One of the early foreign policy acts of the Carter administration was to invite the president of Mexico, Jose Lopez Portillo, to the United States. Relations between the two countries had deteriorated, and President Carter set out to rectify this. He has failed. Indeed, there is an inexplicable level of carping and downright nastiness toward the United States coming out only from Mexican intellectuals, which has been levels of the Mexican government, which is a new element.

When Carter visited Mexico in February 1979, President Lopez Portillo greeted him with a toast referrring to "sudden deceit" and other similar actions by the United States. The U.S. press played up Carter's maladroit reference to Montezuma's revenge, but it was an impromptu effort at good humor and not calculated rudeness. The suggestion that Mexico had some responsibility for the damage to the Texas coast from the spill from Mexico's oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was summarily dismissed with anti-American rhetoric recalling Colorado River salinity. The last minute Mexican refusal to permit the shah of Iran to return from the United States made it clear that in a pinch, Mexico could not be counted on.

It is not self-evident why this is taking place when the United States is trying to be on its best behavior. Carter did not lose his temper when greeted with an accusation of deceit. He praised Lopez Portillo's United Nations speech in September, which was rhetorically elegant about a compact between oil producers and consumers but was otherwise devoid of practical substance. An agreement to purchase natural gas from Mexico was reached a few days before Lopez Portillo visited; the primary U.S. motivation in signing the agreement was to mollify the Mexicans.

Mexican intellectuals have a way of saving up grievances against the United States and letting them hang out at critical moments. Carlos Fuentes, the well-known Mexican author, told readers of The Washington Post (Feb. 11, 1979) that Mexico was not an oil well. He obviously distrusted the U.S. attention after a long period of neglect. As evidence that a special relationship no longer exists between Mexico and the United States, Jorge Castenada, the current foreign minister, has complained about the unwillingness of the United States to provide trade concessions to Mexico outside the multilateral framework. Mexican writers still refer to the loss of territory to the United States in the last century. Americans talk about "interdependence." This is almost a dirty word in Mexico, where the shorthand description of the relationship is "dependence."

There are real grievances, but the United States has shown a willingness to address these. Mexico receives the same trade treatment afforded any member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, even though Mexico is not a member of GATT Mexico is a free rider in the international trading system, just as it is in its sales of oil, where it takes advantage of the cartel price, even though it has not joined the ential access to the U.S. market if it did. Mexico ships about $400 million of goods to the United States under our general system of preferences. Indeed, about two-thirds of Mexico's exports of manufactured goods to the United States enter because of some special provision in U.S. laws. This is an unrequited benefit, but there are frequent Mexican complaints that it is not enough.

Mexico has a legitimate complaint that growers of winter vegetable in Florida use U.S. government mechanisms to harass Mexican tomato exporters. fNevertheless, Mexico has captured about 59 percent of the winter tomato market in the United States. U.S. producers would never be permitted to capture that percentage of the Mexican market if there were competitive Mexican producers.

Mexicans are properly concerned about the treatment of Mexican workers who come here without documents. The United States has not taken effective action to close off this flow, such as punishing employers who hire workers who are in the United States illegally, presumably because officials believe the presence of these workers benefits the U.S. economy. But surely the United States has a right to seek to cut off this migratory flow, just as Mexico, certainly not deliberately. This may be the difference between a powerful and a weaker nation. Mexico is not and enemy to Americans, while the United States is to many Mexicans. We are trying to bury the past, whereas -- to paraphrase Mexican historian Octavio Paz -- Mexico is living with its past.

It is an unfortunate conflict. The United States certainly does not seek it and its solves none of Mexico's real problems.