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Mexico Walks Tightrope Between Pride and U.S. Ties

Nationalism: Rhetoric is of equality, respect--even as some fear American influence on coming elections.


MEXICO CITY — Draped beneath the presidential box at the Bellas Artes theater here during the "Concert for William Clinton" on Tuesday night were three thick stripes of red, white and blue that the Mexican government designed for President Clinton's state visit.

The bunting, which flew in place of the Stars and Stripes throughout the Mexican capital this week, stood in sharp contrast to the scene here just last month, when streets were festooned with real Spanish flags to honor visiting King Juan Carlos I of Spain--the nation that ruled over Mexico as colonial master for three centuries.

For many analysts, the ersatz U.S. flag was emblematic of the schizophrenia in Mexico's relations with its powerful northern neighbor.

As Clinton and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo bent over backward to present themselves and their nations as equals and partners, that banner represented the narrow path the Mexican government must navigate between the demands of national pride and its interdependence on the far wealthier and more powerful United States--especially just two months before key national elections here that could redraw Mexico's political landscape.

Throughout the three-day visit, Clinton and Zedillo scripted their speeches to address those sensitivities. Clinton used the words "mutual respect" and "partnership" like a mantra to describe a relationship that Zedillo stressed again and again must be based on "national sovereignty."

Inside the National Auditorium on Wednesday, where both leaders spoke to an invited audience of Mexico City's business, political and social elite, the real Stars and Stripes flew as large as the Mexican flag during an event titled, "Present and Future Mexico-United States Relations."

"We seek a peaceful, prosperous partnership filled with respect and dignity," Clinton declared following the giant-screen showing of a slick film enshrining the North American Free Trade Agreement as the foundation of a new U.S.-Mexican partnership.

But the U.S. president alluded only briefly to what several analysts here saw as a hidden Mexican agenda--one in which the government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had to walk the same tightrope between Mexican pride and U.S. partnership.

Clinton congratulated Mexico for "bold political reforms" that have made the upcoming July 6 polls for Mexico's lower house of Congress, Mexico City's mayor and half a dozen governorships "the most intensely contested elections in your history."

At a news conference the previous day, though, Clinton dodged a question that many analysts here are asking: After decades of strong U.S. support for Mexico's ruling-party governments, how would Clinton react to an opposition legislative victory this summer?

"Clinton played up the Mexican rhetoric beautifully, but it was pretty thin cover," said Mexican political analyst Federico Estevez. "This is two months from election day here, and this character came down here on a campaign swing for [Zedillo] and the PRI."

For Estevez and other independent analysts, Clinton's dozens of photo opportunities with Zedillo--and the lavish praise he consistently heaped on Mexico's president--served to boost the image of Zedillo's party, which is locked in its tightest electoral battle ever to retain control of the Chamber of Deputies and the capital city.

And on Wednesday, Clinton was flown to Tlaxcala, a traditional PRI stronghold about 50 miles east of the capital, for what resembled a classic ruling-party campaign rally--thousands of "ordinary Mexicans" were bused in by officials, who handed out tiny U.S. flags.

The analysts stressed that Zedillo and the PRI, like the government that the party has controlled for nearly seven decades, had to mix those "photo ops" with a heavy dose of Mexican nationalism for domestic political consumption.

"The Mexican government and the PRI, on the 'Yankee issue,' have to tiptoe around on eggshells, it's true," said Estevez, a professor at Mexico's Autonomous Institute of Technology. That was especially true after a series of bitter disputes recently between Mexico and the United States on the issues of drug trafficking and illegal immigration, he added.

"You really did need a reconciliation chapter in the relationship after the bubbling conflicts of the last few months," he said. "But really--two months before election day?"

The White House flatly denied any political motives. Clearly conscious of the political implications of the trip's timing, though, it arranged for Clinton to meet for 15 minutes each with leaders of three major political parties here, including the PRI. They were the first such meetings ever held, and helped blunt criticism of the visit by the opposition, which has gained vast political ground nationwide during the past two years.

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