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Mexicans Send an Upbeat Message

They have a positive view of America, despite the bashing that is going on on both sides of the border.

September 15, 1996|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Public opinion polls are subject to varied interpretations even when conducted among people who have a lot in common. But when they compare public opinion in two countries, especially two countries as large and diverse as the United States and Mexico, the findings can be read every which way.

Take the groundbreaking poll released Friday by The Times and the respected Mexico City daily, Reforma. The two newspapers cooperated last month in random interviews of 1,500 Mexicans and 1,572 Americans. The intent was to assess how Mexicans and Americans feel about each other's country as well as their own.

Among the key findings: Only 42% of Americans have a favorable impression of Mexico, while 62% of Mexicans have a favorable impression of the United States.

Now, critics of the Mexican government, like my friend political scientist Jorge Castaneda, read these results as illustrating "a fundamental misunderstanding" between Mexico and the United States. Another political analyst read the results as possibly portending "an era of strained relations ahead."

I beg to differ, and am supported in my more optimistic view by Susan Pinkus, acting director of The Times Poll. She considers this and some other key results "not nearly as negative as one might have expected" given the recent controversies in the United States over Mexico-related issues like illegal immigration and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

For example, Pinkus was struck that while 95% of the Mexicans interviewed said that they consider their country to be in an economic crisis, only 20% said they were likely to come to the United States in the next 12 months to seek work. Granted, in a nation of 90 million, 20% is a lot of folks. But when this same question was posed in two previous Times Polls--to 1,800 Mexicans in 1989 and to 1,546 Mexicans in 1991--in both cases, 22% of the respondents said they were likely to head north. In other words, despite Mexico's current economic crisis being the worst since the Great Depression, the percentage of Mexicans thinking of leaving home for el norte has not significantly increased.

Or, to put it another way, despite the efforts by some fearmongering political figures to convince Americans that our southern border must be sealed to keep every unemployed Mexican from heading to Los Angeles, in reality "not that many Mexicans are looking to come up here," according to Pinkus.

The actual breakdown in response to that pivotal question is even more encouraging. Of the 20% who said they are likely to come north, only 7% said it was very likely, while 13% said it was somewhat likely. Almost twice as many, 39%, said it was very unlikely that they would head north.

Could it be that, for all the anger and divisiveness illegal immigration has generated in California and Washington since Proposition 187 was approved two years ago, that the real parameters of our Mexican immigration problem are neither as big nor as unmanageable as we think? That is what I've always suspected.

Similarly, I suspect that the other irritants in U.S.-Mexican relations that never seem to go away, like illegal drugs and trade disputes, are similarly manageable. But the first step toward managing them is getting political leaders in both countries to do a little less posturing for the benefit of their domestic constituencies, whether they be lobbyists for a specific industry or single-issue political activists.

In all fairness, I must note here that every U.S. politician who tries to score points by bashing Mexico probably has a counterpart south of the border who routinely bashes the United States because he or she thinks Mexican voters like it. But I think both the Mexico-bashers and the gringo-bashers misread the public mood.

That, in fact, is my biggest take-away from The Times-Reforma poll. Despite all the real, potential or even imagined problems that politicians on both sides of the border choose to dwell on, the majority of Mexicans and Americans are surprisingly upbeat about each other's country or, at the very least, open-minded enough to not feel negatively about their biggest and most important neighbor.

Consider, for example, that 62% of the Mexican respondents have a favorable view of the United States, even though 73% of them have never been to this country. And while only 42% of Americans have a favorable view of Mexico, another 14% said they simply don't know enough about that country to express an opinion. As Pinkus concluded, it is encouraging that a majority of Americans don't feel negatively toward Mexico in a year when Mexico has been bashed on everything from NAFTA to drugs to President Clinton's 1994 bailout loan after the Zedillo government's botched a peso devaluation.

For me, The Times-Reforma poll confirms something I have felt ever since I first went to Mexico in the 1970s as a young correspondent. For all of our historic differences and ongoing problems, the average Mexican genuinely likes Americans. And the feeling is reciprocated among those Americans who have looked beyond the negative stereotypes and know the real Mexico.

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