Bush, Fox seek to mend rifts at Mexico summit

By Wayne Washington
Globe Staff / January 12, 2004

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WASHINGTON -- They are partial to cowboy hats and big spreads, and they promised their people and each other that they would be a different type of leader, forging bonds between their countries that go beyond the waters of the Rio Grande.

The war in Iraq ripped a hole in the relationship, however, and President Bush and President Vicente Fox of Mexico are just now getting their old grooves back.

Or so they hope.

The evolving Bush-Fox relationship will be on display when Bush meets with Latin American leaders today and tomorrow at a special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico. Bush's trip, his second to Mexico since taking office, comes after his announcement last week of a broad immigration reform plan that would give millions of undocumented workers in the United States guest worker cards allowing them to stay and work in the country for at least three years.

Fox, who has made immigration reform a high priority of his administration, has been lukewarm to the proposal but accepted it as at least a start. Now, with Bush scheduled to be his guest, Fox gets a chance to press for more. Bush, facing a potentially close election where the nation's Latino voters are of increasing importance, gets a chance to share a stage with Fox and show that he cares about an issue at the top of their agenda.

Briefing reporters about the trip Friday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Fox and Bush are "well past" their disagreement over the invasion of Iraq, which the Mexican leader opposed.

"They've had a couple of very good conversations," Rice said. "Obviously, we went through a difficult time about Iraq, but the relationship with Mexico is one of our most important, one of our closest. We are cooperating daily on border matters, on fighting narcotics, on fighting to make the borders more secure."

Not on the official agenda of the summit -- but very much on the minds of participants -- will be the continuing political turmoil in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez is resisting a referendum on his rule, and the tensions between the Bush administration and Argentina, whose close relationship with Cuba has angered Washington.

Bush is expected to meet with the new Canadian prime minister, Paul Martin, who is expected to press him on the US policy barring countries that opposed its actions in Iraq from getting prime reconstruction contracts. Bush is also scheduled to meet with Argentina's president, Nestor Kirchner, who asserted last week that Argentine policy would not be dictated by the United States.

Immigration, however, is expected to be a major subject of discussion. Latin American affairs specialists said leaders in the region are well aware of the election-year political stakes for the American president.

"They'll think that the trip is motivated more by domestic politics in the United States than by interest in Latin American affairs," said Fred R. Harris, former Democratic US senator from Oklahoma who is now a Latin American affairs specialist at the University of New Mexico. "It's really a delicate time."

Bush is scheduled to arrive in the northern Mexico city of Monterrey this afternoon. His first meeting is with Fox, followed by separate meetings with the presidents of Chile and Brazil. He is scheduled to give a speech at the opening ceremony of the summit and is to end his day by joining Laura Bush at a dinner hosted by Fox and his wife.

Bush, who got 35 percent of the Latino vote during the 2000 election, traveled to Mexico on his first foreign trip as president. The trip was seen as a signal of closer ties the administration wanted to have with its southern neighbor.

Six months after Bush's trip to Mexico, in speeches on the South Lawn of the White House and before a joint session of Congress, Fox pushed the administration to grant some type of amnesty to the millions of Mexicans who entered the United States illegally but whose work has become a vital part of the US economy. Members of Congress who supported changes in US immigration law said at the time that Bush was open to reform.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, however, occurred a few days later and the administration's priorities changed dramatically. Security along the border between the United States and Mexico was beefed up significantly. Much to Fox's chagrin, the status of illegal immigrants from Mexico became a back-burner issue for an administration that saw preventing another terrorist attack as its main mission.

As the Bush administration made its case for war against Iraq as an extension of the war against terrorism, Fox refused to sign on, deepening the rift between the two countries.

Steven Barracca, a Mexican affairs specialist at the University of Texas at El Paso, said Fox will be willing to let bygones be bygones. "The Mexican government is clearly pleased that the Bush administration is putting its focus back on immigration after 9/11 changed the administration's focus," Barracca said.

Unlike Bush, Fox -- elected to a single six-year term in 2000 -- does not face reelection. But after generations of often corrupt, one-party rule in Mexico, Fox is now coping with "legacy expectations," Barracca said.

"There were so many expectations, tremendous expectations, placed on the first opposition candidate elected in 70 years," Barracca said, "and by and large, people have been disappointed. He hasn't delivered on major immigration reform, which was one of his top priorities. He hasn't delivered on any type of major government reform, another top priority."

Rice said the Bush administration is willing to work with Congress and the Mexican government, but believes its immigration proposal is the best approach. "We do have to work with the Mexican government, as well, to make something like this work," she said. "But it is a very sound and feasible and reasonable proposal that finally addresses what has been a festering problem in the United States for a very long time."

In addition to changes in US law, Rice said Bush and Fox will talk about other ways to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.

"The broader discussion always has to be about why people are risking life and limb in the way that they are to come to the United States," Rice said. "These people who are clearly ambitious and want to feed their families ought to be able to feed their families in Mexico as that economy improves. And so the growth of the Mexican economy, the ability for Mexico to keep its own workers home, the ability for people to circulate in the meantime between Mexican and American economies, these are all things that I think [Fox and Bush] share in common." top stories on Twitter

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