- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2004

MEXICO CITY - At the end of a long day, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza sits in his living room, sips a tequila and chats with a group of college students.

The twentysomethings are on their way to the United States for a tour of graduate schools. They speak perfect English. They play classical masterpieces on Mr. Garza’s grand piano.

The ambassador asks them about their dreams.

“I don’t think there is a Mexican dream,” one student says.

For Mr. Garza, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, that is a tragedy.

He tells the students that their country is losing droves of its hardest-working people to the United States. He asks how many plan to return to Mexico, and only a few students raise their hands. He encourages them to return and take a stake in their country.

Antonio Oscar Garza Jr., a friend of President Bush and a political appointee, probably will continue his stay in Mexico now that Mr. Bush has won a second term.

With the announcement by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell this month that the Bush administration will make immigration reform and a temporary-worker program a high priority, Mr. Garza has his work cut out for him.

He will toil behind the scenes to ensure that decision-makers in Washington and Mexico City have a good flow of information.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, plans to reintroduce his temporary-worker bill in January when the 109th Congress convenes.

“It has a better chance now than any time in the recent past,” Mr. Cornyn said.

Although the passage of a worker program will depend on Congress, Mr. Garza, a native of Brownsville, Texas, says he can offer a sense of the motivation behind immigration and an insight into the debate.

A week before the Nov. 2 elections, Mr. Garza allowed a reporter to trail him for a glimpse of his life as ambassador.

He said he has enjoyed his work immensely and “plans to be here for a while, or as long as the president will let me.”

“I bring my life’s experience with me,” said Mr. Garza, 45 and single. He grew up on the border, the son of a gas station owner. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and the Southern Methodist University law school. Now he is in charge of one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world, after Iraq and Egypt.

Mr. Garza oversees nine consulates and about 1,500 employees who work for three dozen agencies.

The U.S. relationship with Mexico was declared among the most important at the beginning of Mr. Bush’s presidency, but slid to the back burner after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Immigration reform went nowhere.

Most Mexicans oppose the war in Iraq, and neither Mr. Bush nor his Democratic election rival Sen. John Kerry spoke much about Latin America during the presidential campaign.

For Mr. Garza, work in Mexico will continue to revolve around talks on immigration, border security, counterterrorism and encouraging increased efficiency and privatization in the economy.

“He has special credibility with Mexican officials,” Mr. Cornyn said. “They know of his close relationship with President Bush and the first lady.”

Mr. Garza is optimistic about Mexico’s progress toward democracy and is not worried about the strident political divisions in the country today. A minority party stormed Congress last month and shut down operations for a day. That doesn’t faze him.

Neither does a political feud between the president of Mexico and the mayor of Mexico City, a top contender for the presidency in 2006. The next presidential election in Mexico promises to be a free-for-all. Such clashes are to be expected, Mr. Garza said.

As the country strives for a transition to democracy after 71 years of one-party rule, “it’s going to be louder,” the ambassador added.

A day in the life

Around 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, Mr. Garza greets FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who flew into Mexico City for a visit with President Vicente Fox. Neither Mr. Garza nor Mr. Mueller say what topics are to be discussed.

The FBI chief says only that he wants to “continue the good relations” between the two countries and thank Mr. Fox for his cooperation.

Cooperation isn’t always easy to get. Mr. Garza didn’t succeed in his first tough assignment as new ambassador in November 2002, when he sought to persuade the Mexican government to support the war in Iraq. Mr. Fox squarely opposed it.

Mr. Garza also faced protests from corn farmers who opposed lifting tariffs on U.S. corn imports to Mexico. The farmers stood outside his office during his first two months in Mexico City.

Such is the life of the ambassador.

When Mr. Garza walks into a weekly briefing with nearly two dozen department heads, everyone stands at attention. When he sits, they start an orderly update on the latest work of the embassy.

There’s a new procedure for reporting names of terror suspects, a woman says. The Secret Service is protecting former President Jimmy Carter on his trip to Puebla for Habitat for Humanity, says another. The Drug Enforcement Administration says it will get several new officers along the border.

After a few meetings, Mr. Garza hops into the back of his black, bulletproof 32-V Northstar Cadillac and heads to the Mexican counterpart of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. There, he hears a presentation on how Mexico has improved procedures to keep track of people who enter and leave the country. Technology for scanning passports and checking airplane passenger manifests has improved, Mexican officials say.

Mr. Garza lends support to this kind of work by his presence.

It’s important to work on the relationship and build a more secure border, he says later in the car.

Combating terrorism and maintaining normal immigration functions is a challenge in the post-September 11 world.

The hardest thing after the attacks was for consular officers who review visa applications to feel confident in their judgment and give visas to people, Mr. Garza says.

Nobody wanted to be the one who let in the next terrorist. He told his staff to trust their own judgment and not succumb to the “nobody comes in” mentality.

Back at Mr. Garza’s residence, servants in white jackets and gloves await.

The ambassador lunches with the acting head of the National Science Foundation and several Mexican scientists.

Mr. Garza’s house is modern, concrete, airy and void of clutter. He has turned it into an art gallery, with works by Mexican and American artists, including four large sculptures on the wall that focus on different parts of the face. He even has a painting by noted Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo on loan in one of the living rooms.

Outside on the lawn, his two chocolate labs, Lucas (named after a character in a Julio Cortazar book) and Milo (short for Emiliano Zapata), lounge in view of the lunch guests.

The scientists mingle while Mr. Garza attends to business upstairs. He joins them after a while for small talk and a tumbler of his favorite tequila, Gran Centenario Plata.

The group then enjoys spicy beet soup and talks about the need to loosen restrictions on Mexican university scientists and researchers who want to participate in for-profit ventures.

Dining on medallions of pork and sweet potatoes, the group talks about the need for more venture capital. Mexico needs to extend capital to people with great ideas, not just those from wealthy families, the scientists say.

As chocolate ice cream and chocolate chip cookies come around, Mr. Garza readies for his next activity. He chats amiably as his guests finish their cordials, thanks them profusely and ushers them out.

He heads to Mr. Fox’s office to attend a meeting with the FBI director.

Another role back home?

Mr. Garza is tall, charming and an excellent conversationalist. His golf handicap is a 10 or 11. He’s a fine-art aficionado, but also goes for popular culture. He just read Kinky Friedman’s new book, “‘Scuse Me While I Whip This Out.”

Mr. Friedman, a humorist, performer, mystery writer and Texas Monthly columnist, says he’ll run for governor in 2006.

Could it be that Mr. Garza is checking out the competition?

Some say the ambassador would make a good governor of Texas, or perhaps U.S. senator. His name had been bandied about in the press during Mr. Bush’s first term as a potential Cabinet appointment, possibly secretary of energy, before he was named ambassador.

Mr. Garza’s political career began in 1988, when he was the first Republican elected to a countywide office in traditionally Democratic south Texas. He met Mr. Bush, who was then campaigning in the Rio Grande Valley for his father’s presidential bid. Mr. Garza invited “W” to his swearing-in as Cameron County judge on Dec. 23, 1988, and the younger Mr. Bush showed up.

When “W” became governor of Texas in 1994, he made Mr. Garza his first appointment, naming him secretary of state. The two traveled to Mexico together during those years. Mr. Garza then became the first Hispanic Republican elected to statewide office as Texas railroad commissioner in 1998.

In Mexico, Mr. Garza is putting to use his experience living along the border.

“In many respects, I am a product of the border,” he said, “and that is particularly valuable. The border is an area where we get a sense of what is possible between the two countries.”

Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a professor of international relations at the Autonomous Mexican Institute of Technology, says Mr. Garza is liked by the business sector and official circles.

Mr. Fernandez writes opinion pieces for Mexican newspapers and magazines, and says Mr. Garza frequently sends him notes when in disagreement with something he wrote.

Mr. Garza “has a good dialogue with opinion-makers here,” Mr. Fernandez said. “If he disagrees, he just tells you so.”

Mr. Fernandez wonders about Mr. Garza’s political future.

“I’m worried about him leaving Mexico, especially in the next two years, when we have to take advantage of his relationship with Bush to push forward on immigration. I hope that he will be here.”

Mr. Garza is mum on his political ambitions and repeats a phrase that Mr. Bush shared with him early in his career.

“When it’s time to move on, you’ll have options,” Mr. Garza recited. “If you don’t do your job well, it won’t matter anyway.”

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