Bush Meets Fox for Mexico Visit

Friday, February 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LEON, Mexico (AP) — President Bush made his first presidential trip outside U.S. borders Friday, visiting Mexico with plans to soothe friction over immigration, trade and drugs and build a partnership based on ``cooperation, creativity and mutual respect.''

Bush was met by Mexican President Vicente Fox as soon as Air Force One touched down at Deguanajuato Airport. Bush descended the plane's stairs alone and walked up to Fox with open arms. The two exchanged a handshake and quick hug.

Fox squired Bush along a row of Mexican dignitaries, including Fox's young son, Rodrigo. Bush reciprocated, introducing Fox to Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow.

After a brief ceremony, the two leaders headed to the nearby farm town of San Cristobal, about 210 miles northwest of Mexico City, to discuss ways to improve ties between the nations of the Western Hemisphere and plans for a Summit of the Americas scheduled in Canada in April.

``Our future cannot be separated from the future of our neighbors,'' Bush said Thursday. He said he wants U.S.-Mexican relations to become the hallmark of ``a Western Hemisphere of freedom and prosperity,'' and he takes Fox's input on those issues seriously.

``I look forward to discussing how we can build a century of the Americas,'' Bush told an audience of 700 State Department employees Thursday. ``Mexico has seen a new birth of freedom, and trade is creating hope and economic progress. The doors are open to a closer partnership with the United States. But nothing about this new relationship is inevitable. Only through hard work will we get it right.''

Outside of that, Bush and Fox are looking simply to enjoy each other's company. Bush will visit Fox's mother and pick up a pair of black cowboy boots from the mayor of San Cristobal before meeting with Fox at the Mexican president's small ranch home, nestled beside a vast field of broccoli.

``I look forward to renewing and deepening our friendship,'' Bush said of Fox. ``But I look forward even more to forging a deeper partnership between our two great nations, a partnership characterized by cooperation, creativity and mutual respect.''

Peter Hakin, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Western Hemisphere policy forum, said Bush is gently prodding Mexico toward a higher profile among other nations, especially since Fox's election brought the end of a 71-year, one-party hold on the Mexican government.

``Bush is bringing Fox and Mexico into, 'Let's think about the hemisphere,''' Hakin said. ``Mexico has really not only emerged as the second leading trade partner, but a real partner sort of on a broader level.''

Mexico has evolved as an economic player since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994. It recently eclipsed Japan to take the No. 2 slot among U.S. trading partners. Bush and Fox want to expand trade across the border, arguing that doing so will give Mexico the economic lift it needs to curb illegal immigration.

Bush and Fox also want to explore ways to change a 14-year-old law requiring the U.S. president to certify annually how nearly 30 countries are cooperating in the fight against drug trafficking. Mexico has never failed certification. The next deadline for State Department certification decisions is March 1.

Mexico views that process as condescending and hypocritical, given that the United States leads the world in illegal drug consumption. Fox wants the United States to find another way to address drug interdiction concerns.

Bush, too, is looking toward reform and hopes he can find it in a handful of bills before Congress. One proposal would exempt Mexico from the certification process for one year. Another would end the process altogether.

``There have been some questions raised on Capitol Hill on whether the current certification regime is, indeed, the most appropriate,'' said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. ``He is open to reviewing the proposals that have been made.''

Two administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thursday the White House is signaling a willingness to lift or dramatically alter the certification process as a gesture to Mexico. They noted that only Congress could change the law, and said it was highly unlikely that Bush would make his support a part of his joint statement with Fox.

Bush made at least six trips to Mexico while governor of Texas, and he and Fox have met three times. Before becoming president, Fox was governor of Guanajuato state, which has one of the highest rates of migration to the United States.


On the Net:

White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov

Library of Congress on Mexico: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/mxtoc.html