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Trade Priority at US-Mexico Talks

Bush meets with Mexican President Salinas to move nations closer to free-trade agreement

PRESIDENT Bush makes his first official visit to Mexico today. But it will be the sixth meeting between Mr. Bush and President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. No other Mexican president has put so much emphasis on developing close ties with the United States.

``US and Mexican presidents have met 40 times in the last 80 years. Salinas and Bush have met five times in the last two. That's a lot,'' says Jos'e Antonio Gonz'alez Fern'andez, an adviser to Mexico's foreign affairs minister, Fernando Solana. ``The dialogue,'' he adds, ``is producing good results.''

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US-Mexico relations ``have never been more positive, more oriented to the future, and more full of hope,'' agreed Bernard Aronson, the US State Department assistant secretary of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs last week.

This summit will be brief - just two days - but it will serve to enhance the already close relationship between the leaders and move the two nations closer to a free-trade agreement.

Today Bush will get a tour and lunch (complete with mariachi music) in Agualeguas, Mr. Salinas's home town. It is a quaint, sleepy community just 25 miles from the US border. ``Most of the 3,000 inhabitants,'' quips a local columnist, ``can usually be found working in the country of our illustrious visitor.''

Tomorrow, the sightseeing will wrap up in nearby Monterrey, one of Mexico's most dynamic economic communities. There, Bush will meet with Mexican businessmen and hold private talks with Salinas. US Secretary of State James Baker III and Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher and their Mexican counterparts are also expected to attend and discuss the free-trade deal both sides want.

On this visit, a bilateral education agreement is slated to be signed. Border violence and drug enforcement efforts may also come up. A temporary lifting of a US embargo on Mexican tuna should keep that environmental issue on a back burner. But the focus will be the free-trade pact, Mexican and US officials say.

The Bush administration sees a free-trade agreement as beneficial to US industry - a way of giving US firms easier access to a cheap pool of labor, offsetting the advantage West European firms gain by tapping low-cost labor in Eastern Europe. Salinas, a Harvard-educated economist, sees such an agreement as a cornerstone to his economic reforms and crucial to bringing foreign investment to this poor nation.

Officially, negotiations on a trade pact will not begin until the US Congress gives its approval, which is not expected until April. But ``the machinery of government on both sides is already getting cranked up,'' says Delal Baer, the Mexico project director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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``This is likely to be an agenda-setting meeting. What's on the table, what's not,'' says Ms. Baer. Also likely to be discussed is how a recession in the US might undermine support for the agreement. The AFL-CIO trade union is already on record as opposing this deal, since it may cost US workers jobs. If US factories are laying off workers, it could add fuel to those arguing against free-trade agreement in Congress.

US officials also may raise questions about whether the pace of democratic reform in Mexico is keeping up with economic reforms. The Nov. 11 elections in the key states of Mexico and Hidalgo were undermined by fraud allegations despite assurances that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party was abandoning such practices.

``These elections should be a wake up call to Salinas. If the mid-1991 congressional elections don't hold up to scrutiny, Salinas will be providing opponents of the free-trade agreement in the US with an easy weapon,'' Baer says.

Bush will also want to hear what Salinas has to say about prospects for free-trade throughout Latin America. Last month Salinas took a six-nation swing through the region discussing bilateral and multilateral free-trade.

Next week, Bush travels to five South American countries to promote his ``Enterprise for the Americas'' initiative announced in June. So far, there has been a mostly positive response to Bush's offer to restructure or reduce the debt owed by these nations to the US government if these countries liberalize trade and investment rules.

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