Union Tribune

March 15, 2003

Mexico fears backlash from vote on Iraq


WASHINGTON – As Mexico faces up to heavy U.S. pressure to vote its way in the Iraq crisis, it also confronts the possibility of a widespread U.S. backlash.

"If the perception of the average American is that his neighbor abandoned him at this crucial time, the stigma would last for generations and be made manifest in a multitude of individual actions," Mexican analyst and historian Enrique Krauze warned this month in a Mexico City newspaper.

Krauze cited danger of commercial boycotts, restrictions on trade and widespread resentment at the White House, in local and state governments and in the U.S. press. He fretted that Mexicans living in the United States might suffer "discrimination, persecutions, etc."

Krauze's pessimism is widely shared by Mexican diplomats here, some of whom acknowledge that they are praying that the U.S. resolution that would authorize a possible war with Iraq will never come to a vote. Indications are that Mexican President Vicente Fox, facing overwhelming public opposition to the war, would invoke Mexico's tradition of nonintervention and either vote "no" or abstain. Either way, he would antagonize the White House.

Mexico's ambassador to the United States was active this week trying to head off the sort of hostility that is pestering France, featuring boycotts on cheese, mocking jokes and bitter commentary on French diplomacy and French character. Juan José Bremer urged U.S. appreciation for "the remarkable progress" Washington and Mexico City have achieved in managing what he called "the most intense bilateral relationship in the world."

President Bush increased that intensity last week in statements that provoked alarm in Mexico, where they made front-page news. While Bush said he did not expect "significant retribution from the government" against Security Council member nations that didn't line up with the United States, he pointedly left open the possibility of a popular backlash.

The president's comments caused consternation among Mexican-Americans, who longed for the pre-Sept. 11 era when Bush and Fox were "the two amigos" pledging unflagging friendship and celebrating the increasing economic and cultural integration of their two countries. They also spoke optimistically about the prospects for an immigration deal that would legalize the status of millions of Mexicans living illegally in the United States.

But in the tensions of the post-Sept. 11 era, that coziness has been dissipated.

Antonia Hernández, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, said this week that Bush's March 3 remarks, which came in an interview with reporters from Copley News Service and other news organizations, would encourage anti-Mexican sentiment.

Mexico expert Robert Pastor said his recent appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" TV show on the Fox network convinced him that there is real danger of an anti-Mexican backlash.

"He just leveled into Mexico," Pastor said of the show's host, Bill O'Reilly. "I can assure you that these things resonate out there," he said.

Peter H. Smith, professor of political science at the University of California San Diego, said Bush's comments were widely perceived in Mexico as a threat and may have eliminated any possibility that Fox would line up with the United States at the United Nations.

"The costs to Fox of taking the U.S. side would be very high, higher than they would have been if they hadn't received those threats," Smith said. He said Fox could not afford to be perceived as submitting to pressure from an American president.

Moreover, said Smith, the concession Fox most wants from the United States – an immigration deal – is out of the question. "We simply cannot do to that in the post 9/11 environment," said Smith, adding that heightened security concerns make it politically impossible to agree to a deal that would be seen as a loosening of the border.

Harvard professor and Latin American scholar John Coatsworth said Mexican fears of a widespread backlash are exaggerated. "Mexico has yet to recognize that it has immense strength in the relationship with the United States that it has not yet begun to exploit," Coatsworth said.