The coming month of March will see a flurry of activity in U.S.-Mexico relations with the convening of the Mexico-U.S. Interparliamentary Group, the meetings of the Binational Commission, and a tri-national summit between Presidents Vicente Fox and George W. Bush and the newly elected Prime Minister Harper of Canada. On the afternoon of March 1st, the Mexico Institute hosted Ambassador Andrés Rozental, President of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and the former Deputy Foreign Minister of Mexico, to discuss the future of U.S.-Mexico relations as well as the challenges the two governments will face in 2006 as both countries navigate an election year.

For the first time in modern U.S.-Mexico relations, we have witnessed the development of a "two-track relationship," where the public perception of the relationship is strikingly different from its reality. According to Rozental, the public perception is that the relationship between the two neighbors is abysmal. This is the result of violence at the border, persistent drug trafficking, conflicts of extraterritoriality, and rhetorical barbs exchanged between diplomats from both nations. However, Rozental argues that there has never been a stronger, more cooperative relationship at both the federal and state levels between the United States and Mexico than the one that has matured in the past five years. He cited Mexican collaboration in the U.S. war on terrorism as well as a joint commitment to fight drug trafficking, a relaxation of extradition policies, and a strengthened partnership in the financial and trade sectors. This cooperation has even included synchronizing visa policies to prevent third party immigration to the United States through Mexico.

Rozental argued that the negative public perception of the binational relationship can be attributed to the domestic nature of most U.S.-Mexico issues, which allows politicians in both countries to use the negative aspects of the controversy to further their own political careers and causes. Many U.S. politicians boil down the complex relationship between the two nations to immigration and U.S. security, and use these politically, while Mexican politicians use any perceived attack by Americans for their own political ends as well. Also, despite the best of intentions at the beginning of their working relationship together, neither President Fox nor Bush was willing to commit the political capital necessary to truly improve and elevate relations. Now Fox is essentially a lame duck while Bush has three more years left in his presidency and there is very little left of the original spirit of a strong, mutually-beneficial, like-minded partnership.

Rozental predicted that the upcoming immigration debates in the United States would dissolve into Mexico-bashing and lamented that American policymakers have yet to formally consult with Mexican authorities on possible avenues of cooperation in this issue. Rozental was adamant that real progress will never be made until the United States recognizes that the immigration predicament is born out of a socio-economic phenomenon, not a law-enforcement one. Moreover, the Mexican government and people will be skeptical, even scornful, of any immigration legislation that does not legalize undocumented Mexican migrants already in the United States, create a beneficial guest worker program, and expedite the regular comings and goings of Mexicans across the border. Mexico would be very receptive to efforts that addressed these three initiatives, but the odds of such comprehensive legislation evolving, especially in light of the success of the anti-immigration Sensenbrenner bill, is highly unlikely.

Rozental predicts that relations between the two nations will continue to deteriorate after the July 2006 presidential election in Mexico because no matter who wins the election, the new chief executive will be far less willing than Fox was to nurture Mexico's relationship with the United States. Andres Manuel López Obrador, the candidate from the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and previously mayor or of Mexico City, leads the polls and has focused his campaign on domestic issues, particularly social reform. In fact, the presidential campaign thus far has included very little discussion of foreign policy. López Obrador's remarks have been succinct and standoffish, essentially asking that Mexico be left to its own devices. While many in the U.S. government and private sector may expect more camaraderie from the business-friendly Felipe Calderón, a close second in the polls, Rozental points out that Calderón represents the National Action Party (PAN) which has historically been known for its anti-American sentiment. Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), polling behind Calderón, espouses the traditional anti-imperialist PRI rhetoric. Consequently, Rozental does not have high expectations for breakthroughs in U.S.-Mexico relations in the near future.

Nevertheless, Rozental outlined potential avenues for progress in relations between Mexico and the United States. First and foremost, he called for greater unity in North America as a whole, asserting that the United States stood to benefit from collaboration with both Mexico and Canada, especially on security issues and energy strategies. He suggested a harmonization of standards within the NAFTA region and an increase in education exchanges throughout the continent. Perhaps the first step towards the amelioration of U.S.-Mexico relations however, would require the public acknowledgement on the part of both nations that they share responsibility for the negativity that has overwhelmed what should be a symbiotic, ever-improving relationship.