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New presidents, new prospects

This month's election of Mexican opposition leader Vicente Fox as president of Mexico, ending 70 years of one-party rule, was an unambiguous victory for democracy. It is an extraordinary opportunity for US-Mexico relations.

In the weeks since the July 2 election, Mr. Fox and his advisers have made clear their commitment to enrich the relationship, and make it better serve both nations. This is an offer that the next US president, Republican or Democrat, cannot refuse - even if he isn't instantly attracted to the specific proposals put forth by the new Mexican leadership.

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No foreign country affects the US more than Mexico. With no other nation is sustained cooperation more central to US well-being.

US-Mexico relations have taken a constructive turn in recent years. Economic ties have particularly flourished. The approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 made Mexico one of only three countries enjoying free trade relations with the US (the others are Israel and Canada). Mexico has become the second-largest trade partner for the US - outdistancing both Europe and Japan - and a major destination for US investment. Mexican migrants, legal and illegal, have contributed importantly to the current US economic boom. The US market, in turn, is absolutely vital to Mexico, which sends more than three-quarters of its exports northward. Capital flows from the US - including remittances from Mexican workers - have fueled Mexico's economic recovery since its 1995 currency crisis. Tensions over trade and other economic issues have not, by a long shot, been eliminated, but NAFTA now provides the institutional mechanisms for confronting problems and addressing disputes.

But far more can be accomplished.

NAFTA can be strengthened and deepened, and made more agile. Perhaps it should, at some point, be converted into a European Union-style customs arrangement, as President-elect Fox has proposed, along with the free movement of labor.

Opportunities also exist for greater macroeconomic coordination between the two countries; a common currency might be contemplated. None of this can be achieved overnight, but all of it should be on the agenda of the next US president.

The need for progress is even greater on matters of drugs and illegal immigration - the two most troublesome problems in the US-Mexico relationship. The past several years have seen some advances.

Structured arrangements have been put in place to facilitate consultation and cooperation, and to manage the conflict that these issues generate year after year. But, neither country trusts the other very much on either issue, and little common ground yet exists to build collaboration.

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No one should expect any quick remedies, but the Fox team is right that both problems can be dealt with in more creative and comprehensive ways.

It is the unique configuration of US-Mexican relations - fundamentally shaped by an extended, 2,000-mile-long border and huge disparities in wealth between the countries - that makes the drug and immigration problems so hard to resolve. The solutions also have to reflect that special configuration.

For instance, given the huge unsatisfied demand for low-wage labor in the US, it seems reasonable to find a way to allow Mexican workers to hold jobs here legally.

Mechanisms are needed to permit Mexicans to live and work in the US and to do so with dignity - for example, with rights to be paid fairly, work in safety, bring their families with them, and have their children educated and provided with medical care.

To make that happen, the Mexican and US government will have to cooperate in regularizing and monitoring the movement of people, and in preventing abuses by workers or employers.

And nothing should prevent the two governments from talking about what has to be done to eventually establish an open border between the two countries - as now exists among European nations.

Genuine US-Mexico antidrug cooperation is hard to imagine as long as the US maintains its unilateral drug certification process, which provokes distrust and antagonism in Mexico. Until an acceptable multilateral approach is fully in place, the US and Mexico could consider replacing annual certification with a negotiated counternarcotics agreement.

Both sides would commit themselves to jointly determined antidrug measures and performance goals, and to agreed-upon procedures for enforcement, monitoring, and dispute settlement.

This could be based on an existing US-Mexico accord, which includes more than a hundred specific drug-fighting initiatives. The US reached a special trade deal with Mexico; a special arrangement on narcotics should also be possible.

And there is a wide array of other constructive US-Mexico policy initiatives that are now possible to consider. Mexico's decisive step toward democracy should make cooperation across the board easier and far more appealing to a US public and Congress long leery of close relations with an authoritarian Mexico.

*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society