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Test for Mexico on U.S. Ties

January 14, 2003

By telling the truth about the complex relationships between the United States and Mexico, Jorge Castaneda brought fresh air to Mexican politics. But the foreign minister tried to do more than was possible, and unsurprisingly he resigned in frustration last week.

It is possible that a quieter post-Castaneda relationship is what Mexico and the United States need right now, but Castaneda's spark did give new visibility to immigration issues and, had the Sept. 11 attacks not occurred, might have changed cross-border politics for good.

Castaneda's replacement is Luis Ernesto Derbez, an economist known mostly for his closeness and loyalty to President Vicente Fox. Trained at Iowa State University, Derbez held a mid-level position at the World Bank and also worked at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Derbez's background certainly suggests that economics rather than human rights will be at the top of Mexico's foreign agenda. Fox, likely now to have a stronger presence in foreign affairs, should focus on enhancing the course set by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

For Mexico, now one of the 10 nonpermanent members of the United Nations Security Council (courtesy of Castaneda's insistence), the next month or two will test relations with the United States. The Bush administration obviously wants Mexico on its side in any decision to take military action against Iraq, but polls indicate the vast majority of Mexicans are opposed to any war. Quitting now certainly saved Castaneda from having to navigate that particular swamp.

Fox will also feel pressure from peasant unions, controlled by opposition parties, to renegotiate in order to protect Mexico's agricultural sector. NAFTA is settled law, but with crucial midterm elections in July, Fox will have a hard time resisting some protectionist demands.

The Mexican left, a vociferous bunch, will also seek a return to close relations with Cuba. This would mean dropping support of human rights as a cornerstone of Mexico's foreign policy. Fidel Castro's personal dislike of Castaneda forced the former foreign minister to waste political capital at home denouncing human rights violations in Cuba. But Mexico achieved a role that better suits a regional power.

Fox will surely miss his fiery friend and intellectual mentor, but with the help of the U.S. government in keeping the relationship stable he can and should resist the clamor at home to turn the clock backward.

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