Zedillo visit marks new Calif.-Mexico relationship

President is to address Legislature during 3-day trip to northern neighbor

May 16, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MEXICO CITY -- When Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo arrives in Sacramento, Calif., this week, he will physically and symbolically lay in place the final link in a new bridge between California and Mexico, the state's most important international trading partner.

Zedillo's three-day swing through California marks the first high-level visit by a Mexican president in recent years. He will be the first Mexican leader to address a joint session of the California Legislature -- a testament to what Mexican officials say is a "new era in relations with California."

A recent trip to Mexico by California's new Democratic governor, Gray Davis was the initial step in repairing relations with Mexico. During the eight years California's governor was Republican Pete Wilson, whom Mexico saw as anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican, Mexico had scant official contact with the state.

Mexico even scrapped a 1996 trade tour when it learned Wilson would lead the California delegation.

Texas has long been Mexico's leading source of U.S. goods; $36.3 billion worth of trade went to Mexico from Texas in 1998. California sold $13.3 billion worth of goods to Mexicans last year.

During Davis' recent visit to Mexico, he invited Zedillo to tour the state where about 2.5 million Mexican-born immigrants live.

Zedillo's reciprocal trip marks a sea change in California-Mexico relations. His stops in San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oxnard and San Diego are all meant to highlight the renewed closeness between Mexico and the U.S. state with the largest population of both Mexican and Latin American immigrants as a whole.

In San Jose, Zedillo will meet briefly with Mayor Ron Gonzalez, then will go into talks with Silicon Valley business executives. Zedillo administration officials said those meetings will yield announcements of new investments in Mexico by the area's leading technology firms.

Zedillo and Bay Area business leaders also are likely to discuss Silicon Valley's need for trained high-tech workers -- and Mexico's concern about what are viewed as anti-Mexican immigration policies.

The issue of Proposition 187, California's law barring undocumented aliens from attending U.S. schools or receiving public-funded medical attention, may also come up during Zedillo's trip. Prop 187, seen in Mexico as the brainchild of ex-Gov. Wilson, has been the touchstone in the recent coolness between California and Mexico.

"It's not on the agenda, but if [Zedillo] does want to talk about Prop 187, he will do so only in private with Gov. Davis," said a Zedillo administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Mexico has no official position on that law. It's an internal law that we won't interfere with. Still, since it affects Mexicans, we can't help but see with interest what happens with that law."

From the moment Davis took office, California became a new financial focus for Mexico. After a private meeting between Davis and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu, the influential owner of Telefonos de Mexico moved his U.S. headquarters to Los Angeles from Texas.

Earlier this month, one of Mexico's leading grocery chains, Gigante, opened a big store in Pico Rivera, in the heart of California's Mexican-immigrant population.

"I'm not sure all of this would have happened so fast before Davis came into office," the Mexican official said.

Zedillo likely will field questions about immigration in public during his stay. A town hall-style meeting with Davis, community leaders and business executives is planned for Wednesday in Los Angeles.

Any public grilling of Zedillo will be watched closely in Mexico, where he has avoided unscripted press conferences in his five years as president. He has, however, granted interviews to some U.S. reporters.

Pub Date: 5/16/99

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