- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

President Bush will find out today if good fences do make good neighbors when he sits down with Mexican President-elect Felipe Calderon for their first face-to-face conversation.

The two men say they will talk about free trade, economic growth and security — but the hottest topic is likely to be immigration, and Mr. Bush’s signature two weeks ago on a bill to erect 698 miles of fence on the international boundary between the two nations.

Mr. Calderon criticized the fence yesterday in a meeting with Hispanic groups, saying he sees “the U.S.-Mexico border not covered in walls and barbed wire, but as an area of opportunity and prosperity for Mexicans and Americans both.”

Neither side would say whether the fence was specifically on today’s agenda. Mexican officials said it was more important at this stage that the two men have a chance to meet and establish a relationship, and Mr. Calderon tried to play down expectations this week, calling it a chance “to establish a first contact.”

A White House official said having the meeting even before Mr. Calderon’s Dec. 1 inauguration “reflects the importance we attach to continued strong ties with our hemispheric partner and neighbor.”

The Mexican president-elect made his first international visit last month to Canada to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the day Mr. Bush signed the fence act. The visit was a clear signal, said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based think tank.

“That was noted by everyone. That was noted as almost a sign of aggressive sovereignty on Calderon’s part,” Mr. Birns said.

At a press conference after that meeting, Mr. Calderon was harshly critical of the fence, and he isn’t the only leader protesting. Over the weekend, leaders from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, meeting in an Ibero-American summit, said the fence “incites discrimination and xenophobia.”

Mr. Bush previously has spoken with Mr. Calderon by phone, calling in the days after Mexico’s election to congratulate him on securing the most votes, even though he had not yet been declared the winner.

At 44, Mr. Calderon will be among the youngest presidents in Mexico’s history. He is from the same party as outgoing President Vicente Fox, who is leaving because of Mexico’s one-term limit on the office.

Like Mr. Fox and, for that matter, Mr. Bush, Mr. Calderon studied at Harvard, earning a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government.

Mr. Birns said today’s meeting could be the beginning of a productive working relationship because the two men need each other. In addition to border issues, he said Mr. Bush also might take the opportunity to sound out Mr. Calderon, a former energy secretary, on energy policy.

“They can help each other, and the help is largely on the border, but I also think Bush may very well make a reference to energy because that in a sense is even more important to Bush right now,” Mr. Birns said.

Asked recently about Mr. Calderon’s statements on the fence, White House press secretary Tony Snow focused on the cooperation both nations have shown on the border in fighting drug trafficking. Mr. Snow also said Mr. Bush is considering a host of measures on the border.

“The president understands the sensitivities, but on the other hand, he also understands the importance of securing the border,” Mr. Snow said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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