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Bush's Mexico Connection Signals Key Policy Initiative

Politics: He has friends in high places and says, as president, he'd seek a hemisphere-wide trade zone.

June 22, 2000|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Texas — To George W. Bush, Greeks may be Grecians, and the leaders of India, Pakistan and Chechnya may go unnamed. But when it comes to Mexico, even obscure officials are familiar territory.

"Tomas is terrific, worked with him a lot," Bush volunteers of Tomas Yarrington, governor of Tamaulipas, a Mexican state that shares a lengthy border with Texas. "You know Patricio?" he asks an observer, referring to Patricio Martinez Garcia, the governor of Chihuahua, another Mexican border state.

For a man with a reputation as a foreign policy neophyte, Bush's fluency in things Mexican may come as a jolt. But as governor of a state that exported $41 billion worth of goods to Mexico last year across 1,200 miles of shared border, Bush may be the most Mexico-savvy politician ever to run for president.

Critics contend that Bush's record with Mexico, characterized by frequent visits and easy friendships with the country's power brokers, is heavier on style than substance. And it is true that he has done little to tackle the toughest long-term issues on the border: drug trafficking, illegal immigration and pollution.

But a close examination of Bush's years as Texas governor shows he has forged a substantial record on cross-border issues. His fixation on what he calls "missed opportunities" in the region suggests that U.S. policy in Latin America, particularly trade policy, is likely to undergo a considerable transformation if he becomes president.

Bush said in a recent interview that if he is elected, one of his first foreign policy initiatives would be to revive efforts to create the hemisphere-wide trade bloc first proposed by his father, former President Bush. The idea has languished during the Clinton administration.

The proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas would have 800 million consumers and a combined gross domestic product of $10 trillion. It would be the largest single market in the world, opening up the vast Latin American continent to the entry of competitively priced U.S. goods.

Bush and other proponents argue that the pact would spur economic growth in the United States and modernization and democratization throughout the Americas. It would make it no more difficult, in terms of duties and quotas, to sell an Ohio-built washing machine in Brazil than it is to sell the same product in Indiana.

But a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone is fiercely opposed by labor unions and environmentalists, who say it would spur U.S. companies to move their operations to Latin America, much as some firms have opened factories in Mexico since the North American Free Trade Agreement was adopted. They also contend it would undermine protection of worker rights and the environment.

Governor Supports Mexico on Trucking

Addressing a more immediate dispute, Bush said that as president he would move immediately to carry out a key NAFTA provision to permit Mexican trucking firms to operate on U.S. roads.

Implementation of the provision is being fought by the administration, which says Mexico has not adequately addressed concerns about the safety of its trucks. The issue has created a major rift with Mexico, which accuses the United States of reneging on a key element of the 1994 trade accord.

"This is something I know a lot about," Bush said of the region in a recent interview on his campaign plane. "This is something I do feel comfortable with. And that's going to make it a lot easier to get things done."

Indeed, in his five years as governor, Bush has done far more than learn the names of Mexican officials. He secured money to build the bridges, highways and other infrastructure needed to handle the booming trade between Texas and Mexico.

Bush championed a program to help Mexico fight tuberculosis along the border. He arranged to lend Mexico water when it was crippled by drought, provided firefighters when it was ravaged by forest fires and contributed expertise that led to a small but real decrease in pollution on the border.

On the international stage, Bush bucked Republican Party orthodoxy during the anti-immigrant era of then-California Gov. Pete Wilson, condemning calls to cut services to immigrants. He worked against the tide in Congress by lobbying for the administration's 1995 bailout of the Mexican peso.

In so doing, Bush has forged what might best be termed an independent foreign policy, not only with Mexico but with Latin America as a whole.

Some observers believe that, if he is elected president, his familiarity with the region might bring it out of the shadows of U.S. foreign policy.

"For a candidate sometimes accused of not having much of a foreign policy, Latin America provides him the opportunity to say, 'I do have experience. I am from Texas, and I've seen the numbers. I've seen it work,' " said Georges Fauriol, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

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