IN THE 35 YEARS since an American president, John F. Kennedy, last paid a state visit to Mexico, the relationship across the Rio Grande has become steadily more complicated, more sensitive and more important.
President Kennedy's 1962 meeting with Mexican President Adolfo Lopez Mateos was an occasion for grandiose rhetoric about the Alliance for Progress (remember that?) and vague talk about economic cooperation. The true U.S. objective, not always realized, was to solidify Mexico's cooperation in the Cold War.
This time President Clinton and Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo will meet in the shadow of narcotics problems that did not exist in the Kennedy era. Americans scold Mexico as the chief conduit for the drug flow that bedevils U.S. society. Mexicans, while toughening enforcement, say it is the big-money U.S. appetite for drugs that corrupts their country.
The drug issue has inflamed nationalistic sentiment on both countries. It will be a Clinton-Zedillo objective to calm passions and restore good feelings in a relationship where they have invested much political capital. It was Mr. Clinton, in his first term, who pushed through Congress the North American Free Trade Agreement over the objections of many Democrats. It has been Mr. Zedillo's task, under both U.S. and domestic pressure, to open up a political system throttled for seven decades by his own PRI party.
U.S. Ambassador James Jones believes the transition Mr. Zedillo is attempting to manage, so far with uninspiring results, is the most important since Mexico's civil war early in this century. It comes at a time when the economic divide between an industrializing north and a backward south has rarely been greater, when the masses are rebelling against a feudal system that locks in poverty and when free market forces are propelling Mexico into the First World before it is ready.
The flow of immigrants to U.S. jobs Americans don't want to do heightens strains between two neighbors with vastly different cultures and history. Mexico depends on remittances from its citizens working in the U.S. but chafes at having to export their labor. The U.S. needs both legal and illegal immigrants but increasingly tries to penalize them under laws passed on Mr. Clinton's watch.
The result is resentment, habitual but exacerbated, that may find expression in protests during Mr. Clinton's visit today and tomorrow. Yet his record defines him as Mexico-friendly. One of President Zedillo's obligations is to make this clear to the Mexican people.
Pub Date: 5/05/97