By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
MERIDA, Mexico, March 13 -- Mexican President Felipe Calderón chided President Bush on Tuesday for trying to build a wall between their two countries and lamented that the American leader never made Mexico the priority he once promised it would become during his presidency.
As he welcomed Bush for their first meeting since taking office in December, Calderón set a polite but firm tone, raising some of the toughest issues in U.S.-Mexican relations. The comments at a ceremony for Bush's arrival underscored the difficulties that lie ahead in two days of talks between the leaders.
Among the top issues was U.S. legislation, signed by Bush last year, authorizing 700 miles of fencing and other barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexicans respect Americans' right to decide their security, Calderón said. "But at the same time, we do consider in a respectful way that it would be better to stop the migration by building a kilometer of highway in Michoacan or Zacatecas than 10 kilometers of walls in the border."
In another pointed remark, Calderón recalled how Bush had promised as a candidate in 2000 to put Mexico at the top of his foreign policy agenda. "Unfortunately, the terrible happenings against the United States people made that -- in a very understandable way, the priorities changed," he said, referring to Sept. 11, 2001. "Nevertheless, I believe that it is now time to retake the spirit of those words and to direct our relationship toward a path of mutual prosperity."
While vowing to fight drug-running in his country, Calderón also pointed out the U.S. responsibility for stopping the demand because "while there is no reduction in demand in your territory, it will be very difficult to reduce the supply in ours."
Bush did not directly rebut Calderón during their short ceremony at the Hacienda Temoezon , a 350-year-old farm-turned-hotel in Temozon Sur, 28 miles from here, but promised to push for immigration legislation at home that would address their mutual problems.
"I respect your views on migration," Bush said. "Because we're working together, I believe we will make good progress on this important issue." He added: "My pledge to you and your government -- but, more importantly, the people of Mexico -- is I will work as hard as I possibly can to pass comprehensive immigration reform."
The scratchy opening encounter surprised Bush aides and foreshadowed a challenging relationship between the leaders. Bush developed a rapport with Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, but many Mexicans say Fox got little out of it and Calderón has taken a more practical, cautious approach.
The meeting came on the last stop of Bush's six-day, five-country tour through Latin America, which will end Wednesday after a joint news conference with the two leaders here. Following the arrival ceremony Tuesday, Bush and Calderón and their wives toured the ancient Uxmal ruins and posed for pictures in the shadow of the towering Pyramid of the Magician, then later had dinner at Hacienda Xcanatun, a restored luxury hotel with marble terraces and lush tropical gardens.
The time gave them a chance to get to know each other better. "The chemistry was good," said White House press secretary Tony Snow.
Dan Fisk, the president's top Latin America adviser, said Bush found Calderón's bluntness refreshing. "They can be very direct with each other in terms of the issues that are on their mind and they can talk with equal frankness about how to move forward," Fisk said.