Campus & Community

Mexico and U.S. mending fences:

7 min read

Former Mexican foreign minister speaks on ‘minicrisis’ in U.S.-Mexican relations

Former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda said U.S.-Mexican cooperation on drugs and regional issues were successes, but added that, though the U.S. had accepted the principle of negotiating an immigration agreement, reaching such an accord was ‘difficult even to imagine’ after 9/11. (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

Although the personal relationship between George Bush and Vicente Fox may have cooled since Mexico’s refusal to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda told an audience at Harvard’s Yenching Lecture Hall last Wednesday (May 14) that he believed the future was bright for relations between the two countries. In a speech titled “Mexico and America: Partners and Protagonists,” Castañeda struck a conciliatory tone and called President Bush “Mexico’s best friend in the United States.”

Castañeda’s talk – the Fourth Warren and Anita Manshel Lecture in American Foreign Policy – was preceded by brief introductions from Harvard Professors Samuel P. Huntington and Jorge Dominguez.

Wearing a midnight blue suit and gray tie, Castañeda spoke of the three “huge” changes that influenced Mexican thinking on foreign relations during the first years of the Fox administration. While Mexico had never played a pivotal role in the Cold War, Castañeda asserted that the demise of the Soviet bloc had necessitated a change in the traditional foreign policy for a country that had “on the one hand, been close to the United States for geographical, economic, and commercial reasons but also, for obvious reasons, had tried to reach out to other countries in the world.”

The last 10 or 12 years had also seen the simultaneous privatization and opening of the Mexican economy. Mexico’s trade was and is around 65-70 percent with the United States, Castañeda said. But whereas foreign trade used to represent only 10 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product, it now represents nearly 70 percent.

“[Trade with the United States] is an enormous part of a huge chunk of the economy which is devoted to international trade,” he said.

Finally, Castañeda cited the democratization of Mexican politics, including (“more or less”) clean elections and a truly independent legislature and judiciary. He said that power was now contended for at the polls and that, by the late 1990s, Mexico’s traditional authoritarian regime was gone.

Because of these changes in the world and in the Mexican economy and political system, Castañeda and Fox believed that their country’s foreign policy needed a sweeping overhaul. Because the United States was the dominant trading partner and political influence on Mexico, much of this policy change was geared toward relations with the United States.

Castañeda said that the Fox administration wanted foreign policy to go beyond the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He cited immigration as his government’s top priority and the most important item left out of the treaty. With nearly $1 billion remitted each month from nationals living and working abroad, the income generated by expatriate labor was enormously important to the Mexican economy.

“(Foreign remittance) is today the single largest source of hard currency (for Mexico),” he said.

The drug war is also a crucial issue for Mexico. Castañeda said that the Fox administration has drastically improved co-operation with the United States on narcotics trafficking. He said that Mexico has expedited the extradition of drug lords to the United States and has worked closely with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. He called the Mexican military’s conduct in the matter “more efficient and transparent.”

Finally, Castañeda mentioned trade, energy, and regional issues as priorities in the new Mexican foreign policy. He said that, as foreign minister, he had tried to get trade barriers lifted on sugar and on trucking and had also tried to make Mexico more of a player on regional issues such as the crisis in Venezuela, the drug war in Colombia, and the near collapse of the Argentinean economy.

Castañeda claimed as successes U.S.-Mexican cooperation on drugs and regional issues, but said that, although the United States had for the first time accepted the principle of negotiating an agreement on immigration, reaching such an accord was “difficult even to imagine” after Sept. 11, 2001. He said he found a paradox between the Bush Administration’s enthusiasm for free trade and the lack of progress made on lifting barriers with Mexico on commodities such as sugar, tuna, and cement.

Castañeda devoted a good deal of time to explaining his country’s position and actions on the issue of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. He reminded the audience that, as a member of the UN Security Council, Mexico had assisted in the drafting of Resolution 1441, which threatened “severe consequences” if Iraq failed to disarm. But he said that the language of the resolution had been crafted in a way that was deliberately vague, in order to ensure passage. The vagueness allowed the United States to interpret the resolution as an authorization of force, while allowing other nations to understand that the U.S. and Britain would have to return to the council to get certification of noncompliance and authorization for military action.

He acknowledged that Mexico’s stance was a disappointment to the White House. Because of the evolution of Mexican foreign policy, though, Castañeda said that he was optimistic about the future of relations with the United States. With regard to Cuba, for instance, he said that, while Mexico continues to oppose the U.S. embargo as “illegal” and “unfair,” the Fox administration has taken more of a hardline stance on human rights. He said that Fox’s position on Cuba was much more vital to the country’s relationship with the United States than its vote on Iraq because of Mexico’s influence in Latin America.

Castañeda said that Mexico continues to be seen as a “close friend” of the United States and he challenged the United States to continue its support for further political, educational, and institutional reform in his country. He called on the Bush Administration to do more to support the development of democracy in Mexico and suggested concrete actions that the president could take such as attending the Summit of the Americas later this year, making the first state visit to Mexico by an American president since 1996, and beginning “a process of so-called baby steps on immigration,” aimed at eventually restarting negotiations.

Castañeda said that he thought the measures he suggested would be relatively easy for the United States. He worried, though that relations with Mexico were no longer a priority for the United States. He called the America’s lack of attention to its southern neighbor “a mistake,” and said that the consequences for the United States of a crisis in Mexico would be “enormous.”

He remained optimistic, though, primarily because of President Bush’s personal understanding of the importance of the U.S.-Mexican relationship. He said that Bush saw the problem of immigration in particular with a “broader perspective” than past presidents, and hoped that he would come back to the issue soon. In the meantime, he urged the Mexican government to keep fighting for progress on the question of amnesty for Mexicans already living and working in the United States and for greater opportunities for his countrymen yet to cross the border.