Keeping the U.S. at Bay

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, March 3, 2006; 12:00 AM

MEXICO CITY -- In a 55-minute speech on Sunday, Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador outlined his foreign policy in just a few words: "We're not going to meddle in the internal life of other peoples and other governments because we don't want them meddling in ours.''

For the 100,000 plus who crammed into Mexico City's Zócalo square to hear him, it was clear that Lopez Obrador was talking about the United States. The leading presidential candidate of Mexico's center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) made clear he would not tolerate U.S. intervention in Mexican affairs.

That's an understandable pledge, not only because presidential candidates often fan nationalistic fires in one way or another, but also because Mexicans sense that outgoing President Vicente Fox's approach to foreign policy has been a failure. Fox tried to raise Mexico's profile internationally and use his close personal relationship with President Bush to build unprecedented ties between the two nations. He even dared to envision a shared future where both nations would freely exchange not only goods and services, but workers.

Of course, 9/11 changed all that and more. What once appeared to be an opportunity for greater integration became viewed by the United States as a threat to national security. Where border walls once were set to be torn down, Washington now says they can't be put up fast enough. Long gone is the day when Bush declared that "the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico.''

This is the status of bilateral relations that Fox's successor will inherit this year. And it is in this context that Lopez Obrador appeared to be drawing a line in the sand, or more accurately, retracing the line traditionally held in Mexican foreign policy. If Fox's experiment accomplished anything, it was to reinforce the belief among Mexicans that with the United States, it's either maintain a healthy distance or be forced to submit to Washington's whims.

The latest example of Fox's "submissiveness" came last month when the U.S. Treasury, citing the Trading with the Enemy Act, told the parent company of Sheraton Hotels that it was violating the law by allowing 16 Cubans to rent rooms at its Maria Isabel Hotel in Mexico City. The Cubans were promptly expelled.

Mexicans were incensed at the violation of sovereignty and demanded that Sheraton be harshly punished. But Fox's government insisted that the hotel could only face fines. Still, Mexico City's government, controlled by Lopez Obrador's PRD, claimed to have found sufficient violations to close the four-star hotel, which the city did briefly this week.

The Sheraton incident might be a harbinger of what's to come if Lopez Obrador is elected president. His opponents in the July 2 election would like to cast him as man who would go to extremes. Felipe Calderon, presidential candidate for Fox's National Action Party, warned that such actions represent how Lopez Obrador would govern, putting ideology and prejudice ahead of Mexican national interests.

There might be something to Calderon's warning, but too little is known yet about Lopez Obrador, whose only political office has been as mayor of Mexico City. His political adviser and key campaign coordinator, Manuel Camacho Solis, insists he is a man of moderation and that while he would be ready to defend Mexico's sovereignty, he would never do it in a "scandalous or aggressive manner."

Although Lopez Obrador would be a change from Fox, it seems unlikely that he could afford to be a thorn in the U.S. side as is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. One in six Mexicans has a relative living in the United States, so it is not surprising, as Andres Rozental of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations said recently, that "Mexicans prefer to be pragmatic when it comes to relations with the United States, rather than ideological."

More should be known about the kind of relations Lopez Obrador envisions with Washington on March 21. That's when the candidate plans to give a detailed foreign policy speech, Camacho says. Any further conclusions on how bilateral relations would change are premature.

For now, it may be telling just to know that the speech is meant to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of revered Mexican President Benito Juarez. It was Juarez who in reference to bilateral relations once famously said, "Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company