Drugs, Immigration Top Clinton's Mexican Agenda
The president also will visit Costa Rica, Barbados on this week's excursion
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, May 5) -- With several critical issues on the table, including illegal drugs, immigration, trade and jobs, President Bill Clinton headed south to Mexico this afternoon for his first visit since he took office in 1993.
Clinton is due to arrive in Mexico City tonight, with two key meetings set for Tuesday morning.
Before he left, Clinton said the U.S. and Mexico need to face up to problems that neither can solve by itself, including drugs, crime and corruption.
"More than ever before, we are working with our neighbors, on the basis of mutual respect, to make a difference on issues that matter most to people in their daily lives," Clinton said in a statement. (608K wav sound)
Last week, Clinton told reporters that he thinks relations between the U.S. and Mexico have improved in recent years.
"If you compare our relationship with Mexico today, for example, with several years ago, there's no question that we're stronger today," Clinton said in a telephone interview last week with the Los Angeles Times, the San Antonio Express-News and The Dallas Morning News.
High on the agenda will be Mexico's mixed record in fighting drugs.
"Is there corruption in the Mexican system?" asked National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. "I think that President [Ernesto] Zedillo would be the first to acknowledge that there is."
Berger was referring to the recent arrest of Mexico's top anti-drug official, accused of being on the drug traffickers' payroll.
But the Mexican official's White House counterpart says Mexico is reforming its drug-fighting strategy and concedes the U.S. also shares some of the blame.
Said Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the U.S. drug czar, "I'm always concerned a bit about creative hypocrisy, because it's $49 billion of U.S. money on drugs that is acting as an engine drawing 60 percent of our own cocaine, marijuana, heroin coming through Mexico or adjoining Pacific or Caribbean waters."
Beyond drugs, there's the continued flow of illegal immigration into the United States, which is even drawing sharp criticism from some of Clinton's fellow Democrats.
"Mexico has never cooperated on enforcing their border," said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "Mexico doesn't believe it should enforce its border."
Clinton took a big risk two years ago in supporting billions of dollars in loans to rescue the Mexican peso. But Mexico repaid a $13.5 billion loan early, with interest.
Still, critics say the financial crisis could easily return and they point to other controversies, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), that Clinton pushed through Congress.
"We were told we needed NAFTA to support an honest, competent government in Mexico that was different from the previous governments," said Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute. "It turns out this is one of the most corrupt and incompetent governments in decades."
The president and his aides claim the drug, immigration and corruption problems today would be worse without NAFTA. And despite the critics, they also say it's time to expand free trade the hemisphere, a point the president will be making on his trip.
Clinton also plans to use the Mexico trip to work on one NAFTA provision that allows U.S. and Mexican truckers to haul cargo in border states. Clinton said the U.S. is duty-bound to allow Mexican truckers to operate in the U.S., as long as they do so safely.
After Mexico, Clinton will go to Costa Rica for a summit with Central American leaders, then to a meeting with Caribbean officials in Barbados. Later this year, he will venture further into Latin America, with visits to Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Claire Shipman contributed to this report.
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