When outgoing U.S. president Bill Clinton and outgoing Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo grasped hands in a last perfunctory adieu at the White House last month, their lame duck status was painfully evident. Both are biding their time until successors are determined (July 2 in Mexico), making protocol speeches to stacked audiences extolling the accomplishments of their administrations, and peddling their bicycles through the empty corridors of their respective presidential palaces in their increasingly idle hours.
The good ol’ boy Clinton already had two years seniority in high office when the nerdish Zedillo made his first trip to Washington in 1995, at the bottom of the Mexican peso collapse. Indeed, the Clinton-engineered bail-out of Zedillo’s stumbling economy so disaffected the U.S. Congress that the Mexican President was denied an opportunity to address a joint session of that august body, unlike his two immediate predecessors.
Clinton’s first trip to Mexico, in May 1996, soured when security arrangements were turned over to U.S. planners who virtually shut down the capital. The presence of the U.S. military and the enormous U.S. flags, which hung throughout the city for the first time since the 1847 war of annexation, forcefully reminded many Mexicans of the long history of domination from the north. And when Zedillo arrived at the White House, in November of 1997, he had to bide his time while the U.S. president trysted with Monica Lewinsky – the celebrated Altoids rendezvous, in which the Oval Office aide demonstrated how the mint wafer of that name supposedly enhances the joy of oral sex. In 1998, in the throes of a bruising budget battle, an opposition Mexican Congress refused Zedillo permission even to visit Washington. Now, in 2000, with both presidents one step out the door, no one seems to much care anymore.
Every twelve years, Mexico and the U.S. elect a president together – the Mexican chief executive’s term being six years with no re-election, with the occupant of the White House getting a maximum eight. Despite the proximity of their elevations, such parallel presidents have not always seen eye to eye. Jimmy Carter and José López Portillo, both elected in 1976, squabbled incessantly, a diplomatic ambiance that was not sanctified by Mr. Carter’s indelicate reference to “Moctezuma’s Revenge” during his first huddle with Señor López. On the other hand, Carlos Salinas and George Bush, elected more or less simultaneously in 1988, were bosom buddies from the outset. Bush’s oil drilling firm, Zapata Offshore, had done business with Salinas’ father, a former commerce secretary. Meeting at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston days before they each took office, Bush and Salinas laid the groundwork for the North American Free Trade Agreement, and greatly expanded Mexico’s participation in the War on Drugs and in attempting to halt the flow of undocumented Mexican and Central American workers across their mutual border. During their four coincident years as presidents, Bush and the now-reviled Salinas met often and forged a kind of uneasy marriage between a U.S. economy that dwarfed by twenty-five times that of its new conjugal partner.
Twelve years of such dysfunctional cohabitation has inflated the volume of trade between U.S. and Mexico a hundredfold, and built new bridges, both concrete and virtual, between the two once-distant neighbors. Now, when NASDAQ sneezes, the Mexican stock market catches pneumonia, and the dollarization of the peso is discussed in public. Everyone watches Jerry Springer spin-offs and shops at WalMart. And more than ever, Mexican elections have come to resemble U.S. campaigns, replete with vacuous attacks, negative spots, and self-serving polls. Indeed, some of the same spin doctors, notably Clinton carpetbaggers James Carville and Dick Morris, have signed on with the two front-running candidates, Francisco Labastida of the long-ruling (seventy-one years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Vicente Fox of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN).
Homogenization on the commercial front notwithstanding, the basic contradictions that occur when a ten-ton North American gorilla couples with a scrawny Mexican burro remain lacerating – particularly where the two are physically joined, at the border, with its unceasing wash of drugs and desperate indocumentados. In July 2000, both partners in this unequal affair are glancing over their shoulders to see who the new administrators of their marriage will be. Looking north from Mexico City, George W. Bush appears the more comfortable counterpart for whoever inherits Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. The Governor of a huge border state who speaks Spanish and woos Latino voters, Bush is as zealous an advocate of free trade as was his pop. Across the aisle, Al Gore, a southern politician with a suspiciously Carter-like drawl, seems pathologically uninterested in Mexico.
For once, the electoral dynamic south of the border is far more provocative than the stodgy contest up north between candidates of blurred features and visions. The PRI, the longest running political dynasty in the known universe and one which has never lost a presidential election, is suddenly enmeshed in a dogfight with the PAN for control of the Presidency and the Congress. The shifting equations between the two leaders and the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which stands to take a fifth of the vote and win the capital by an ample margin, provides a fascinating daily display of political pyrotechnics. The three-way interchanges in which Fox, Labastida, and two-time presidential loser Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas battle, backbite, and formulate backroom cabals to undercut each others’ candidacies, makes the U.S. race look like a meeting of the Dull Men’s Club.
Since 1929, the U.S. has always been quick to endorse a PRI presidential victory – in 1988, Ronald Reagan recognized Salinas’ fraud-riddled “triumph” even before the votes were counted. But 2000 could be an exception. With PRI governors accused of sitting on the board of the Cali cocaine cartel (Mario Villanueva of Quintana Roo, now fugitive), Francisco Labastida, the one-time Governor of the most narco-ridden state in the Mexican union (Sinaloa) seems a little like spoiled goods. Moreover, a party whose highlight film features assassinations, electoral fraud, peso collapse, Indian uprisings, armed guerrilla bands, and a spectacular crime rate, would not appear to meet U.S. national security criteria to govern a next-door neighbor. On the flip side of the electoral coin, Vicente Fox, a free enterprise-loving, U.S.-style marketeer (he ran Coca Cola’s Latin operations for sixteen years) must seem a lot more user-friendly to U.S. embassy election watchers – one Fox team advisor, pleading the nominal anonymity, insists that the PANista has won the unannounced sympathies of hulking U.S. ambassador Jeffrey Davidow. But, in the end, either Bush or Gore is probably going to have to live with the PRI for another six years, as the official party masses its muscle to win the July 2 election by any means necessary – an exercise that could test U.S. national security concerns right away, particularly along the border. In 1985, after the PAN was deprived of the governorship of Chihuahua by PRI fraud, hundreds of Mexicans fled into Texas and the border bridges were shut down. Again in 1989, Cardenistas, stripped of victory in Tamaulipas local elections, rioted and fled north, petitioning for political asylum. At the zenith of Mexico’s 1910-1919 landmark revolution, a conflict set in motion by electoral fraud, tens of thousands sought refuge from political violence in the U.S., forming the nucleus of contemporary Chicano communities in Los Angeles and Chicago.
With the Mexican election upon us and the U.S. vote-taking just four months down the pike, the names will soon change at the top of this skewed relationship, but the contradictions down below remain unaltered. Even as Bill Clinton and Ernesto Zedillo embraced for the last time, undocumented Mexican workers were dying out in the Arizona desert (129 border deaths through the middle of June) and multiple tons of cocaine were wheeling north into U.S. cities. Six years from now, such contradictions are still going to motor this increasingly bad marriage, one in which geographical propinquity does not allow for divorce.
John Ross is the author of The Annexation of Mexico: from the Aztecs to the IMF, and the forthcoming “The War Against Oblivion: Zapatista Chronicles 1994-2000.”