The immigration bill and Mexico's election

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Those were the subjects of a talk yesterday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies by Jorge Castaneda. Castaneda was Mexico's foreign minister from 2000 to 2003 and is a scholar who has written many books.

I have been acquainted with him since about 1990 and find him one of the most brilliant and interesting thinkers I have known. He is a product of the elite of the long-ruling PRI party (his father was foreign minister also) who backed the left-wing Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the PRD in 1988 and Vicente Fox of the center-right PAN party in 2000. He was briefly an independent candidate for president himself but did not get on the ballot for the July 2006 election.

Let me paraphrase Castaneda's remarks, which I do not agree with entirely but which I found immensely interesting and worthy of serious consideration—not least by members of Congress as they deal with the pending immigration bill.

Castaneda argues that Fox staked his foreign policy on getting an immigration agreement with the United States, an agreement whereby Mexico would for the first time take responsibility for limiting immigration to the United States, without which, he argues, any limits by the United States would be ineffective. In early September 2001, Fox came to Washington and was granted a rare state dinner at the White House; at that time Fox and Castaneda pressed hard for an agreement. Then came September 11—a cause for postponing such an agreement for some in the administration and, Castaneda says, a pretext for others. Castaneda believes that the Hagel-Martinez approach that the Senate was considering before its recess and that was kept from the floor by Minority Leader Harry Reid embodies much of what Fox has wanted to get from the United States.

Passing such a bill, Castaneda says, is essential to get continuity in substance and policy from the Mexican government—whoever wins the election. If it is passed, no president would move away from the kind of policy Fox has followed. If it is not passed, it would be easy for any president, even PAN candidate Felipe Calderon, to move away from that policy. In an article in the current Foreign Affairs, Castaneda looks askance at Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City and the PRD candidate for president, who has been leading in most of the polls, and identifies him with the irresponsible populist left rather than with the responsible center-left presidents of Chile and Brazil.

Lopez Obrador comes straight from the PRI of Luis Echeverria Mexico's president from 1970 to 1976, from which he learned how to be a cash-dispensing, authoritarian-inclined populist.

At CSIS, Castaneda identified Lopez Obrador as "probably" part of the "statist, protectionist, authoritarian" left—"not good for anyone." He was careful not to claim that the Senate's action or inaction on an immigration bill would necessarily be dispositive in Mexico's election or in setting the course of future Mexican policy. But he said it would be "a factor."

In other words, if the Senate passes something like the Hagel-Martinez bill and that bill appears as of the Mexican election to have some chance of emerging out of conference committee, that would give credibility to Fox's approach and would—these are my words rather than his—give a boost to Calderon's candidacy.

If the Senate doesn't pass something like this, it would undermine Fox's approach and would presumably help Lopez Obrador. He concluded his prepared remarks by asking, "Does the U.S. really want Evo Morales on the border?" The reference is to the recently elected president of Bolivia, an admirer of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and former head of the coca growers union.

In the question-and-answer period, Castaneda elaborated on Lopez Obrador and the PRD. He pointed out that the people who run the PRD policy on Cuba went to Havana and appeared in rallies supporting Cuba and opposing Mexico's policy toward that country and that they went to the Mar del Plata conference and appeared in demonstrations supporting Chavez and opposing Fox. Lopez Obrador's police chief in Mexico City in a public square expressed his support for Chavez's Venezuela and his opposition to "U.S. imperialism that took over half our country."

I asked Castaneda how the United States could have a constructive relationship with a Lopez Obrador government. He made two points. First, make clear to the international community that the Mexican government has to stick to the commitments it has made in ratifying human rights, trade, labor, environment, and rule-of-law agreements. Second, don't pick "needless fights" over provocative statements or rhetorical or other support given to the Castro and Chavez regimes.

I'm not sure I agree with his second point. There's a lot to be said for speaking out against tyrannies like Castro's and Chavez's. But the first point seems sound. And I do agree with Castaneda's point that Senate passage of something like the Hagel-Martinez immigration bill will probably improve Calderon's chances in the July 2 election and will very likely have a positive effect on Mexican policy whoever wins.

For more thoughts, see my U.S. News column this week on Latin America.