- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2001

MEXICO CITY Hopes are sky-high ahead of Friday's visit by President Bush that the "cowboy summit" will open a new era in relations marked by greater cooperation on everything from the drug war to trade and immigration.

"For the first time, we are presented with the opportunity to make the United States-Mexico relationship a highly productive one," said Mexican President Vicente Fox who will host Mr. Bush at his ranch during a weekend press conference.

In reality though, there are many issues between the countries too difficult to be resolved quickly, no matter how strong the relationship is between the two leaders.

Much has been made of both presidents' penchants for boots, horses and folksy styles, as well as anecdotes recounting how they immediately clicked on a personal level the first time they met in 1996 when both were governors.

Two more meetings since then, in 1999 and in August last year when Mr. Fox had just won his election, have strengthened the chemistry between them.

Aides say the relationship is bolstered by the business backgrounds of both men and common ties to the highland state of Guanajuato. The state, which Mr. Fox governed before running for president, was the birthplace of the wife of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The Fox camp has sought to talk up what it calls "the democratic bonus" secured by ending 71 years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, and then managing a peaceful transition.

This, the new government insists, allows a new Mexico to stand tall on the world stage and demand to be taken seriously. In a pre-summit trip to Washington at the end of last month, Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda said, "We have nothing to be ashamed of any more."

But however open and flexible the new Mexican government, the rhetoric of partnership will not be easy to put into practice. The Fox team will probably be happy to come away from Friday's summit with a few firm indications of progress to come.

Mr. Fox said last weekend that immigration to the United States would be his top issue, while he also planned to discuss drug trafficking, energy and economic development.

He has promised his domestic audience that he will ask for amnesty for illegal workers in the United States, rhetorically calling on America to "never forget that it is what it is because of immigration."

The Mexican president also has welcomed a push by Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, for a guest-worker program for Mexican agricultural and service sector workers. The proposal is reminiscent of the Bracero program for land laborers in place between 1942 and 1964, but more closely resembles a German system involving primarily Turkish workers.

Mr. Fox's grander vision of turning the North American Free Trade Act into something akin to the European Union with open borders and a development fund to help Mexico catch up with its northern neighbors received a cool reception when he took it to the United States in August as president-elect. It has quietly dropped out of his speeches since he took office.

On the issue of drugs there have been recent signs of greater cooperation, with Mr. Fox's government supporting the extradition of traffickers wanted in the United States. Washington, in turn, has been remarkably quiet about a major drug kingpin's easy escape from a high-security jail last month.

Mr. Fox will be looking for a public signal from Mr. Bush that Mexico will be considered a partner in the fight against international organized drug crime, rather than a worrying link in the chain.

One effective way of doing this would be to promise to end the certification process, which is viewed by Mexico and other Latin American nations as an offensive ritual symbolizing U.S. disrespect for its southern neighbor.

According to some analysts, Mr. Fox could entice Mr. Bush to help him with his domestic goals on immigration and drugs by offering to help the United States cope with the California energy crisis.

But the Mexican president's room for maneuver is limited by a constitutional ban on foreign involvement in energy production and the knowledge that Mexico is quickly approaching the point where its own energy demands outstrip supply.

Other possible bargaining chips would be a toning down of Mexico's traditional defense of Cuba's right to self-determination and perhaps an expression of support for Plan Colombia, although Mexico's desire to become Latin America's bridge to the rest of the world makes this difficult.

Meanwhile, in the newly painted little town of San Cristobal near Mr. Fox's family ranch, locals are preparing tamales and dreaming of asking Mr. Bush for what they really want a visa to the United States.

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