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The New Frontier: American-Mexican Relations

Aired June 3, 2001 - 17:31   ET


STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: Beginning Monday, CNN and "Time" magazine begin an ambitious look at the economic and cultural revolution now taking place along the United States-Mexico border. "The New Frontier" is "Time"'s cover story this week. CNN will feature a week-long series of reports from jobs to illegal immigration to dwindling natural resources, we'll examine what unites and divides those living in cities and towns which dot the border, thanks in large part to the North America Free Trade Agreement. Join us all week for "The New Frontier," beginning Monday here one CNN.

And joining us now with a preview, which is brought to us by Peter Katel, Mexico City bureau chief for "Time" magazine. Mr. Katel, thanks for joining us.


FRAZIER: Your team found a sort of third nation right there along the border. What did they mean?

KATEL: Well, what we mean and what people mean who use this term along the border is that these two very different civilizations converge along this 2,600-mile border, and the people who live on both sides of it have found a way, over the years, to create their own civilization, their own synthesis of the two cultures and systems.

What's happen now is that that synthesis is kind of, on both sides of the border, is going -- in Mexico's case, further south and in U.S.'case, it's transferring itself and moving through the rest of the country.

FRAZIER: Deeper into the cultures.


FRAZIER: Well, you mentioned that within Mexico, there's a lot of talk of the Americanization of culture there. Is that welcomed within Mexico?

KATEL: Much more than would you have thought. For years, the sort of official discourse in Mexico was based on a considerable suspicion and distrust of things American, except at sort of the highest levels.

FRAZIER: And can you give us an example or two of how that is working?

KATEL: Well, what is going on now, the Americanization -- I wrote about the Americanization of Mexican politics. Vicente Fox, the new president, is running kind a very American style presidency, constantly campaigning even though he's already won the election, and in a way that I think would seem familiar to people who watch American politicians.

FRAZIER: Also, what seems familiar is some of the pictures we're going to show while you and I are talking, and initially, they're of border crossings, some unsuccessful. This seems to be such a cliche now, but you say that there's been quite a dynamic, that there was one region where people learned how to do it and got across safely. Now, they're trying from other areas where they don't have that kind of knowledge.

KATEL: You know, that's right. The Zacatecas, which is a state in the heart of Mexico, is a state that for various reasons, including natural resources that have been dwindling forever, people there have been going to the states for decades.

And what people there say is we're going to get through no matter what, because we know how to do it. We have the contacts on both sides, and there's no way we're going to get stopped. The people who run into trouble and, in some cases, lose their lives, are people from states where this has not been a tradition, where they don't have these networks set up, and where they're at the mercy, not only of the elements, but of incompetent or crooked people smugglers.

FRAZIER: I think we're showing a picture now, for example, of a young woman being carried out of what looks like a desert area, perhaps one of those people stranded in the desert by these -- what do they call them?

KATEL: Coyotes or polleros.

FRAZIER: Coyotes, yes. The official smugglers -- or the unofficial smugglers, but people who are sort of entrepreneurs.

KATEL: Unofficial. Yes.

FRAZIER: But there is some talk of doing away with the border altogether, so eliminating the need for that kind of danger on the part of people ho would like to migrate.

KATEL: Well, that's the slightly utopian line that President Fox took at beginning of his administration, and those close to him say that he was merely trying to sort of reframe the dialogue, which I think he did, because it worth asking why, if the United States seem to have an unending need for Mexican workers, why people have to die to fill that need.

FRAZIER: And why is it that they need to leave at all? Why do they have to endure that kind of hardship? What's happening in Mexico that's still propelling them north? KATEL: Well, that's the other side of it. Mexico, for all its advances at a macroeconomic level, and those are real, is still having trouble getting those advances down to the level at which most people live.

FRAZIER: Now, NAFTA was supposed to help with that, provide jobs, send exports there. Is the political system impeding the economic benefits that NAFTA was intend to create?

KATEL: Well, I think at this point, there's much less of that, and remember, the NAFTA was the creation of the American government and of the old system that Fox and Mexican voters displaced. But -- and it has, in fact, provided many jobs. The reality is that the needs here are so vast, that the seven years in which -- yes, seven years in which NAFTA has been in effect, are only a beginning.

FRAZIER: All right, let's take a little pause here. There's much more we'd like to discuss, but we'll get in a break. We'll have much more with Peter Katel from Mexico City after this break, and there is still a chance to e-mail some questions to him. Our Web address is We'll be right back.


FRAZIER: Welcome back. We are talking still with Peter Katel, who is Mexico City bureau chief for "Time" magazine. He is offering up some insights into an examination they made at the magazine into life along the border.

You were just saying that they haven't found their way clear to generating the kind of jobs and prosperity that had been hoped, even though it's been seven years now. But Mr. Fox looks a little bit more market-oriented.

KATEL: Well, Fox is considerably more market-oriented, although to be fair to his immediate predecessors of the old ruling party, they were, too. I think the new dimension with Fox is that he is not only more economically attuned to the U.S., but culturally and politically. His relationship with Bush, as we have reported, is as close as -- as close a relationship as any Mexican president has had with an American president, certainly in living memory.

FRAZIER: In fact, I think you're right that no president has ever understood Mexico as deeply.

KATEL: As Bush, I think that's right.

FRAZIER: And what will that mean, do you think?

KATEL: Well, I think it's a function of Bush being from Texas. It's pretty much as simple as that. Texas, although it's not necessarily the cliche image of it, Texas has a cultural closeness with Mexico, most parts of Texas, that is really, in my experience, unequal along the border except in New Mexico. You know, in broad generalizations here, and Bush, I think, reflects that.

FRAZIER: Sure, and now that he is in Washington, what's going to happen as result of that understanding that he has?

KATEL: Well, now, that's the question of the hour.


KATEL: You know, the chemistry is great, the vibes are great. You know, Mexicans accused of being drug lords are being extradited to the U.S., and Mexico has, you know, pledged its unending cooperation with the U.S. drug war.

But beyond that, I think it's not quite clear what benefits this relationship will bring. I'm not -- it's not to say they won't bring any, but it's -- the expectations are extremely high, let's put it that way, and whether they're able to meet them on both sides of the border is -- remains to be seen.

FRAZIER: Interestingly, out of all the things you guys cover globally, you see this as such a fascinating topic. Is it because the dynamic is changing quickly and we're not catching that?

KATEL: Well, I think that's right. I think it's also, as I suggested earlier, the border isn't just along the Rio Grande or the Rio Bravo, as Mexicans call it anymore. The border is all over the United States now. There are Mexican communities in the Deep South, in the Midwest. There is a fairly sizable Mexican colony from the state of Puebla in New York City, of all places.

I think it's fair to say that the border is everywhere, and so, it makes sense to look at how people who ahead of the game have dealt with relations, you know, have tried to form a synthesis between two civilizations, and those people are along the river.

FRAZIER: Right. That is worth an examination because it's no surprise to you that a lot of people who are going to read this are kind of frightened by these developments, maybe because they're racist or maybe just because they're unfamiliar with the dynamic of this.

KATEL: Well, I'd like to think unfamiliarity would explain it, but I think it's really nothing to be afraid of, it's something to be excited by. Mexico is a fascinating, ancient civilization, and I think we have to lot to learn from it, and Mexicans now freely say they have lot to learn from the United States. That's now not politically incorrect to say in Mexico. Mexicans, now, I think are free to say they there are things they like and don't like about the United States, things they want to borrow and things they want to leave alone from the U.S. culture.

FRAZIER: Right, as you were saying, get your e-mail and then still have a nice, big family lunch together.

KATEL: Thanksgiving dinner every Sunday, as one friend of mine in Monterey put it, and that's said very well.

FRAZIER: Well, we're grateful for these insights and for your time on a Sunday. Peter Katel, thanks for joining us. Good luck with the new issue. KATEL: Thank you.

FRAZIER: A reminder that "The New Frontier" airs all this week beginning Monday on CNN.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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