By Peter Gellert
MEXICO CITY — US President Bill Clinton's May 5-6 visit here was designed to improve much deteriorated bilateral relations.
In the past year, Mexican outrage over the Helms-Burton law, US congressional certification of the country's anti-drug efforts, anti-immigration legislation and mistreatment of Mexican migrants has brought relations to their lowest point in recent history.
Immigration has been the most important issue in dispute, provoking widespread concern among all sectors of Mexican society. But the differences were papered over so that Clinton's visit — his first to Mexico — would come off without problems.
Prior to the arrival of Clinton and most of his cabinet, the White House had publicly floated two issues on which it hoped to achieve concessions from Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo's administration.
On Cuba, the White House was pushing for a European Union-type agreement whereby the Helms-Burton law would, for all intents and purposes, be put on hold if Mexico would pressure Havana along the lines of Washington's so-called human rights campaign.
This was undoubtedly meant for US domestic consumption, since no-one seriously believes that Mexico will alter its long-standing policy of opposing any form of foreign intervention in Cuban affairs. Indeed, in the recent UN Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva, Mexico voted against a US motion to condemn Cuba.
On the drug trade, Clinton sought Mexico's approval to allow US Drug Enforcement Agency agents in Mexico to carry arms. But Zedillo, two days before Clinton's arrival, declared that the question was not up for discussion and the very idea was "ridiculous".
The results of the visit were mainly symbolic. Much attention was paid to Clinton's platitudes about respect, dignity and Mexico's importance to the US.
Most of the 11 accords dealt with drug trafficking and money laundering. The agreements included: US training of and US$6 billion in aid to Mexico's new anti-drug agency; stepped-up collaboration in combating money laundering; and a pledge to revise the extradition treaty to facilitate prosecution of drug traffickers through temporary extraditions.
The agreements are being touted as a "new bi-national anti-drug alliance" through which all related problems, including certification, are to be resolved.
On immigration, Clinton and Zedillo signed a joint declaration containing vague promises to respect human rights of Mexican migrants, reduce violence along the border, combat coyotes — those who traffic in migrants — and provide legal avenues for addressing abuses against undocumented immigrants. Two more bi-national working group meetings will be held to evaluate progress in this area.
At the same time, Clinton and US attorney general Janet Reno defended US immigration law, although Clinton promised to send a bill to Congress to correct "some aspects" of the controversial legislation.
For the first time ever, a US president met with leaders of Mexico's main opposition parties. Some viewed the 15-minute meetings as a landmark event; others described them as window dressing and part of a carefully orchestrated public relations effort on behalf of Zedillo's Institutional Revolutionary Party two months before the most hotly contested elections ever.
Leaders of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) raised similar issues with the US president.
The PAN discussed migration, the drug trade and commercial disputes, and called for relations based on just treatment and equality. The PRD raised the question of revising NAFTA, condemned anti-drug certification and demanded respect for Mexican immigrants in the US.
In an effort to avoid any incident that could tarnish the visit, the Mexican government clamped down on all protests. Thousands of police, soldiers and undercover agents placed entire sections of Mexico City under siege.
All demonstrations were nipped in the bud, with signs and leaflets confiscated and protesters forcibly dispersed.
There has been widespread opposition among the population and in the press to the display of force.