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Past critic Helms bringing a change of heart with him on visit to Mexico

Tessie Borden
Republic Mexico City Bureau
Apr. 16, 2001

MEXICO CITY - President Vicente Fox and Mexican Congress members today will warmly shake the hand of a man who for years slammed their country on drug interdiction and government corruption.

Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., will lead members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a visit to Mexico to meet, for the first time, with their Mexican counterparts.

Aides say the meeting should begin serious talks on issues governed by Helms' committee, such as free trade and drug certification.

The visit is a byproduct of a stunning turnabout in policy, Mexico advocates say, not to mention a change of heart for Helms, who has blasted Mexico for rampant drug trafficking and as recently as last year urged decertification of the country as a cooperating nation in the war on drugs. The committee also will meet with the Mexican attorney general and business leaders.

"There are individuals like Jesse Helms who have been critical of Mexico in the past," said Jesus Martinez, assistant professor in the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department of California State University-Fresno. "He has not been particularly critical of the current government, so that may be a good omen. His particular position toward Mexico may also change. A hard-liner may also realize that Mexico has changed."

Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said the visit signals Mexico's new importance to the United States and the "remarkable new political space" that has opened between the countries. Recent relations have gone from chilly and businesslike under Ernesto Zedillo, Fox's predecessor, to positively cordial.

Helms had no love for Zedillo's Institutional Revolutionary Party, which for 71 years ruled Mexico through force and patronage, but he has had only good things to say about Fox.

"The United States recognizes Fox as a genuinely democratic leader and a true reformer," Helms wrote recently in the Mexican newspaper Reforma. "U.S. leaders of all stripes are more than disposed to work with him."

Fox has taken advantage of the good feelings to advance plans that struck some as preposterous, such as allowing Mexican immigrants in California to pay resident tuition at public universities, or opening the U.S.-Mexican border to the free flow of people just as now it allows the relatively free flow of goods.

"Everybody thought he was crazy," Sharry said. "But he created political space that wouldn't have existed otherwise. He was clearly going beyond the pale in terms of what was acceptable for U.S. ears. But he said, 'Here's the 25-year plan. Now let's talk about what we can do over the next six years.' He created room for a serious negotiation between the U.S. and Mexico."

Since December, when Fox assumed office as the first president from an opposition party, a parade of U.S. lawmakers, led by President Bush, has visited. Bush's visit to Fox's Guanajuato ranch Feb. 16 was his first as a newly minted head of state.

"Phil Gramm, Bush, the Hispanic Caucus, now Helms," Sharry said. "It's really remarkable. And it's mostly due to Fox's democratic legitimacy and his ability to command the stage."

A bipartisan Senate delegation led by Gramm, R-Texas, visited Fox in January, pushing a new plan for Mexicans to legally work temporarily in the United States. Bush pledged to form a high-level work group with both countries' attorneys general, the U.S. secretary of State and the Mexico foreign minister, to sort through immigration, drug trafficking and trade issues. Days later, members of the Congress' Hispanic Caucus, including Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., trekked to meet Fox and discuss alternatives to Gramm's plan.

And the visits have not been one-sided.

Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, Interior Minister Santiago Creel, and National Security Adviser Adolfo Aguilar Zinser all have visited Washington in recent weeks.

Castañeda has played a surprise role in smoothing interaction, though as a former left-leaning intellectual, he was hardly Republican Washington's choice. The political scientist with a Princeton education once rebuked the North American Free Trade Agreement and sympathized with Central American rebel causes.

"Relations between both countries, with individuals like Castañeda playing a role, are making some accomplishments that go beyond anything the Mexican government has done before," Martinez said.

Aguilar Zinser, another innovator, was in Washington last week promoting intelligence-sharing among both countries in the drug war, including fighting corruption by having U.S. law enforcers vet Mexican counterparts.

The Helms initiative may recognize such efforts and open new avenues for Mexico in drug certification, the process by which the U.S. grades other nations on their efforts in the drug war and then gives financial aid accordingly.

Mexican presidents have long complained about the unilateral process, saying it is high-handed, counterproductive, and ignores the huge U.S. demand that drives the market.

The Senate committee recently relaxed program rules, which face congressional review before taking effect. Margaret Aitken, press secretary for the Foreign Relations Committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, said that for the next three years, countries are assumed to be certified unless listed as decertified and identified along with drug cartels.

Helms' new optimism impresses Hispanic leaders in his home state, which, like all the states represented by Foreign Relations committee members, has seen a jump in Hispanic population - in this case, nearly quintupling.

Andrea Bazan-Manson, director of North Carolina's El Pueblo Latino, said she is "surprised and heartened."

"Now that Mexico as a country is becoming more and more of a visible issue, it needs to be talked about in a . . . radically different way than we have talked about it for the past several years," she said. "I guess Helms realized that he needs to look at (it) from his own perspective."


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