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Setback for Fox and U.S.-Mexico Relations

Castaneda's resignation could fuel distrust of Washington.

January 12, 2003|Denise Dresser

The resignation of Mexico's foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, could be a major blow to the Fox government, a death sentence for its refurbished foreign policy and a setback for the new relationship between Mexico and the United States.

Castaneda has good reason to pack up his bags and go home. Mexico's more assertive foreign policy has been a source of constant controversy since its inception in President Vicente Fox's administration.

Some Mexicans congratulate Fox for seeking closer ties with the United States, while others condemn him for it. Some applaud Mexico's pursuit of an immigration accord, while others denounce it as a waste of time. Some pat Fox on the back for knocking on Washington's door, while others deride him for returning empty-handed. Through it all, Castaneda has been a whipping boy for recalcitrant Mexican elites, intent on living in the past.

Castaneda's vision is under attack in Mexico because it reveals unfinished business: Despite almost a decade of free trade and accelerated integration, Mexico still hasn't figured out whether it wants to embrace the United States or denounce it.

Castaneda came under constant attack because he revealed the contradictions of past policies that drove the two countries apart while immigration and trade bound them even closer together. He paid the price of a divided national psyche, split between those who want Mexico to remain a Latin American country and those who want it to become a North American partner.

Castaneda's almost obsessive pursuit of an immigration accord was part of a bigger, grander scheme: the end of a foreign policy steeped in anti-Americanism. For the last 150 years, Mexico had defined itself in opposition to the United States; Mexican nationalism was construed as a response to American imperialism, and Mexicans were taught to distrust their neighbors to the north instead of negotiating with them.

Castaneda wanted his fellow countrymen to be pro-Mexican without being anti-American; he wanted Mexico to pursue its national interests without jeopardizing its bilateral understandings. Unfortunately, Castaneda's nationalistic, inward-looking enemies in Mexico didn't understand this historic shift and neither did the Bush administration. At home, Castaneda was skewered; in the United States -- in the aftermath of Sept. 11 -- he was simply ignored.

Castaneda was able to place the immigration issue on George W. Bush's mental map. But prospects for an ambitious accord were buried beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center, and now the United States has become too obsessed with its enemies in Iraq to worry about its friends in Mexico.

Mexico's new foreign policy will not survive the loss of a minister who was willing to take big risks in order to reap big rewards. The inertia of past policies will prevail, Castaneda's successor will muddle through, and old, reflexive views will replace innovative stances.

Foreign policy was the one area where Fox could boast that change was indeed taking place, the one realm where paralysis had not set in. With no one to push him, Fox will stand still.

Castaneda's departure means dusty foreign policy principles and atavistic resentments could end up replacing constructive proposals. Disengagement could replace engagement. Mexico might revert to policies fueled by anti-American paradigms instead of proposing solutions based on mutual trust.

If Mexico returns to the labyrinth of solitude, the United States will find few interlocutors there.

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Denise Dresser is a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and a visiting fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles.

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