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Mexico's Juan José Bremer: Despite differences, good friends make good neighbors
The Washington Diplomat / September 2003

By Larry Luxner

Despite the contentious issues of immigration, drug trafficking and foreign policy that for years have clouded U.S.-Mexican relations, Mexico's ambassador in Washington insists the two countries are closer and more united than ever before.

Juan José Bremer, who presented his credentials to President Bush on Jan. 18, 2000, is a master at presenting the complex bilateral alliance as one between best friends who rarely argue and almost never have serious disagreements.

"Without exaggerating, there isn't a more intense, wide and deep relationship between two nations than the one that exists between Mexico and the United States," he told The Washington Diplomat during a recent interview at his sumptuous official residence on Loughboro Road. "Our countries are connected by multiple tracks. We have strong communications on a day-to-day basis, a very fluid diplomatic dialogue and growing economic interaction."

The most obvious connection is the 1,989-mile-long border that Mexico shares with four states: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Every day, around 900,000 people cross the border, known in Spanish as "la frontera." More than 80% of Mexico's total exports — around $700 million in manufactured goods and agricultural products — flow across the border, which is lined with several thousand "maquila" factories that take advantage of Mexico's relatively cheap wages.

According to Bremer, "we buy more American products than the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy combined. We buy 14 cents of every dollar the United States exports, and account for 12 cents of every dollar in U.S. imports."

In 2001, the United States accounted for $20.9 billion in foreign direct investment, or nearly 85%, of all FDI in Mexico. All this has helped boost Mexico's annual per-capita income to over $6,300 — but that's still less than a fifth of that of the United States.

As ambassador, Bremer says his biggest challenge is improving the social and economic conditions of his 100 million countrymen.

"In the future, Mexico won't face the same social and demographic pressures it has today. Our birth rate has come down drastically," said Bremer, the latest in a long line of distinguished diplomats beginning with José Manuel Zozaya Bermudez — who was named Mexico's first envoy to Washington back in 1822.

"In these last 10 years, we have come a long way. Economically, we were one of the most protectionist countries in the world, and now we are one of the most open," he said. "We dared to sign a free-trade agreement with the most important economy in the world, and we're doing well."

Thanks to NAFTA, Mexico has displaced Japan to become America's 2nd-largest trading partner after Canada. In 2002, bilateral trade came to $232 billion, up from $81.6 billion in 1993, the year before the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect.

At present, Mexico hosts the largest number of Americans permanently living outside the United States (over one million), and boasts more consulates in this country (45) than any other. And Mexico receives an estimated $12 billion in family remittances annually from its citizens working legally and illegally north of the Río Grande.

"There are 14 million Americans of Mexican origin, and 8.5 million Mexican workers contributing to the American economy," said Bremer, noting that Mexicans now account for 27% of all foreign-born Americans. "Last but not least, we also have a very rich and growing cultural presence in the social texture of this great society."

Bremer, who earned his law degree from Mexico's National Autonomous University in 1966, knows something about culture. Before entering the diplomatic world, the Mexico City native was head of his country's National Fine Arts Institute from 1976 to 1982.

Following that, Bremer was appointed Mexico's ambassador to Sweden (1982); the former Soviet Union (1988-90); Germany (1990-98) and Spain (1998-2000).

As such, he had a front-row seat to the reunification of East and West Germany and the breakup of the USSR, among other memorable events.

"I've been very fortunate because I've been posted in places where dramatic changes have taken place," he said. "It's a privilege to live in interesting times instead of business as usual. Now I am here in the United States in decisive moments also."

Nothing, however, could have prepared the Mexican envoy for Sept. 11, 2001 — a day of horror that not only shocked the world but also derailed sensitive bilateral talks to "regularize" millions of undocumented aliens living in the United States illegally.

"The main consequence of 9/11 was that security has become a very high priority for the United States," he said. "It was more than natural that the U.S. would focus on this problem, and Mexico understood that immediately. We are cooperating with the American authorities to keep our border open and efficient, and now the time is coming again to put this issue again in movement."

Yet in a recent interview with the Spanish-language TV network Univisión, Secretary of State Colin Powell conceded that the Bush administration won't offer the general amnesty for the millions of undocumented Mexican aliens that Mexican President Vicente Fox has long demanded.

"We are trying to find the right answers," Powell told Univisión. "It is not practical to think that an amnesty of some kind could be granted for all those who are not here with proper documentation. That would not be reasonable to assume, and I would not wish to mislead anyone."

Bremer declined to discuss the negotiations or comment on the specific positions of U.S. leaders, explaining that "this is a touchy issue that I as a diplomat approach with great prudence. The most important thing is not to talk about it publicly, but to try to engage the American government."

The cautious envoy added: "One of the characteristics of the Mexican-American relationship is that some problems have both a domestic and a bilateral component. Sometimes it gets more attention in the media, sometimes less, but the importance of the Mexican-American relationship is here to stay.

"My personal opinion is that it does more good to find adequate solutions than airing these problems publicly. I'm convinced that our two countries will find the proper formulas," he said.

One area where Mexico and the United States disagreed rather sharply was Iraq. Earlier this year, the Fox government — reflecting strong anti-war sentiment at home — came out strongly against unilateral U.S. action in Iraq and initially refused to support the Bush administration's position at the United Nations.

Mexico's UN envoy, Adolfo Aguilar Zinger, then-president of the UN Security Council, told the Washington Diplomat at the time that he wasn't worried about possible political repercussions by the White House against his country. "Mexico does not approach this thing from the perspective of having repercussions, because we participate in global affairs through the United Nations. This is a fundamental dimension of our foreign policy."

Yet Bremer downplayed the two countries' starkly different approaches to the Iraq problem

"I'm absolutely convinced we've gone past this," he said. "We tried to play a constructive role. Mexico has been very active in foreign policy, and I wouldn't overemphasize the importance of these differences of opinion. We have left them behind."

Half a dozen times during our interview, the ambassador sidestepped other controversial subjects raised by The Washington Diplomat— including Mexico's close relationship with Cuba, proposals by the Fox government to privatize state-owned oil entity Pemex ("I won't elaborate on that") and the replacement earlier this year of Mexico's outspoken foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda, with Luís Ernesto Derbez.

"One of the basic rules I follow in my career is to just speak about my current responsibilities," said Bremer. "I am a bad political analyst. My country is full of intelligent political analysts [with] plenty of opinions to digest, and foreign policy is the responsibility of the president."

However, one thing is clear: Bush and Fox are no longer the best buddies they appeared to be at the beginning of their presidencies in early 2001.

Last year, Bush welcomed the ambassador and a crowd of Mexican-American dignitaries to a party in the East Room of the White House for Cinco de Mayo, an annual fiesta that celebrates Mexico's 1862 victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla.

.As Copley News Service reported, "the president introduced mariachis and gave a speech hailing Fox as a 'great Mexican patriot, a man of honest talk and convictions.' This year, Bush settled for a brief statement that didn't even mention Fox's name. In the absence of White House festivities, Ambassador Juan José Bremer this year hosted a celebration — with mariachis, margaritas and chilis rellenos — at the Mexican Cultural Institute."

Yet Bremer insists nothing's wrong.

"I've been present at all the meetings between our two presidents, and they have extraordinary communications," he told the Diplomat. "There is splendid chemistry between them. On the other hand, heads of state understand that in certain issues, they have to respond to their own national interests. That's part of reality, but you would be surprised to see the common ground that we have created."

For example, he said, "annual drug certification [under the Clinton administration] used to be a permanent irritant. These days, there is an unprecedented spirit of cooperation between law-enforcement authorities in both countries. in the last three years, the Fox and Bush administrations have made tremendous progress in the fight against narcotrafficking. Now, nobody even talks about it."

On another subjec,t Bremer said he strongly supports the idea of extending NAFTA to Central and South America because it will stimulate the region's economies, but he cautions that a Free Trade Area of the Americas "is not a magic formula that will solve all our problems. You need to combine trade with a basket of social policies. Right now, we are trying to channel invesetments to marginalized social areas like Chiapas state which are responsible for the most immigration."

In the meantime, Bremer said his No. 1 concern is "bringing safety to the border and trying to combat the human trafficking" that led to the deaths of 300 Mexicans last year.

"The Mexican-American relationship still has pending issues to tackle, and we are developing imaginative projects that haven't gotten the attention they deserve," he said, adding that "my work is a never-ending story. Each day has its own dynamics and surprises."

Asked if there's anything he doesn't like about his job, Bremer responded: "Not at all. I learn every day."

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