Mexico as the US's Political Whipping Boy the Candidates Have the Issues - Corruption, US Aid, NAFTA, Drugs - Right, but Their Conclusions Are Often Way off Base

Article excerpt

TO hear the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates, Mexico will be the whipping boy of the 1996 US campaign.

Of course, the reason for all the attention has nothing to do with concern over the welfare of the Mexican citizenry. The only interest is how Mexico affects the lives of US voters. The issues are corruption, illegal immigration, bailouts, NAFTA, and drugs.

Even Pat Buchanan agrees that the individual Mexican - whether US immigrant, illegal alien, or tomato grower south of the border - isn't the target. The villains are the makers of policy and those who carry it out, on both sides of the Rio Grande.

The scale and influence of corruption in Mexico is difficult for Americans to imagine. The image of giving a policeman 50 pesos (about $6.50) to avoid a traffic ticket is true, but woefully incomplete. What hurts American businesspeople is the unfair competition they face from cronyism: the common corruption where friends and relatives get sweetheart deals and kickbacks (politely called "commissions").

These practices can't be rationalized by saying that they happen in all countries, including the United States. In the US, law enforcement officials often catch, and courts punish, offenders. As writer Carlos Fuentes explained earlier this month, the difference is that in Mexico there is still impunity.

Illegal immigration should be a valid concern. But is it really? Most say it's simply a matter of supply and demand, and as long as there is an equilibrium, the US just winks at illegal entries. In normal times, with reduced labor costs and low fruit and vegetable prices, the US consumer is the big winner and everyone is happy.

The 'safety valve' rebelling

Now, with the Mexican economy having dropped by 6.9 percent last year, the circumstance of having an impoverished neighbor has become trying.

When it can't feed its people, the Mexican government has welcomed the safety valve of having the United States available to receive its poor. For the US, however, illegal immigration seems to have gotten out of hand. In January the US Border Patrol caught more than 42,000 undocumented aliens, as against only 9,500 a year ago.

Sure, a few high-profile areas might be sealed off. But the whole border? Building steel walls and deploying military personnel simply isn't the answer (except, perhaps, in the sphere or electoral politics); it would be prohibitively expensive, and it shouldn't be necessary. The viable solution is for the US to pressure Mexico to adopt policies that will reduce Mexican income inequities and keep its people satisfied at home.

That should be important for Mexico, too. It is losing some of its best workers - the ones with the ambition and drive to try to better themselves.

On bailing out the Mexican economy every time it nears bankruptcy, which has happened at frequent though irregular intervals over the past 14 years, Pat Buchanan is right - but for the wrong reasons. He says US aid shouldn't help "left-wing regimes such as ... Mexico." Yet the past 13 years have seen more Reaganomics in Mexico than the US had under the Great Communicator himself. With this laissez-faire economic policy, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer - or went to the US.

In propping up Mexico's continually corrupt government, whose deeds come nowhere near fulfilling President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon's democratic-sounding words, the US State Department seems to lack any ability to distinguish between a system that can democratically fine-tune the governing of a society (the US, in spite of all its faults) and one that can't (Mexico, because of its many governmental faults). …