The San Diego Union-Tribune

September 7, 2001

Mexico's new-found democracy helps Fox make hit in U.S. visit

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By GEORGE E. CONDON JR. 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON -- There was something decidedly special about Vicente
Fox's address to Congress yesterday and, indeed, about the Mexican
president's entire visit to the United States this week.

Six of Fox's post-World War II predecessors have made the trek to address
Congress. But for the first time, there was a palpable sense that U.S.
lawmakers were hearing from an equal. An equal not in terms of national
wealth or military strength, but an equal as a democrat elected by a free
people.

Fox fully understands his unique position and never missed an opportunity at
the White House, on Capitol Hill or in Toledo to brandish his democratic
credentials.

"He is trying to cash in on the democracy bonus and trying to overcome these
deep pockets of anti-Mexican sentiment that have built up in the United
States," said M. Delal Baer, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies.

Over and over, Fox's message was that things are changing in Mexico, that he has already taken the actions that merited a fresh look not only from the U.S. government but from all Americans.

The applause in Congress, the backslaps at the White House and the cheers
at the University of Toledo indicated that part of the message is taking hold.
At the least, his historic election has bought him a respectful hearing in the
United States.

"It makes a tremendous amount of difference because he starts out with a
good many members of Congress who might not like specific proposals but
who want to give him the benefit of the doubt," said Sidney Weintraub, an
economist and former deputy assistant secretary of state.

"It doesn't mean that they'll support him in the end . . . but it gets him very far," he added.

But when Fox bids adios to President Bush today and begins his return to
Mexico City, he will leave behind the harder reality that he has much further to go. For all his eloquence and charisma, there is broad acknowledgment that the road ahead is strewn with many hurdles that will make achievement of the reform agenda favored by Fox very difficult.

As much as Fox's election has changed things, still unchanged is the
fundamental unpopularity of almost everything he is proposing.

"None of these are easy issues," Baer said. "There is an enormous will to
change, but there are also some very real obstacles to overcome."

Fox was at his most persuasive on his call for an end to the demeaning
practice of requiring the White House to certify Mexican cooperation in the
war against drugs as a prerequisite for U.S. aid. Though that change may still
be sidetracked by the inability of Democrats and Republicans to work
together in the Senate, it seems likely to happen.

He also may prevail on his insistence that the United States abide by its
commitment to allow Mexican trucks on U.S. highways. But a victory there
would come not because he has persuaded wary Americans, hostile
Teamsters or skeptical members of Congress. It would come because Bush
wields a potent veto pen and because the threat of Mexican reprisals against
U.S. trucking is real.

On the third issue pressed by Fox, the summit's impact on the migration
debate seems mixed at best.

At the White House, there was genuine surprise -- and not a little irritation --
at Fox's unexpected call for resolution of that debate by the end of this year.

"Fox is trying to keep the heat on," said one official familiar with the strategy
on both sides. "President Bush had tried to lower expectations a few days
before, and Mexico made a strategic decision that they wanted to keep the
heat on this issue and keep the momentum going. They don't want the issue to stall out."

But, added this official who asked not to be named, "it could very well
backfire. It did not go over well at all at the White House or State
Department."

Fox and, particularly, Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaņeda did not make
friends at the White House with this gambit. But with political advisers here
hoping that Bush would put migration reform on the back burner as soon as
Fox left, it was certainly understandable. Fox does not want all the pressure
on Bush to come from Republicans opposed to amnesty and legalization.

Having already won over the president, Fox had two other audiences that he
was trying to reach when he took to the podium in the House.

The first is the American public. The second is the Congress. That is why,
Baer said, the speech to Congress "was clearly the most important moment of his visit to the United States."

Historically, she said, "U.S. domestic interests tend to run roughshod over
Mexico in the U.S. Congress. He needs to change that."

Fox's performance, while certain to be judged a failure by those who demand
immediate action, was a symbolic masterstroke and a good early step toward
achieving the progress that eluded all his predecessors.

Above all, Baer said, Mexico wants to be recognized as unique and special
because of its proximity. That goal is closer today because Fox has shown
himself to be both unique and special in his approach to Washington.