Mending Fences with Mexico?

This month, President Barack Obama will make his first visit to Mexico. For most people, such a trip might include visiting its beautiful beaches or touring its centuries-old Aztec ruins.

But Obama will have little time to take in the scenery. Our neighbors to the South are struggling to make peace, caught in the middle of a bloody drug war while trying to boost their economy.

Our relationship with Mexico is as long as the history of the United States. Besides sharing a nearly 2,000-mile border, Mexico is our third-largest trading partner (behind Canada and China), with billions of dollars exchanged every year in goods and services. That sum doesn't even take into consideration the millions more Mexico earns from American tourism. And of course, millions of Americans of Mexican descent are living in our country with deep cultural and family ties back to their homes.

Suffice to say that our relationship with Mexico is not only of economic significance. It's unique. It's one of the most important relationships the U.S. has. Unfortunately, a number of diplomatic spats are threatening this relationship.

The first is over Congress' recent decision to cut off funding for the "Cross Border Demonstration Project," which allows 27 Mexican carriers with 107 trucks full access to our highways. This program has been crucial in advancing trade between the two countries and is consistent with the landmark NAFTA trade agreement signed in December 1994.

Regrettably, thanks to a number of trade-wary legislators, the U.S. Congress inserted language in the massive (1,000-plus pages) omnibus spending bill recently signed into law to eliminate future funding for Mexican trucks to enter our country and use our highways.

Critics cited environmental and safety concerns. But on closer examination, this looks like nothing more than a clever ruse to placate American protectionists, led by the powerful Teamsters union.

Mexico retaliated by imposing higher tariffs on $2.4 billion worth of U.S. imports. They include toilet paper, Christmas trees, shampoo, pencils, beer and deodorant. Those tariffs range from 10 percent to 45 percent, depending on the specific product, and seem aimed at persuading us that Mexico isn't happy with our backtracking on NAFTA.

As if this trade war weren't bad enough, it now turns out that even as narcotics-related violence continues to mount at our border, the administration and Congress have been slow to deliver on the $1.4 billion dollars promised to help Mexico fight narco-trafficking. According to The Washington Post, much of the money has been caught up in bureaucratic slowdowns. For example, a much-needed $50 million surveillance plane took as long as two years to actually reach Mexico.

These problems couldn't come at a worse time, with both economies shedding jobs and the Mexican drug war threatening to spill onto our border states even more.

Thankfully, President Obama has a real opportunity to mend fences when he visits Mexico. He should remind Mexican President Felipe Calderon that we value his country's partnership, cooperation and, yes, even friendship. He should make clear he is prepared to use the power of the executive office to cut through obstacles that harm the relationship.

It would be a shame to further weaken our relationship with our critical neighbor to the South because of political inattention or petty politics.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation.

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Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry
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First Appeared in El Diario(NY)