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Reagan plans ride across the border to see Portillo

When Mexican President Porfirio Diaz exclaimed in the 1890s, "Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!" he was voicing a view held by Mexicans both before and after him.

In Mexican eyes, the US has often played the role of the big bully -- waging a war with Mexico in the 1840s, invading Mexico on numerous other occasions, and frequently insisting on its ideas in opposition to Mexican attitudes and opinions.

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Yet Mexican-US relations have improved in recent years with administrations in both countries working to undo the unpleasant legacy.

Now it is Ronald Reagan's turn. As a start, he will make a brief one-hour visit Jan. 5 to the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez to meet with Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo. The session will be more symbolic than substantial, but substance can and often does spring from such symbolism. The visit will be Mr. Reagan's first foreign trip since his election.

It also is not overlooked that Mr. Lopez Portillo was Jimmy Carter's first foreign visitor in February of 1977 -- and while the visit was largely ceremonial, the climate of incipient goodwill that it engendered was large. Unfortunately, the Carter administration chose to largely ignore Mexico in the following two years except for acerbic statements by Energy Secretary James Schlesinger that stirred an extremely negative reaction in Mexico.

Although the Carter administration eventually moved to shore up the situation , US-Mexican relations today are as cordial as they could be. Whether Mr. Reagan will be able to usher in an era of mutual cooperation remains to be seen.

Mr. Reagan has voiced his concern that Latin Americans in general will get the impression they are on the back burner while the US deals with the Middle East, the Soviet Union, Poland, and other areas of the world. Indeed, the nomination of Gen. Alexander M. Haig with his strong background in European affairs could contribute to this perception on the part of Latin Americans.

Thus, the Ciudad Juarez meeting is designed to offset this impression. It could also lay the groundwork for a better climate in US-Mexican relations under Mr. Reagan. The President-elect keeps insisting that he wants to improve ties with both Mexico and Canada -- the two countries most close geographically to the US.

In addition, Mr. Reagan has suggested some sort of energy partnership between the three countries. Mexico and Canada are skeptical of the idea, but Mexico has expressed a willingness to hear Mr. Reagan out on the issue.

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