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Mexico's most powerful man in Washington
Latinamerica Press / September 25, 1997

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON -- It seems Jesus Silva-Herzog has always been close to the center of power.

Born just a block from his country's most famous landmark -- the towering Angel of Independence monument along Mexico City's Reforma -- Silva-Herzog now occupies a spacious office just three blocks from the White House. As Mexico's ambassador to the United States, the 62-year-old diplomat represents not just a thriving nation of 90 million people, but the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world and one of America's most important trading partners.

"I'm one of the busiest ambassadors in Washington," says Silva-Herzog, interviewed in late July at his perch overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. "In two and a half years, I've never had a boring moment. Right now, we're dealing with a deportation case, we're in the middle of a tuna fight, we're being accused of dumping lemons, and we're having some violence on the border."

Not to mention drug-trafficking, a massive investigation into the smuggling of deaf Mexican immigrants, the never-ending NAFTA debate and stunning political changes at home that threaten the dominance of Mexico's ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) for the first time in 70 years.

Aided by a strong sense of humor, Silva-Herzog -- a political appointee who took up his current post in February 1995 -- understands better than most people the significance of the U.S.-Mexican relationship. As ambassador, he's the latest in a long line of distinguished diplomats beginning with Jose Manuel Zozaya Bermudez, who was named Mexico's first envoy to the United States back in 1822.

"I am convinced there are no other two countries in the world that have such a com-plex, intense and diverse relationship as the one between the United States and Mexico," he says. "The U.S. has a very intense trade relationship with Canada and Japan, a close relationship with the former Soviet Union because of security reasons, and with Israel because of its key importance in the political equilibrium in the Middle East. But there is no other country in the world where you have the type of relationship you have with Mexico."

Mexico, he points out, is today the third-largest trading partner of the United States, with 1996 bilateral trade hitting $140 billion. This year, Mexico is likely to displace Japan for the No. 2 spot, with two-way commerce expected to reach $170 billion.

Furthermore, Mexico has become one of the most important destinations for U.S. direct and financial investment, with several thousand maquila factories along the border area. An estimated one million people cross the 2,000-mile-long border itself every day. "No other border in the world has one million crossings a day," says the ambassador.

In addition, Mexico hosts the largest number of Americans permanently living outside the United States, and boasts more consulates in this country (42) than any other.

Finally, the Mexican-American community numbers close to 20 million, and "according to most demographic studies, the Hispanic community is going to become the nation's largest minority group by 2010. This includes thousands of Mexicans whose fam-ilies have lived in the United States for many generations. After all, he points out, "we lost half of our territory in the last century. Mexico used to go all the way to Salt Lake City."

Silva-Herzog, whose office is dominated by an oil painting of 19th-century revolutionary Benito Juárez, has been in politics for over 40 years, having begun his career as an economist with Mexico's Central Bank in 1956. In 1982, the Yale graduate became secretary of the treasury, a job that lasted four years. He was later elected president of the Center for Latin American Monetary Studies in Mexico City and stayed there two years before moving to Madrid as Mexico's ambassador to Spain. In late 1993, he returned to head the Ministry of Tourism, a position he gave up in February 1995 to take his current job.

Asked about Mexico's July 6 mid-term elections, in which both the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and the center-right National Action Party (PAN) gained power at the expense of the long-entrenched PRI, Silva Herzog -- a PRI man but also a diplomat -- was gracious in defeat.

"It was a wonderful, beautiful exercise" in democracy, he said. "More than 60% of the electorate went to the polls. It was peaceful and transparent, without any serious incidents, and with very active participation of the people. Mexico has made a very important step forward in its road to improve the democratic process. More than 50% of Mexico's population will now be governed by the opposition."

Despite the election -- in which the PRD won an overwhelming victory in the Mexico City mayoral race -- Silva-Herzog says he doesn't contemplate much change in Mexican economic policy.

"After the elections, the Mexican stock market hit an all-time high. We have had four consecutive days of record levels, then two days of adjustment, and now we're back up," he said. "That means essentially that the people have increased their confidence in the Mexican political system. The mayor of Mexico City or the [new PAN governors] will not have any responsibility in the design or implementation of economic policy. They'll have their say and they'll try to insist, but I don't have any doubt that the basic economic policy will continue, and that Mexico after the elections has added some degree of confidence on the part of the investment community."

In fact, Mexico is about to sign a political and trade accord with the 15-member European Union, calling for liberalization of EU-Mexican commerce by 2000. The idea is to diversify its trade, 80% of which is conducted with the United States.

Asked if there's any chance Mexico would reconsider its participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement as a result of PRI's election losses, Silva-Herzog laughed.

"I don't see any risk of that happening," he said. "The position of the PRD with regard to NAFTA has been much more discreet than that of some lawmakers on Capitol Hill."

In fact, he says, the trade agreement has helped both countries, despite what its critics (including many leaders of the Mexican-American community) may say. NAFTA is so important to Mexico that the Mexican Embassy has devoted its entire eighth floor -- and a considerable number of its 160 employees -- to North American free-trade issues.

"NAFTA has been positive for the U.S. economy. In Mexico, it has had a positive effect as well, because it permitted us to increase exports," he said. "Without export expansion, the drop in Mexican economic activity because of the 1994 peso devaluation would have been much more serious."

What about the hundreds of thousands of NAFTA-related manufacturing jobs Mexico has reportedly gained at the expense of the United States?

"That is absolutely false," the ambassador fumed. "The level of unemployment in the U.S. economy today is under 5%, the lowest in 20 years. You have been creating about 250,000 jobs per month. So where is that famous sucking sound?"

Meanwhile, the White House is blaming internal Republican party politics for criticism leveled by Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of Clinton's plans to tap Massachusetts Gov. William Weld as Washington's next ambassador to Mexico. Some Republicans -- angered over the liberal governor's campaign to legalize marijuana for medical uses -- are urging the GOP-controlled Senate to reject Weld's nomination.

"He would be a wonderful candidate," Silva-Herzog says of Weld. "I know him very well. I think he's a great man."

Like his counterparts at the State Department, two other issues occupy Silva-Herzog at the moment: immigration and drugs. Right now, several million Latin Americans living in this country face deportation under a new U.S. immigration law that took effect on April 1, 1997.

"We are very worried. It's a restrictive law that reflects anti-immigrant feelings that exist in this country over the last few years," said Silva-Herzog. "We do not dispute the right of any country to defend its sovereignty and borders, but I think the law forgot to take into account the many specific types of immigrants. The Central Americans came to this country mostly because of civil wars in which the U.S. was an interested party. They were given special status, and now they're at risk of being sent back."

Likewise, he says, over 500,000 Mexicans face deportation. "We are doing as much as we can. We are trying to convey to the U.S. authorities the consequences of an inflexible application of the law."

The other issue that concerns Silva-Herzog -- and millions of others on both sides of the border -- is the smuggling of narcotics from Mexico to the United States.

In March, President Clinton "decertified" Colombia for the second year in a row and certified Mexico -- angering many lawmakers -- even though Colombia has nearly wiped out its cocaine cartels while Mexico brims with drug-related corruption. A bipartisan measure introduced in late June by U.S. Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) urges a two-year suspension of the annual ritual by which Washington grades the performance of other countries' anti-narcotics efforts.

"We Mexicans are somewhat mentally retarded," the ambassador says carefully. "We do not understand why the most powerful country judges all the others, especially when it is the most important consumer of drugs in the world."

Yet in an embarrassing turn of events for Mexico -- one that no public-relations executive could smooth over -- the head of the country's federal narcotics agency, Gen. Jesús Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested and accused earlier this year of protecting and receiving benefits from drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes. A month before that, the Mexican Army's Brig. Gen. Alfredo Navarro was arrested on charges he offered a multi-million-dollar bribe to the top federal justice in Baja California on behalf of a notorious cocaine cartel.

"There's no doubt we have had quite a number of corruption scandals in Mexico linked to drug trafficking," acknowledges Silva-Herzog, who plans to return to academic life at the end of this year. "But the only way drug trafficking can move is through corruption, and that means there's a lot of corruption on this side of the border as well. How else can you explain drugs coming into San Diego, Minneapolis, Portland or to Fourteenth Street in Washington? Even the United States -- the most powerful, richest country in the world -- will not be able to deal with this corruption alone."

Nevertheless, he adds, "today, there is a recognition like never before in the United States that we have to look very carefully at the demand side of the equation, not just the supply side. We are stopping the finger-pointing, and we're now in a much more constructive mood to cooperate."

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