Mexican president to make symbolic visit to Arlington Cemetery
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
When Mexican President Felipe Calderón pays his respects at Arlington National Cemetery this week, it will be more than a rote diplomatic gesture. He will be signaling the closure of a wound that dates from a 1914 U.S. military occupation -- and the vast improvement in U.S.-Mexico relations in recent years.
Mexican officials say Calderón will be the first Mexican president to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Previous leaders resisted the move, they said, because the cemetery includes the graves of U.S. Marines who took part in the 1914 seizure of the port of Veracruz. Though largely forgotten by Americans, it was one of several U.S. military interventions in Mexico that shaped that country's longtime wariness toward its northern neighbor.
The trip to Arlington "is a symbol of a much more modern relationship between both our countries," said Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan. "More importantly, it is also a recognition of the role Mexican Americans and Latinos in general are playing in the armed forces of the United States."
Calderón's two-day visit, which starts Wednesday, occurs as the two governments are boasting of unprecedented cooperation, particularly against the drug gangs that have sown chaos in Mexico.
But if the two capitals have improved ties, relations at the state level remain rocky. Arizona's new law against illegal immigration has provoked a fierce reaction in Mexico. And the Obama administration is considering requests from U.S. border state politicians to dispatch National Guard troops to the region, which Mexico would regard as an insult.
"My sense is relations are at their best point ever," said Andrew Selee, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute. "The NAFTA negotiations were clearly a high point also, but between a non-democratic Mexico and the United States. So there was always deep ambivalence about each other."
But, he added: "This is not to say there aren't enormous problems."
'In this together'
Calderón's scheduled trip to Arlington on Thursday signifies how much the historically fraught relationship has changed.
Mexico has not forgotten the many instances it felt humiliated by the United States. It has a National Museum of Interventions with displays of past invasions, including the American occupation of Mexico City in 1847 and the plot by U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson to bring down the Francisco Madero government in 1913. The seven-month occupation of the Veracruz port occurred the following year.
But Sarukhan said his government wants the kind of military ties with the United States that France and Germany share, despite their history of conflict. "There may be differences, but they have a modern, objective relationship between their military establishments," he said.
Retired Col. John Cope, an expert in Latin American military affairs at the National Defense University, described the Arlington visit as "a sign of the maturing relationship" and a Mexican statement that "we are in this together."
For decades, the secretive, nationalistic Mexican military viewed the more powerful armed forces to the north as a major threat. Although the two countries were allies in World War II, the U.S. military was never permitted to provide training to Mexico's forces in ensuing decades, as it did in many Latin American countries. Roderic Camp, an expert on the Mexican military, recalled that even in the early 1990s, Mexican officers needed permission to speak to a "foreigner."