George W. Bush’s decision to make his first overseas trip to Mexico, in mid-February, has generated a great deal of speculation about what this could possibly mean for changes in U.S. policy toward Latin America over the next four years. It is clear that Mexico is vastly more familiar and comfortable for Bush than any other foreign country. In light of the questions raised about the former Texas governor’s foreign policy experience and competence during the campaign, it is hardly surprising that he would look first to the country immediately south of the Rio Grande to show he is up to the job.
Bush could be tempted to explore some initiative that would symbolize the “special relationship” he is seeking with Mexico. This would naturally mean responding in some fashion to Mexican President Vicente Fox’s bold proposals on the two most contentious issues in the bilateral relationship: drugs and immigration. During the U.S. presidential campaign, both Bush and Gore seemed to be caught off guard by Fox’s audacity. They had presumably wanted greater democracy in Mexico, but were not prepared to deal with such an independent leader who defied all of the conventions in U.S.-Mexico relations. The triumph of the first opposition figure to defeat what Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa had once described as “the perfect dictatorship” gave the initiative to Mexico in forging a more constructive partnership with the United States.
It will not be easy to take full advantage of the opportunity afforded by the beginning of both the Mexican and U.S. administrations. Fox is likely to encounter some resistance within Mexico to the notion of deepening ties with the United States even further. In trying to serve as an interlocutor for the rest of Latin America with the United States, he will face a tough balancing act. How will Mexico retain its Latin American identityand its credibility on an array of hemispheric questionsas it moves closer to the United States? Mexico, after all, played a key role in facilitating political settlements to the Central American conflicts in the 1980s and 1990s. Particularly in view of Fox’s rather bold and promising gestures aimed at resolving the conflict between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the Mexican leader may well want to become active in trying to find a peaceful settlement to the decades-long conflict in Colombia. Mexico’s heightened visibility on Colombia and other hemispheric questions could put some strain on its “special relationship” with the United States, whose $1.3 billion mostly military, anti-drug aid package to Colombia has provoked a backlash throughout Latin America.
Bush, in turn, will surely be tested politically, both within his party and among Democrats, to win support for special terms to deal with Mexico on the drug and immigration questions. And it is far from clear whether other key members of the U.S. and Mexican foreign policy teamsmost notably, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castanedawill see eye-to-eye on such sensitive questions. Bush and Fox may both be ranchers, but the former general and Gulf War hero, and one of Latin America’s leading, left-leaning intellectuals, do not exactly share a common background.
Although the U.S.-Mexico relationship has in the past set the tone for U.S. relations with the rest of Latin America, it may be increasingly difficult to extrapolate from Mexico to other countries of the region. When looking beyond Mexico, Bush and his team are on less familiar terrain. As a result, there is likely to considerable continuity with Clinton’s Latin American policy, just as there was in 1993 when the administration of Bush’s father ended and Clinton’s began. It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of inertia in U.S. relations with most of Latin America and the Caribbean. If anything, the penchant for unilateral action, already strong, could well intensify. The Bush team will probably assign greater weight to matters of “national interest” and realpolitik, narrowly defined, as reflected in what has come to be known as the “Powell doctrine.” The rhetoric coming from Washington on “softer issues” of democracy and human rights is apt to decline somewhatand the attacks on Castro’s Cuba and Aristide’s Haiti could well heat up. (Haiti was in fact the only major