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Reagan on the Rio Grande

They didn't do the Mexican hat dance. But President-elect Reagan and Mexican President Lopez Portillo displayed the kind of warm cordiality and informality that may augur well for the future of Mexican-US relations. By choosing Mexico as the venue of his first diplomatic jaunt "abroad," Mr. Reagan signals the importance he attaches (and has attached all along) to improving Washington's relations with its immediate neighbors. There can be little question that Mr. Lopez Portillo, too, would like to see the two countries at long last begin to resolve the many points of conflict between them.

The meeting along the US-Mexican border was of course largely atmospherics. The two leaders did not delve into the substantive issues. Other US presidents, it might be added -- including President Carter -- also started out in office pointedly extending a hand of friendship to Mexico only to find as time went on that the problems seemed to defy solution or that other diplomatic issues took priority.

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Yet with a new US presidency the stage and tone must be set again, and this Mr. Reagan did with his customary grace and affability. If a good personal relationship can be developed between the two leaders, this will count much in making progress once the two sides get down to nitty-gritty talks.

Mr. Reagan must know that he will confront a Mexico bursting with new nationalism and a determination to resist US Control over its economy and energy resources. Mexico does not see eye-to-eye with the US on many international issues, and the conflicts that have bedeviled bilateral relations for so long are profound. Yet, given the political will, and maintaining a mutual respect, the two nations should be able to develop that "productive and cooperative" relationship called for in the Reagan-Lopez Portillo joint statement.

It is clear that both sides will have to give to attain this end. The United States, for example, ought to adopt a more liberal policy toward the import of Mexican tomatoes and other farm proudcts, which, it might be added, excel US products in quality.Besides signaling to Mexicans that the US is indeed trying to do something to improve ties, such a change of policy would help put more Mexicans to work, thereby reducing the pressures to immigrate to the US unlawfully. The US Should also consider new fishing arrangements that permit reciprocity, and expand joint business ventures which will enable Mexico to build up its industry.

On the sticky immigration question, Mr. Reagan has already suggested the need for a new bracero program which would allow for a given pool of Mexican workers to be employed in the US each year. The President- elect can expect strong resistance from US labor to such a step. Yet the fact is that illegal Mexican aliens now perform many jobs which Americans will not take. Instituting a worker- documentation program would at least begin to bring order to the chaotic immigration situation. Ultimately, of course, the solution lies in developing the Mexican economy and reducing the high rate of population growth -- areas in which the Mexican government bears primary responsibility.

These are but some of the issues which will command attention.We have not even touched on such sensitive international questions as US policy in Central and Latin Amercia and Mexico's concern that the new administration will become militarily involved in El Salvador's and others' internal affairs. Will Mr. Reagan have the tenacity and the openness of mind to view all these problems afresh -- and, equally important, the willingness to stand up to US special interests when compromise becomes necessary?

That remains to be seen. But Mr. Reagan handled his foreign diplomatic debut well. If he and President Lopez Portillo continue to talk not "about each other" but "to each other" -- as Mr. Reagan implied should be done -- it is possible a new and positive chapter will be written in hemispheric history.

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