Once best buddies, future of relationship between Bush, Mexico's Fox clouded

Friday, August 16th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Mexican President Vicente Fox and President Bush seemed to be the best of friends shortly after their elections, exchanging gifts at Fox's ranch and planning ways to ease illegal immigration.

But many Mexicans are feeling increasingly orphaned by the United States since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, arguing that Fox has given too much to his buddy Bush and gotten nothing in return. That anger hit a boiling point when Texas executed a man Mexico said was one of its citizens, and Fox promptly canceled a trip to meet with Bush at his Texas ranch.

The move caught the White House off guard, and left the future of U.S.-Mexican relations uncertain. It was unclear if the two leaders would reschedule their meeting.

Although Javier Suarez Medina spent all but a few years of his life in the United States, Mexico mourned him like its own. His body was expected to be returned to Mexico on Friday for burial this weekend in the town of Piedras Negras.

His execution Wednesday in Texas for the murder of an undercover drug agent in Dallas rallied Mexican lawmakers and Fox around the same cause _ sparing Suarez's life.

It was a rare moment of agreement. The Mexican Congress has spent much of Fox's two years in office rejecting the president's proposals or modifying them beyond recognition. A few months ago, lawmakers even blocked Fox from traveling to the United States, arguing he needed to focus more on Mexico.

Some Mexican politicians have felt that Bush has increasingly abandoned this country after the Sept. 11 attacks shifted the focus of U.S. foreign policy from immigration reform to fighting terrorism. Many argue that Fox's cozy ties with the U.S. president _ including Mexico's many drug arrests and its anti-terrorism efforts _ have not been appreciated.

``It seems there is much giving, and we get nothing but smiles in return,'' said Mexican lawmaker Eddie Varon, a member of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. ``Things are going to be taken seriously now.''

That sentiment is a far cry from the optimism on both sides of the border in February 2001, when Fox and Bush walked like old friends around the pond at Fox's ranch and talked about ways to ease illegal immigration.

Yet even then, some Mexicans complained the meeting was overshadowed by U.S. and British airstrikes against Iraq, which took place hours before Fox and Bush emerged for a news conference in Fox's front yard.

Fox decided Wednesday to cancel his Texas trip in protest of the execution. His spokesman, Rodolfo Elizondo, said: ``It would be inappropriate, in these lamentable circumstances, to go ahead with the visit to Texas.''

Mexico, which has no death penalty, had argued that Suarez was a Mexican citizen who was denied his right to legal help from the Mexican consulate. Texas authorities said Suarez had, at different times, claimed both Mexico and El Paso, Texas, as his birthplace, making it unclear if he qualified for Mexican assistance.

Both U.S. and Mexican officials played down Fox's decision.

White House spokesman Jimmy Orr said Bush, a former Texas governor, ``respects President Fox and the two have an excellent professional relationship and a strong friendship.''

Fox spokeswoman Alicia Buenrostro echoed that sentiment Thursday, saying the two leaders have ``excellent communication'' and adding: ``Bush understands the situation perfectly.''

But many analysts said there was no question the Mexican president hurt his close friendship with Bush.

George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., compared it to ``shooting yourself in the foot with a machine gun.''

``Mexico has never had a president in the White House more pro-Mexico than George Bush, so why gratuitously offend him?'' Grayson asked.

While Fox's decision put U.S. relations on hold, it boosted his position at home, where critics say he spends too much time cozying up to the United States and too little working on domestic policy. The trip cancelation was a clear signal to Mexico's Congress, which has blocked him at every step.

``This favors the day-to-day internal work environment with Congress,'' Buenrostro conceded.

Varon, the congressman, applauded Fox's decision, saying it would help the president in his troubled relationship with lawmakers at a time when Fox is desperately trying to push through reforms allowing more private investment in the energy sector and relaxing labor laws.