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Jewish World Review July 31, 2002 / 22 Menachem-Av, 5762

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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South of the border |
Two years ago, Vicente Fox was elected president of Mexico in a blaze of hope-the first time the ruling PRI had been defeated in 71 years. The conventional wisdom today is that Fox has been a disappointment. He spent much of his first year dealing with the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, only to have his settlement rejected by the Zapatistas. He has failed to get his tax plan and reform of the state oil company, Pemex, through the Congress, in which neither his PAN nor the PRI nor the leftist PRD has a majority.

In recent weeks he has had to deal with violent protests of plans for a new Mexico City airport. "Changes in Mexico are not taking place at the intensity and with the velocity that some people expected," admits Communications Director Rodolfo Elizondo.

But this is not the whole picture. Economic growth has slowed in Mexico-inevitably, given its close ties with the United States. But the peso remains strong, the banking system is solid, and Mexico has gone through its first election cycle since the 1970s without a currency devaluation. As Elizondo says, "I think the government has succeeded in maintaining macroeconomic and fiscal discipline. In spite of the crisis in the U.S. and around the world, we are doing well when we are compared with the rest of Latin America."

Even more important, Fox seems to be making progress in changing the culture of corruption in law enforcement. He appointed a general, Rafael Macedo, as attorney general, and has used the military to enforce the law. The results have been spectacular with the arrests of accused crime lords-Tijuana drug cartel leader Benjamín Arellano Félix and Gulf cartel leader Adán Medrano in March, cocaine kingpin Jesús Albino Quintero Meraz in May, and kidnapping chief Pedro Barragán in June. Some law enforcement experts, like Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México scholar Raúl Benítez Manaut, have qualms about the long-term effects of using the military, and Jorge Fernández Menéndez, editor of the daily newspaper Milenio, points out that even after "you get big hits in the drug traffic, you still have organizations in regions-smaller, but still a problem."

The long-term solution, Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda agrees, is to create civilian police forces with cultures of honesty. But he argues Fox has made headway against "a culture of impunity."

Positive trends. While South American countries are faced with civil war (Colombia, Venezuela), economic collapse (Argentina), or irresponsible leftism (Brazil, if Lula da Silva, currently leading in polls, is elected president in October), Mexico is becoming more democratic, respectful of human rights, and hospitable to market-led economic growth. That trend may be strengthened if Fox's PAN gains seats in the July 2003 elections for the lower house of the Congress.

The United States has an interest in accelerating this progress in a country with 100 million people and a 2,066-mile border with the United States. One way to do that is to reach agreement on the immigration issues Fox raised with George W. Bush on his state visit the week before September 11-regularization of the status of Mexicans currently in the United States, a guest-worker program, changes in visa procedures, and border security questions. Castañeda says that Mexico is seeking a package of agreements on all these issues with the Bush administration, some of which will have to be approved by the U.S. Congress. Such an agreement, Fernández and Benítez agree, would be of great political benefit to Fox.

Understandably, the administration has been distracted by 9/11 and is reluctant to make the border more permeable (though many more terrorists have reached the United States through our visa facilitation process in Saudi Arabia than over our southern border).

But the slowdown in the U.S. economy has produced a slowdown in immigration from Mexico. Moreover, Castañeda argues, Mexico's slow population growth, if combined with robust economic advance, will mean lower immigration sometime in the 2010s. Bush and some congressional Democrats have been competing for Latino votes, and agreement seems unlikely before November 2002. But Bush and the Democrats basically agree that our immigration laws need to work in tandem with the labor market and that it is not good for millions of Mexicans to live in the United States outside the law. There is a powerful case that Bush and the Democrats should work to reach agreement with Mexico soon. It is in our national interest to help Fox and Mexico keep moving in the right direction.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone