- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2001

President George W. Bush pledged during his campaign to turn his attention south, to a continent largely overlooked by his predecessor. On Feb. 16, Mr. Bush will make his first trip abroad, to Mexico, to meet with President Vincente Fox at his family ranch in San Cristobal.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Fox have an opportunity to begin a genuine and strategic friendship. The two leaders have much in common, on both personal and ideological levels. Both Mr. Fox and Mr. Bush vanquished candidates backed by political parties in power that had some murky financial backing. Although both presidents are conservatively minded, they appear to have a knack for building support across party lines. Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Fox and Mr. Bush were both successful in recasting the conservative platform to be more inclusive Mr. Bush through his "compassionate conservative" message and Mr. Fox by making an unprecedented pledge to protect the poor during his swearing-in as president.

The meeting between the two presidents could signal a new chapter in U.S.-Mexican relations. Mr. Fox's election victory lends Mexico unprecedented democratic credentials, by breaking the Institutional Revolutionary Party's seven-decade monopoly on power. Mr. Bush's decision to make a meeting with Mr. Fox a priority demonstrates a new direction in foreign policy. And there is a fresh optimism on the Mexican side. "We are not scared of engaging the U.S. anymore," said Mexico's foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, who met Tuesday with Secretary of State Colin Powell. "We will win some, we will lose some, and on most of them we will get half a loaf. But there are no taboo issues."

Mr. Fox favors the free movement of workers between U.S. and Mexican borders, a measure Mr. Bush has said America won't be ready for until Mexico can minimize the wage differential between the two countries. And while the Bush administration supports the existing U.S. sanctions on Cuba, Mr. Fox would like to see them dismantled.

These differences will have to be worked through over time and diplomacy. The Bush team is advocating initiatives that could boost solidarity between the two countries. In response to Mr. Powell's call to reduce U.S. sanctions, Sen. Christopher Dodd is introducing a measure to suspend an annual review process, known as certification, under which the United States is required to evaluate Mexico's counter-narcotics record. Mexico will, undoubtedly, hail certification's demise though it is by no means clear that the U.S. Congress is ready to take such a drastic step given Mexico's appalling drug record.

Finally, the Bush and Fox administrations will likely work together to help Colombia overcome its ongoing insurgent conflict. Mexico has already worked to try to broker a settlement between rebels and the Colombian government. And Mr. Powell said Tuesday the problem will ultimately have to be resolved through negotiations. Former President Bill Clinton gave the crisis little attention, focusing instead on pursuits more likely to be noticed by the Nobel Prize committee, such as the peace process in the Middle East and Ireland. Under Mr. Bush, Latin America will come back into focus. There is a great deal of good the United States can achieve, right in its own backyard.

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