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Mexico Visit by Helms Reflects New Realities

Diplomacy: The North Carolina Republican and four fellow senators hope, among other goals, to lend support to Vicente Fox's reformist administration.


MEXICO CITY — There is substance behind the symbolism of this week's first-ever official visit to Mexico City by a delegation of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee--including its chairman, Jesse Helms, known in some circles here as Mexico-basher numero uno.

The substance has much to do with new political realities, including the growth of Latino immigrant constituencies back home, pressing border economic issues such as water and energy shortages, and a new impulse to legalize the status of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

The visit, scheduled to include a session with the Mexican Senate's Foreign Relations Committee today, is a gesture by the five U.S. senators to mend fences battered by years of bad faith and name calling and also to lend support to President Vicente Fox's reform-minded administration.

"My colleagues and I are here for a very simple purpose: to extend the hand of friendship," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said at a news conference here Tuesday. "We have several hundred years of history to overcome, but we also realize that we have shared interests and shared values."

But there are also pressing short-term political issues to be dealt with, which came up in talks the senators had with Fox on Monday night and with Mexican Cabinet members Tuesday.

Mexico wants an end to what it considers the humiliating "certification" process by which it must prove annually to the U.S. Congress that it is doing all it can to fight drug trafficking. The U.S. would like Mexico to join it at the U.N. in voting to censure Cuba on human rights issues. Mexico plans to abstain.

Helms (R-N.C.) is not especially popular here. He has criticized the former ruling party--the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI--variously as communist and corrupt. He opposed the 1995 bailout of the Mexican economy and helped quash the 1997 nomination of William F. Weld as U.S. ambassador to Mexico, which many here took as an affront.

On the Mexican side, Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda once described the Helms-Burton law, which penalizes foreign countries that invest in Cuba, as an "absurd tragicomedy."

On Tuesday, Helms' tone was conciliatory.

"We have come to establish a new spirit of cooperation between our two countries and to have an honest and open dialogue," he told reporters. "There is no end to what we can accomplish if we work together."

The change in Helms' attitude apparently came after Fox's election in July and Castaneda's subsequent overture to him during a meeting in Helms' office, after which the Republican senator offered to lead the committee delegation to Mexico.

"I have always said the good people of this great country deserve an honest government of their own choosing," Helms said. "Apparently the Mexican people felt the same way."

Other senators have visited here recently, including fellow Republican Phil Gramm of Texas, who came in February to unveil his guest worker proposal, but the combined session set for today will be the first of its kind.

Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) said in an interview that the timing of the visit provides an opportunity to open up better channels of communication as the U.S. Congress takes up proposed legislation to provide legal status to millions of undocumented workers.

"There is a general broad-based support for some kind of immigration reform," Hagel said. "There aren't very many people in Nebraska who are not aware of the fact that economic development in some districts is a direct result of having workers from Mexico coming in to work."

Mexican Sen. Fernando Margain Berlanga, a member of Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, and president of the Mexican Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he expects cooperation to grow between U.S. and Mexican lawmakers now that the PRI's grip on power has been broken and a more pluralistic Mexican legislature is taking an active role in shaping policy.

"It's important we look for direct contacts with senators of other countries, especially in the United States," Margain said.

Mexican Sen. German Sierra Sanchez, a PRI member, said another meeting between U.S. and Mexican senators has been scheduled for early May in Napa, Calif.

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