- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

President Bush yesterday hailed "the new birth of freedom" in Mexico ahead of talks there today with President Vicente Fox that will likely focus on the drug trade, migration issues and America's energy needs.
"We must work with our neighbors to build a Western hemisphere of freedom and prosperity, a hemisphere bound together by shared ideals and free trade from the Arctic to the Andes to Cape Horn," Mr. Bush said during a rare visit to the State Department.
"Building this hemisphere of freedom will be a fundamental commitment of my administration."
Mr. Bush, who on his first foreign trip as president will visit Mr. Fox's ranch in Guanajuato state, said the talks were intended to build a "partnership characterized by cooperation, creativity and mutual respect."
Mr. Bush, until recently governor of Texas, has known Mr. Fox personally for five years and has frequently expressed affection for Mexico's people and culture. The presidents both own ranches and share a taste for plain talk and cowboy gear.
Their almost simultaneous rise to power sparked hopes in both countries for a fresh approach to the relationship as Mexico, boosted by the North American Free Trade Agreement, surpassed Japan this year to become the second largest U.S. trading partner after Canada.
"These are exciting times in Mexico, times of change and times of possibility," Mr. Bush said. "Mexico has seen a new birth of freedom, and trade is creating hope and economic progress."
With his election last year, Mr. Fox ended a 70-year hold on the presidency by the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.
Mr. Bush's trip to Foggy Bottom marked the first time in decades a sitting president has visited the State Department solely to honor U.S. diplomats, whom he praised for spreading American values to remote corners of the world.
Addressing an enthusiastic crowd of about 1,000 employees, Mr. Bush said he was looking forward to hearing his Mexican counterpart's ideas on trade, the safe and orderly movement of people across the U.S.-Mexican border, education, drug trafficking and other types of organized crime.
White House officials stressed that the trip was part of a long-term strategy to improve relations with Mexico, not a "summit" to settle immediate problems or sign agreements.
Mr. Bush leaves Andrews Air Force Base this morning for Leon Airport in Mexico, where he meets Mr. Fox and travels to his host's ranch. He returns to Texas in the late afternoon.
Mr. Bush has said the United States must behave with "humility" as the world's only superpower and he has been sympathetic to complaints by Mexico that undocumented Mexicans have faced brutality at the hands of private U.S. citizens.
A senior administration official said at the White House yesterday that Mr. Bush is considering a split in the Immigration and Naturalization Service to separate the officials who deal with legal migrants from those who perform policing functions for illegals.
Mr. Bush will focus on the need for "humane treatment and that borders be enforced but enforced both humanely and in a modern way," said the senior official.
"Some look south and see problems," Mr. Bush said at the State Department. "Not me. I look south and see opportunities and potential."
The senior administration official predicted the leaders would talk about expanding NAFTA into a Free Trade Area of the Americas, "as well as how to promote free trade more generally in the region."
Regarding energy, U.S. officials have been suggesting Mexico could provide oil, gas and possibly electricity to help the California energy shortage.
"President Fox has made it clear that he believes that the development of energy resources in Mexico is going to be important to his economy, as well as to our own," said the official. "I'm quite certain that they will talk about how to capitalize energy development in Mexico."
While Mexican law prohibits foreign ownership of the nationalized petroleum industry, it has been suggested that U.S. investors could pay for construction of power plants in Mexico that would burn Mexican gas and send the power to California.
The two leaders will also discuss the U.S. decision to comply with a NAFTA panel ruling requiring Mexican trucks to be allowed into the United States.
"The United States is committed now to trying to implement the decision," said the official. "But safety is a major concern. And so there will need to be talks about how to implement, how to move forward."
Mr. Bush said his trip was a prelude to a Summit of the Americas in April in Quebec City, where he looks forward "to discussing how we can build a century of the Americas."
Sean Scully contributed to this report.

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