season -- Mexico's midterm elections are July 6 -- they have scheduled him to meet not just his ally Zedillo, but also opposition political leaders, the first time a U.S. president has done so. Clinton also will speak directly to the people of Mexico in a nationally televised address.
And though he will privately press U.S. interests -- particularly relating to the drug war -- in public he will stress the historic levels of cooperation and trade between the two nations, trade that since the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S. bailout of the peso has resulted in a net trade surplus for Mexico.
Some critics -- in Mexico and in the United States -- have said now is not a good time for a visit, but White House officials say the president had little choice.
In his fifth year in office, Clinton hadn't visited Mexico -- Ronald Reagan came four times, George Bush once -- despite having invested enormous political capital in this nation of nearly 100 million people.
Moreover, under Clinton's expansive definition of foreign policy,
which includes such issues as trade, immigration and drug trafficking, it's hard to imagine a nation more important to the United States.
Mexico is now the United States' third largest trading partner; it has replaced Colombia as the home of the world's deadliest drug cartels; and U.S. immigration policy is a source of friction.
"If you put all of this together, I think there's no question that Mexico is the most important country for the United States," said Jesus Silva Herzog, Mexico's ambassador in Washington.
Administration officials agree that Mexico is very important.
"I think that the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States has never been broader nor deeper," said Jeffrey Davidow, an assistant secretary of state.
Yet deep cultural chasms remain.
The friction all starts with immigration.
Administration officials assert what they see as self-evident truths: that the United States accepts more legal immigrants than any other country, that all nations have the right to control their borders, and that allowing undocumented immigrants to sneak across the boundary is unfair to those following the law by waiting their turn for legal papers.
But it's not so simple south of the border. For starters, the Mexican Constitution guarantees its citizens freedom of movement outside Mexico -- and the interest of its government is to ensure they are humanely treated wherever they go.
"The U.S. has focused mostly on building barriers -- both physical and legal -- as well as [emphasizing] interception," Mexican Foreign Minister Jose Angel Gurria said last week. "Mexico, on the other hand, has rallied its resources around the protection of migrants."
Many Mexicans also object to a provision signed by Clinton curbing welfare benefits for legal immigrants. Politically influential Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes called the recent U.S. crackdown on illegal immigration "fascist."
But if such reactions strike Americans as hypersensitive, in Mexico the complaint is that U.S. leaders are insensitive.
They point to the recent congressional debate on whether to "decertify" Mexico because of inadequate cooperation in the war on drugs, a legal status that requires sanctions on the offending country.
To Mexican leaders, the very idea of the United States unilaterally making such a determination brings back unpleasant memories of Yankee imperialism.
"We've been outspoken on certification because we reject the concept," Zedillo said in a session with U.S. reporters Friday. "We believe it violates certain principles of international law."
Mexico's president added that such actions by the United States feel like a threat to Mexico's sovereignty.