- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2001

MEXICO CITY — President Vicente Fox says the U.S. slowdown is delaying the economic boom he promised Mexico, and he vows to make his country a world leader — cooperating closely with his good friend George W. Bush.

In an interview Tuesday with executives and directors of the Associated Press, Mr. Fox said he engages in a lively, back-and-forth exchange with the U.S. president.

"We talk on the phone. He says, 'Fox, it's your turn, now move.' So I move. And I say, 'Now you have to.' So we're really working like partners," Mr. Fox said, speaking in English.

"We are playing the role of being a bridge to Latin America," he said, adding that the two presidents have worked together on issues regarding Venezuela, Colombia and Cuba.

Mr. Bush, who took office seven weeks after Mr. Fox, shares his taste for cowboy boots and life on the ranch. But Mr. Fox said the two still have many differences — he called the U.S. embargo on Cuba "nonsense" — and said Mexico would seek a more forceful, independent foreign policy. It is already campaigning for a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

"We want to move Mexico from being a country that hides away to a country that participates in global affairs, to be one of those 10 or 15 nations that conducts the world," he said. "We want to be in that sphere."

Mr. Fox said he has strengthened the Mexican economy, and boasted that interest rates under his administration have fallen from 18 percent to 8 percent, forcing banks to begin lending money again to make a profit.

But Mr. Fox said the U.S. economic slowdown is holding Mexico back — he has revised his growth estimates for this year from 4.5 percent to 2.5 percent.

Mr. Fox described a scandal over $443 towels and $1,060 sheets purchased for the presidential residence as an example of his government's openness. He said previous governments never would have disclosed such expenditures.

He has pledged to fire those responsible, adding that they include close aides.

Mr. Fox took office on Dec. 1 as the first opposition president after 71 years of single-party rule. He said his administration would soon ask Congress to create a citizens' "truth commission" to investigate past political misdeeds.

Many Mexicans have demanded the openings of secret archives about a 1968 massacre of students, the army's "disappearance" of leftists in the 1970s and other shadowy episodes in Mexico's past.

"We need to look to the future and forget about the past, forgive the past," Mr. Fox said.

He promoted his long-term goal of improving Mexico's economy enough so that the United States could open its borders to its southern neighbor within 20 years.

He suggested the United States could aid Mexico, much as wealthier European countries helped diminish the gap between their economies and those of Spain, Portugal and Greece before they joined together in the European Union.

Mr. Fox said the United States needs to realize that Mexican migrants are essential to U.S. economic growth.

"We must move from seeing migration as a problem to seeing it as an opportunity," he said.

He proposed a program to legalize migrants already in the United States, giving them temporary permits in areas where there are domestic labor shortages, such as in gardening, construction and software design. Mr. Fox has the support on that idea of Mr. Bush and of U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, who plans to introduce a bill in Congress.

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