How Will Mexico Deal With Being a Hot U.S. Election Issue?

By: Carlos Fuentes

Not since Pancho Villa raided Columbus, N.M., and Gen. John J. "Black Jack'' Pershing led his punitive force into Chihuahua in 1917 has Mexico been such a hot election issue in the United States. Migration, drug traffic, corruption, justice, financial assistance and free trade -- suddenly, for all these reasons, Mexico is a political target. It comes at the worst possible time for a nation in the depths of an economic, political and moral crisis and with the public loss of faith in deeply weakened government institutions. Yet Mexico would be passively suicidal if it did not forecast and respond to the pressures the U.S. political season in 1996 will surely bring to bear on us. We do have answers. What is yet to be proven is whether the inexperienced administration of President Ernesto Zedillo has the sufficient diplomatic ability to respond.

Mexican labor migrates to the United States because of U.S. market demand. Our workers are needed in tasks that U.S. citizens refuse to take on. Without the contribution of Mexican labor, food scarcity and higher prices would hit the United States and many services would go unattended. Undocumented workers pay more in taxes -- $29 billion yearly -- than they receive in social benefits. Yet their racial and cultural presence makes them the perfect scapegoats for problems generated within the United States, such as unemployment, defense layoffs and inadequate worker retraining. Both governments, it is true, are content to let things roll along as they are. Mexico, because it benefits from the contributions workers send back home -- $3 billion a year. The United States, because the lack of formal agreement permits it to admit workers in boom times, harass them in crises and manipulate them in the name of sacred borders, even if the price to be paid is a dangerous one: racism and xenophobia. When will it be recognized that this is not a police problem, but a question of bilateral flux in the labor market, demanding responsibilities from both Washington and Mexico City? Mexico should invest in the regions from which the majority of workers migrate. The United States should abide by the international agreements on protection of migrant workers and admit, without hypocrisy, the benefits of migration to the U.S. economy. I fervently hope Mexican workers will finally find adequate employment soon -- solely in Mexico. But the day that happens the United States will have to start looking for migrant labor from other parts of the world.

Drug traffic.
Mexico is the principal venue of drug traffic into the United States. Colombia is the main supplier. But the United States is the chief consumer. Without U.S. demand, there would be no Colombian production or Mexican intermediation. Yet it is supply that is satanized while demand is almost sanctified. Who are the U.S. drug dealers who pocket 75 cents of every narcodollar earned in the United States? When will the international community realize that only by legalizing drug use will drug traffic be defeated? If drugs are de-penalized it will save new generations from this terrible scourge. Drugs will loose their status appeal and become as common, unfortunately, as alcohol consumption. Some will still suffer, nobody's perfect. But others, attracted now by the rebel instinct, will lose interest fast.

Corruption and justice
During the 18th century, corruption was known in Spain as "the Mexican ointment.'' Yet Mexico is not the only, or even the most, corrupt nation in the world. Britain, France, Italy, Spain and the United States all have high levels of official corruption. The difference, of course, is that in other countries the corrupt can be discovered and brought to justice, while in Mexico, by tradition, impunity is sovereign. It is up to our citizens to fight this vice, denounce the guilty and bring them to the dock. Mexico is its own worst enemy when it gives up a Mexican citizen. For example, the drug lord Juan Garcia Abrego, to U.S. justice because he is a hot potato with whom, admittedly, we cannot deal in our own courts. How then can the United States respect Mexican justice? How can Mexico's corruption not be thrown back in our faces and made into a campaign issue, if we ourselves do not fight it? This is what politicians from Patrick J. Buchanan, the Republican presidential hopeful, to Sen. Alphonse D'Amato of New York are doing highlighting Mexican corruption with the purpose of decrying or putting limits on U.S. financial aid to Mexico. Of course, President Clinton's $20 million loan last year was meant to save U.S. investors and short-term creditors in Mexico, not to help the populace. That most of these investors had already benefited mightily from their Mexican ventures did not impress the Zedillo administration, which places repayment of foreign debt above such national priorities as employment, production, wages, savings and social policies.

Free trade
Finally, the U.S. election will target NAFTA as a tool to bludgeon both the U.S. and Mexican administrations. The treaty certainly favors the United States. It positions U.S. interests strongly above those of Japan and the European Community. But in an election year, groups wary of free trade will make themselves heard: among them, the teamsters, cement producers and tomato and avocado growers. The question remains how far Mexico can go honoring an agreement that fatally favors a strong United States over a weak neighbor. Mexico does not define the U.S. electoral calendars. Yet these tend to overshadow not only our interests, but even the long-range plans of the United States. Diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States have always been contentious. But after the Mexican Revolution, we both learned that even if conflict was inevitable, everything was negotiable, and disagreement in one area should not contaminate the relationship as a whole. Fortunately both nations have topflight envoys, James Jones in Mexico City, Jesus Silva-Herzog in Washington.

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