- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2001

Mexicans can do much more than supply cheap labor, cheap products and expensive narcotics. By making making Mexico his first foreign visit, President George W. Bush signaled his awareness of the country's economic and geopolitical importance.

"Some look south and see problems," said Mr. Bush last week. "Not me. I look south and see opportunities and potential." If Mr. Bush is true to his statement, he will fashion a bold, long-term vision for Latin America which would depart from the Clintonian problem-containment policy, intended primarily for domestic consumption.

As the Bush administration has pointed out, Mexico could come to be an important source of energy for the United States. U.S. firms could provide capital to boost oil exploration and build pipelines, power plants and transmission lines. These initiatives would help bring down high oil and energy prices.

And the White House has also suggested it would back legislative proposals to give thousands of migrant, Mexican laborers temporary visas allowing them to live and work in the United States. This proposal could help make north-south migration more orderly and controllable, though it is undoubtedly true that few "temporary" workers would want to return. This could, however, protect many Mexican workers, who were previously forced to work underground, from abusive and exploitative working conditions. But the idea of delivering an amnesty for Mexicans currently living illegally in the United States, which is also garnering bipartisan support in Congress, is flawed because it would provide a tacit incentive for illegal immigration.

Proposals to scrap or suspend a process known as certification are also winning bipartisan support. Certification, under which countries' counter-narcotics initiatives are evaluated, is a major irritant in U.S.-Latin American relations, particularly with Mexico. If the White House decertifies a country, it becomes disqualified from receiving U.S. aid and could be subject to trade sanctions. Foreign nations resent having the world's top drug consumer hand down judgment regarding their drug-fighting efforts. After all, U.S. consumption contributes to some countries' most serious problems. While certification still is a useful tool, it might be amended. The White House should, however, try to limit the diplomatic fallout of certification by showcasing its own efforts to counter drug demand in the United States.

Leveling trade sanctions at decertified countries, for example, doesn't seem productive. However, it would be a mistake for the United States to dole out aid dollars to foreign governments that simply aren't making reasonable counter-narcotics efforts.

The United States could certainly improve its relations with Latin America countries by expanding trade and being a respectful neighbor. In today's globalized world, America's friendship with Latin America is increasingly important. Mexico should provide a solid foothold for economic development and U.S. influence in the region.

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