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Mexico as the US's Political Whipping Boy

The candidates have the issues - corruption, US aid, NAFTA, drugs - right, but their conclusions are often way off base

TO hear the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates, Mexico will be the whipping boy of the 1996 US campaign.

Of course, the reason for all the attention has nothing to do with concern over the welfare of the Mexican citizenry. The only interest is how Mexico affects the lives of US voters. The issues are corruption, illegal immigration, bailouts, NAFTA, and drugs.

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Even Pat Buchanan agrees that the individual Mexican - whether US immigrant, illegal alien, or tomato grower south of the border - isn't the target. The villains are the makers of policy and those who carry it out, on both sides of the Rio Grande.

The scale and influence of corruption in Mexico is difficult for Americans to imagine. The image of giving a policeman 50 pesos (about $6.50) to avoid a traffic ticket is true, but woefully incomplete. What hurts American businesspeople is the unfair competition they face from cronyism: the common corruption where friends and relatives get sweetheart deals and kickbacks (politely called "commissions").

These practices can't be rationalized by saying that they happen in all countries, including the United States. In the US, law enforcement officials often catch, and courts punish, offenders. As writer Carlos Fuentes explained earlier this month, the difference is that in Mexico there is still impunity.

Illegal immigration should be a valid concern. But is it really? Most say it's simply a matter of supply and demand, and as long as there is an equilibrium, the US just winks at illegal entries. In normal times, with reduced labor costs and low fruit and vegetable prices, the US consumer is the big winner and everyone is happy.

The 'safety valve' rebelling

Now, with the Mexican economy having dropped by 6.9 percent last year, the circumstance of having an impoverished neighbor has become trying.

When it can't feed its people, the Mexican government has welcomed the safety valve of having the United States available to receive its poor. For the US, however, illegal immigration seems to have gotten out of hand. In January the US Border Patrol caught more than 42,000 undocumented aliens, as against only 9,500 a year ago.

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Sure, a few high-profile areas might be sealed off. But the whole border? Building steel walls and deploying military personnel simply isn't the answer (except, perhaps, in the sphere or electoral politics); it would be prohibitively expensive, and it shouldn't be necessary. The viable solution is for the US to pressure Mexico to adopt policies that will reduce Mexican income inequities and keep its people satisfied at home.

That should be important for Mexico, too. It is losing some of its best workers - the ones with the ambition and drive to try to better themselves.

On bailing out the Mexican economy every time it nears bankruptcy, which has happened at frequent though irregular intervals over the past 14 years, Pat Buchanan is right - but for the wrong reasons. He says US aid shouldn't help "left-wing regimes such as ... Mexico." Yet the past 13 years have seen more Reaganomics in Mexico than the US had under the Great Communicator himself. With this laissez-faire economic policy, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer - or went to the US.

In propping up Mexico's continually corrupt government, whose deeds come nowhere near fulfilling President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon's democratic-sounding words, the US State Department seems to lack any ability to distinguish between a system that can democratically fine-tune the governing of a society (the US, in spite of all its faults) and one that can't (Mexico, because of its many governmental faults).

Right now there is insufficient US pressure to force reform. For that reason, US taxpayers should insist that Congress not give or loan a single penny until real reforms are a fact and not just promises. Even the usually generous International Monetary Fund now admits that economic progress in Mexico is dependent on political reform. The State Department should come to the same realization.

NAFTA's complexities

The NAFTA issues are tricky. They aren't black and white, because the whole concept of a free-trade agreement between two countries as economically disparate as Mexico and the US is questionable. The US labor unions have a valid short-term point in objecting to competition with a work force whose minimum wage is under $3 a day - especially when Mexican workers are indisputably intelligent, loyal, and hard-working.

But if the US wants NAFTA, it has to abide by its provisions - which means letting in both Mexican trucks and tomatoes. After all, Mexico will have to admit all US grains eventually, and that will ruin the livelihoods of millions of Mexican farmers who won't be able to compete with the US corn belt's economies of scale.

Ross Perot's "great sucking sound" of US business going south hasn't happened. But it should have, and might still. Fears over Mexican instability are exaggerated. The Mexican society, in spite of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, is incredibly docile and fearful of violence. US industries should realize the tremendous opportunities of doing business in Mexico. That will be good for the US and its workers in the long run. Here's the key question: Would Americans rather have a prosperous or an impoverished Mexico across the border?

The Abrego arrest

Concerning drugs, Mexico caught Juan Garcia Abrego, head of the Gulf cartel, and immediately extradited him to the US. By arresting this capo, who was supposedly above the law, doesn't Mexico prove it is both cooperating with the US and cleaning its own house?

Not really. When Raul Salinas, brother of the former president, was jailed for murder and "inexplicable enrichment," Mr. Garcia Abrego lost his protector and Mr. Zedillo saw a way to further weaken the Salinas crew.

What bothers most Mexicans is that Garcia Abrego was born in Mexico and committed almost all his crimes within Mexico, yet he was summarily deported as an "American" - a tacit admission that Mexico would be unable either to convict him or keep him in jail.

There are many other narcos the Mexicans could incarcerate if impunity really were a thing of the past. Mexico should assist further in the fight against drugs, but the US has to do its part too. Although the evidence is overwhelmingly positive, the US needs a public-relations effort to show Mexico and other Latin American countries that it is doing its share to combat the scourge at home. Mistakenly or not, Mexicans don't believe the US is trying as hard at the consumption end as it demands of others at the production and shipment stages.

Unfortunately, US politicians are wrong when they argue for cutting off aid because the Mexican economy has begun to recover. US funds will be desperately needed. But if further aid is dispensed, strings should be attached - for reform of the whole Mexican governing system (yes, it needs emphasis and repetition).

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