Union Tribune

May 7, 2003

Mexican official seeks to heal breach with U.S.


WASHINGTON – Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez is scheduled to make the rounds here today as he attempts to restore warmth to a diplomatic relationship that has grown frosty because of White House irritation at Mexico's opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Derbez's visit comes right after a Cinco de Mayo that was conspicuous Monday for the absence of the gala White House festivities of the last two years. Newspapers in Mexico fretted about the perceived slight, suggesting it was revenge for Mexican President Vicente Fox's spurning of President Bush's personal appeal for support in the war.

"I think Derbez is trying to put a happier face on what has been a difficult diplomatic moment," said Delal Baer, a Mexico expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Derbez will begin his day with a talk at the public policy think tank. He is expected to meet later with Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and to speak with Hispanic congressional leaders.

Last year, Bush welcomed a big crowd of Mexican-American luminaries and the Mexican ambassador to the East Room for Cinco de Mayo festivities to mark the 1862 Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla.

The president introduced mariachis and gave a speech hailing Fox as "a great Mexican patriot, a man of honest talk and convictions." He also restated a claim that stirred Mexican hearts when he first made it in 2001: "The United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico."

This year, Bush settled for a brief statement that the White House released while he visited Arkansas. Bush didn't even mention Fox's name, although he did call for "a future of continued friendship and prosperity" between the countries and praised the "invaluable contributions of Mexican-Americans to our country."

In the absence of White House festivities, Ambassador Juan José Bremer this year hosted a celebration – with mariachis, margaritas and chiles rellenos – at the Mexican Cultural Institute. Speaking as always from a prepared text, the cautious and courtly diplomat called attention to his country's close cooperation with the United States in strengthening border security and in waging fights against drug trafficking and organized crime.

Then Bremer asked for understanding from a president who, according to a State Department source, "was very, very disappointed" in Fox's anti-war stance, even though it corresponded to public opinion polls showing overwhelming Mexican opposition to the U.S. invasion.

"In such a broad relationship, the most intense between any two countries, it is only natural that sometimes differences may arise," Bremer said. "But we can also say objectively that both countries have reached a level of maturity and good faith in the dealings with each other."

Baer said the U.S.-Mexico relationship could reach another crossroads in the coming weeks, as the U.N. Security Council considers the reconstruction of Iraq. While the United States is looking to take a dominant role in the effort, some other nations are pressing for a multilateral approach.

If Mexico, a Security Council member, opposes the U.S. position once again, said Baer, "I think we're in for a rough ride" in its relationship with Washington.

The Bush administration's hard-nosed post-war diplomacy is extending well beyond Mexico, to other countries that lined up in the United Nations against the war.

Bush canceled a scheduled trip to Canada. Progress toward a free-trade agreement with Chile has stalled. And the German news weekly Der Spiegel this week reports "considerable annoyance" between Bush and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who have been feuding for months.