Don't Corner Mexico!

If Washington insists on underlining Mexi­co's present regional impotence, then Mexican instability may become a real danger no matter what happens in Central America.

The breakdown of the Contadora peace initi­ative because of either infinite procedural nit­picking or substantive confrontation marks, among other things, the end of Mexico's first starring role on the international political stage. The adventure had begun in the late 1970s, at a time of U.S. interest in and sympathy for Latin America, new oil discov­eries, and high oil prices, and culminated in the joint Mexican-Colombian-Panamanian­-Venezuelan effort to bring peace to Central America. But it has been crippled by the weight of foreign, debt, by domestic disen­chantment, and by President Ronald Reagan's Central American machismo. Although it may not be evident today, the demise of Mexico's foreign policy may prove to be one of the most serious casualties of Reagan's Central America policy.

Present appearances notwithstanding, Mex­ico was not always interested in Central American and Caribbean Basin matters. It dabbled in the region's politics in the 1920s, when then President Plutarco Elias Calles sent arms to the liberals in Nicaragua; in the 1930s, when Augusto Cesar Sandino, the self-styled Nicaraguan liberator, tried to raise funds and sought refuge in Mexico; and in the 1950s, when Fidel Castro, Ernesto ("Che") Guevara, and their guerrillas launched the Cuban revo­lution from the Mexican seaport of Tuxpan. In general, however, Mexico had looked north or across the Atlantic Ocean when it focused on the rest of the world. So it was with some surprise that the country's inhabitants -- and foreign observers -- realized in the late 1970s that Mexico was seeking a leading role in the unfolding Central American crisis.

As Mexico became increasingly active in the area's affairs, many analyses of the reasons for and origins of this activity appeared. These analyses cited Mexico's historical sympathy for revolutionary movements in Latin Ameri­ca, deeply rooted in the country's own revolu­tion of 1910; its ideological posturing for the benefit of the domestic political system's left wing; and the simplistic -- and nearsighted -- ­U.S.-baiting by a Mexican president, Jose Lopez Portillo, who let his dislike for former President Jimmy Carter get out of hand. More accurately, it was seen as an attempt by Mexico to turn its northern neighbor's grow­ing difficulties in Nicaragua, and later, EI Salvador, to its own advantage at a time of strained Mexican-U.S. relations. These and other analyses of Mexico's new activist foreign policy came and went across the Rio Grande; all had some ring of truth to them, but none could fully explain Mexico's intentions in the Caribbean Basin.

In fact, though never clearly expressed and only vaguely perceived in different sectors of society and government, from mid-1978 on, Mexico's actions sprang from a general idea of goals in the region and how to achieve them. Mexican policy aimed to carve out a sphere of influence in the only areas where such an ambition was feasible: Central America and the Caribbean Basin. South America was too divided and removed from Mexican concerns and capabilities, and no other region then had anything remotely like a strong link to Mexico or seemed close to developing any in the future. True, the country had never shown much interest in the "sister republics" to the south or in the island countries to the east, but nonetheless these countries had always looked to Mexico with a mixture of fascination and fear, respect and resentment.

Indeed, Central American elites had been studying law, medicine, engineering, and the art of war in Mexico for many years. The area's revolutionaries and reformers, from Cuba's Jose Marti at the turn of the century to CIA-ousted Guatemalan President Jacobo Ar­benz Guzman in 1954, had always conspired from, fled to, and come to die in Mexico. So in addition to the country's obvious affinities with most Caribbean Basin countries -- shared language, history, and problems -- Mexico had sound cultural grounds for envisaging a dura­ble influence in the region.

Some solid, if less obvious, economic and political reasons for thinking in these terms also existed. By the end of the 1970s, Mexico had become a relatively developed country, by Latin American standards. Despite serious structural weaknesses in its economy, glaring inequities in the distribution of wealth, and recurring economic crises that shook the coun­try's finances and self-confidence, Mexico had built a large and diverse industrial base. Its economy increasingly complemented that of most Central American and Caribbean coun­tries. And the discovery in 1976 to 1979 of new, giant oil reserves in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco and in the Campeche Sound, as well as the prospect of high revenues from oil exports, made Mexico's economic future seem bright, even dazzling.

In contrast, the isthmus and island econo­mies have remained essentially agricultural exporters of commodities. They depend main­ly on American imports for consumer goods and for most of the tractors, herbicides, pesti­cides, and fertilizer they need to produce the cotton, coffee, bananas, sugar, and meat they sell on the world market. Mexico produced nearly all of the same goods imported -- large­ly from elsewhere -- by the Caribbean Basin economies. On paper, it looked like an ideal marriage.

But hypothetical economic considerations alone could not make Central America and the Caribbean Basin the keystone of Mexican foreign policy. Mexico would never be able to wage, much less win, an economic competi­tion with the United States, the region's reigning power since the turn of the century. How could the inefficient and poverty-ridden Mexican economy compete with the United States, literally in America's own back yard?

Courting the Left

The answer, of course, was to compete not economically, but politically. Here the emerg­ing social unrest and desire for change in much of the region entered into the equation. Mexico would be able to nudge out the United States as the dominant influence in the Carib­bean Basin only by winning the political sympathies of the area's inhabitants and gov­ernments. And it would find this sympathy only on the left, not on the right end of the political spectrum. Subsequent American warnings notwithstanding, Mexico felt it had nothing to fear from left-wing governments in the Caribbean Basin. It knew that, despite their Marxist-Leninist trappings, Latin Amer­ican revolutionaries continued to be middle­-class nationalists with a popular following. It had learned from the records of Guatemala from 1950 to 1954, Cuba since 1959, and Chile from 1970 to 1973 that left-wing governments would never think of meddling in Mexican politics: Mexico was their best -- their only -- ­ally in the Western Hemisphere.

Although most of the countries in the area had right-wing, pro-American, and unpopular leaders who would never look to Mexico as a counterweight to the United States, the situa­tion was changing rapidly. The victory of the Nicaraguan revolution seemed imminent. That and the apparently favorable prospects for insurgencies in EI Salvador and Guatemala in late 1978 and early 1979 gave Mexico every reason to be optimistic. If the Sandinistas overthrew Anastasio Somoza Debayle; if the guerrillas in EI Salvador rode on the Sandinis­tas' coattails to victory in their own country; if the Guatemalan revolutionaries were in turn swept into power by the regional revolution­ary tide; if geographic realities obliged Hon­duras and Costa Rica to align themselves with their neighbors' policies; and if Mexico were seen by these newly triumphant revolutionary movements as a true and trusted ally, it would achieve the anti-American political edge it sought. For no matter how moderate the Central American and Caribbean revolution­aries might appear in dealing with the United States, their anti-American nationalism was deep enough for Mexico to turn to its advan­tage.

Mexico had its work cut out for it: Support the Central American revolutionaries in their quest for power; transform, with time, the political capital thus acquired into lasting influence; and ensure the staying power re­quired by a long-term policy. By wagering that the future of Central America and the Caribbean belonged to a nationalist, not fully democratic, and largely anti-American Left, Mexico may have been betting on the right horse -- but only in a very long race.

It also was assuming an additional task, possibly the most difficult: conciliating the interests of these new regimes with U.S. interests. Little would remain of Mexico's regional ambitions if some form of coexistence were not worked out between the United States and the revolutionaries in Central America and the Caribbean. Mexico had both a motive and the capability to encourage a modus vivendi. But it could succeed only with some very deft diplomatic maneuvers: sup­porting the rebels in their struggles against U.S.-backed regimes until they took power, then turning around and convincing the for­mer adversaries that they had to live with each other -- a formidable, perhaps unrealistic, task.

Nevertheless, some factors were operating in Mexico's favor. To begin with, its policy was based exclusively on self-interest. Mexico supported the tide of radical change in Central America and the Caribbean not out of sympa­thy -- though sympathy clearly existed -- or anti-American spite -- a small dose of which is always present in Mexican foreign policy­ but rather because becoming a regional power required a left-leaning Caribbean Basin. Such a policy always would be easier to sustain domestically than one based on high-minded but abstract principles that would entail some sacrifice of Mexico's interests. Further, Mexi­co could switch back and forth between sup­porting revolution and reconciling the Left with U.S. interests, depending on Mexican, regional, and American political consider­ations.

Third, and most important, this approach did not appear to oppose the core of the Carter administration's approach toward both Latin America and the developing world as a whole. Under Carter, the United States seemed to be indicating that it could live with radical gov­ernments in the Third World if they did not alter fundamental geopolitical equations or massively violate human rights. Mexico was confident that it would have enough leverage with Central American and Caribbean radi­cals to ensure their respect for these American constraints.

Between late 1978 and early 1982, then, Mexico openly supported revolution in Nicar­agua; viewed with favor its progress in El Salvador and Grenada; improved and empha­sized its ties with Cuba; and watched with interest (and some unease) as guerrilla warfare heated up in neighboring Guatemala. Starting in late 1978, Mexican Interior Minister Jesus Reyes Heroles and Carlos Sansores Perez and Gustavo Carvajal Moreno, then chairman and secretary general, respectively, of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRJ), ap­propriated small but significant amounts of money for the Sandinista guerrillas and their political front, the Group of Twelve. The Mexican embassy in Managua became a center for anti-Somoza conspiracies, a haven and clinic for tired or wounded guerrillas, and a meeting place for opposition leaders. Nicara­guan Vice President Sergio Ramirez Mercado, Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto Brockman, Attorney General Ernesto Castillo Martinez, and other current Sandinista officials all made the embassy their home for varying periods of time.

But Mexico's most important role in the Nicaraguan insurrection came in May and June 1979, when international pressure, pri­marily from Latin American countries, as much as internal armed conflict, forced Somo­za from power. In May, shortly after visits to Mexico by Castro and Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo Odio, Lopez Portillo broke diplomatic relations with Nicaragua and en­couraged other Latin American countries to do the same. At a June meeting of the Organi­zation of American States, the Mexican for­eign minister openly defended "the sacred right [of the Nicaraguan people] to rebel against tyranny" and played a key role in stopping the United States from dispatching an inter-American peace keeping force intend­ed to impede Sandinista access to power ­even if it was too late to save Somoza. Lopez Portillo shipped substantial quantities of am­munition to the Sandinista southern front, and on July 19 the Mexican presidential airplane carried the newly formed junta into Nicaragua -- and power -- from Costa Rica.

Through 1983, Mexican economic aid to Nicaragua topped $500 million, including out­right grants, loans, and free or discounted oil. Lopez Portillo visited Nicaragua three times, and Sandinista comandantes called regularly at the Mexican Presidential Palace and the Foreign Ministry, often with a lengthy shop­ping list. Although Mexico was criticized then, as now, for not attaching at least some strings to this support, it viewed the policy as an attempt to buy political trust for the future.

Inevitably, Mexico began looking at the situation in El Salvador through the lens of the Sandinista victory. If developments there proceeded as they had in Nicaragua in 1979, there was no reason to believe a similar Pattern would not take hold. In early 1980, Carvajal, by then chairman of the PRI, met with the Salvadoran rebel commanders and their political representatives; in August 1980, the Mexican Foreign Ministry established high-level and ongoing communications with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a federation of guerrilla groups, and its political arm, the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR). This relationship with the Salvadoran rebels allowed Mexican authorities to monitor closely events in El Salvador; it also created, even more than in Nicaragua, the kind of trust that would serve Mexico greatly later, if the Salvadoran insur­gents attained power.

The best example of this long-term political investment was the so-called Franco-Mexican declaration on El Salvador. In August 1981, the newly elected government of French Pres­ident Francois Mitterrand joined Mexico in calling for a negotiated settlement in El Salva­dor and recognized the FMLN and the FDR as "representative political forces." Coming dur­ing a period of military weakness for the guerrillas, this diplomatic move gave the reb­els the single most important expression of international support they have ever received.

Mexico also strengthened its ties with Cuba. In August 1980, Lopez Portillo traveled to Havana, where he was given a hero's welcome. Castro, in turn, twice visited the Mexican resort of Cozumel. In late 1981, when Cuba desperately needed dollars to meet payments on its debt to Western banks, the Mexican government secretly lent the Cubans $100 million. And, though Mexico gave no aid to Grenada, the late Prime Minister Maurice Bishop was warmly received in Mexico City in late 1981.

Mexico's armed forces never viewed Guate­mala as they viewed the rest of the region and clearly would have opposed any open or significant support of revolution south of the border. Yet Lopez Portillo's policy toward the Guatemalan insurgency was not totally at odds with Mexican policy toward Central America as a whole. In mid-1981, when the first Guatemalan refugees began pouring over Mexico's southern border, Lopez Portillo, after some initial hesitation, ordered a reluc­tant army to accept their presence. This decision in part reciprocated advance warn­ings from the guerrilla leaders that refugees soon would start leaving Guatemala in search of a Mexican haven.

If Mexico clearly emphasized the pro-revolu­tion track of its dual Central America policy, it did not totally discard efforts to find a modus vivendi between Washington and the Central American Left. Mexico repeatedly lectured the United States on the need to coexist with Nicaragua, normalize relations with Cuba, and negotiate a solution to the civil war in El Salvador. Mexico also tried to convince the Sandinistas, the Cubans, and the Salvadoran insurgents to take American con­cerns into account. Although official and unofficial meetings and exchanges of views among the various parties did take place, these efforts remained fruitless. Despite certain signs of leftist flexibility, such as a Sandinista willingness to discuss the departure of Cubans from Nicaragua without defining their status as teachers or advisers, Mexico proved unable to deliver American concessions and conse­quently was unable to transform flashes of apparent moderation from Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Salvadoran rebels into meaningful concessions.

In November 1981, then Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Jr., met with Cuban vice president Carlos Rafael Rodriguez in Mexico City; 4 months later, special presidential en­voy General Vernon Walters traveled to Ha­vana for a 7-hour talk with Castro. According to Mexican officials, in early 1981, just after Reagan's first inauguration, then national se­curity adviser Richard Allen and Director of Central Intelligence William Casey agreed to a Mexican request to hold talks secretly, in Washington, with Salvadoran rebel leaders.

But Haig vetoed the arrangement as soon as he learned of it, considering the idea entirely contrary to his Central America policy. Other Mexican attempts to promote talks between the warring factions in El Salvador fared no better because of U.S. opposition and a simple fact of diplomatic life: Mexico was too sup­portive of the Central American and Carib­bean Left to play the role of honest broker, yet if it turned away from its new found allies, it would lose their trust -- its only card to begin with.

Mexican efforts on Nicaragua likewise failed repeatedly, with the first phase of Mexico's Central America policy culminating in February 1982, when Lopez Portillo visited Managua, Nicaragua, publicly called for talks and mutual concessions, and tried to convince the United States to enter into formal negotia­tions with the Sandinistas. But once again Haig blocked the initiative, although some progress was made in identifying both sides' grievances and aspirations.

By this time, however, economic insolvency had hit Mexico. Lopez Portillo had become a lame duck, and increasing domestic opposition to Mexico's open support of "subversives" had rendered this policy inoperative. The end of the first phase and the beginning of the second might have come in early 1982, when a Euro­pean democracy privately asked Lopez Portillo to join it in financially supporting the FMLN-FDR. Mexico refused, though this meant that European funds would not be forthcoming either. Likewise, in December 1981, after France announced a sale of $17 million in arms to Nicaragua, Mitterrand asked Mexico to support publicly this act. Mexico turned him down.

A New Mexican Stance

During the transition between the outgoing administration of Lopez Portillo and the new government of Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, Mexico shifted the emphasis of its policy from supporting revolution in Central America to mediating between that revolution and its avowed adversary, Ronald Reagan. And in order to mediate with any chance of success, Mexico had to slide over to the diplomatic Center, a difficult place in Latin American politics under any circumstances, and particu­larly during the Reagan era.

In September 1982, Mexico and Venezuela sent jointly signed letters to the presidents of Nicaragua, Honduras, and the United States, calling on them to negotiate their differences. For the first time, Mexico publicly stated that Nicaragua was not entirely blameless in the regional crisis, especially concerning tensions with Honduras. The initiative, however, was still essentially pro-Sandinista. Four months later, after de la Madrid's inauguration, this joint Mexican-Venezuelan effort was trans­formed into the Contadora initiative, named after the Panamanian resort island where the foreign ministers of Colombia, Mexico, Pana­ma, and Venezuela met in early 1983.

The Contadora process revealed not only a major revision in Mexican positions, but also an underlying continuity, however unaware of it Mexican policymakers may have been at the time. As Mexico's own economic problems increased; as the Guatemalan insurgency suf­fered a nearly fatal blow at the hands of later ousted president General Efrain Rios Monn; as the Salvadoran guerrillas proved unable to defeat the U.S.-hacked government; and, per­haps most important, as the very survival of the Nicaraguan revolution came into question because of the Sandinistas' own mistakes and Reagan's support for the contras, Mexico began to emphasize its "mediation" function as op­posed to its "support" role. The Contadora group adopted a more centrist approach than previous Mexican initiatives not only because of the presence of other countries more sym­pathetic to U.S. positions, but also because of the new "balanced and objective" stance laid out by de la Madrid.

This new Mexican stance was reflected in many of the Contadora group's documents and arguments. Nicaragua's problems with Honduras were made the center of the region­al crisis, whereas before Mexico had stressed the need to address both the Nicaraguan and the Salvadoran dimensions of Central Ameri­can tensions. The insurgents in EI Salvador clearly perceived this shift. "Contadora, as a group, however, has been unwilling up to now to use its good offices to work for this dialogue [between the FMLN-FDR and Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte]. It has not even directly discussed the Salvadoran case," stated an official FMLN-FDR document of mid-1984.

A series of symmetries also was established. Each of these symmetries ran counter to Mexico's previous positions, but each made Mexico a more credible mediator. Cuba was placed alongside the United States in the category of interested outside parties. When the four Contadora presidents met in Cancun, Mexico, in July 1983, they sent messages to both Castro and Reagan, asking for their support. In a January 8, 1984, bulletin issued after a meeting of the Contadora foreign ministers, the insurgents in El Salvador were equated, at least implicitly, with the Nicara­guan contras. Both were referred to as "irregu­lar forces which aim to destabilize the Central American governments."

The questions of internal reforms, demo­cratic elections, and respect for human rights were addressed in individual sections of the Contadora group's documents, and particular­ly in the Revised Contadora Act for Peace and Cooperation in Central America. This put Nicaragua's "self-determination" on an equal footing with El Salvador's "human rights violations," which Mexico had repeatedly con­demned at the United Nations General As­sembly. Neither issue, the act implied, could be considered merely an internal matter. Other, less important changes in the Mexican position also were reflected in the Contadora documents.

While pursuing the multilateral, symmetri­cal approach to peace in the region through the Contadora process, Mexico also insisted, but with greater authority and success than before, on the need for direct U.S.-Nicaraguan talks. By May 1984, when de la Madrid visited Washington, Mexico's new attempt at playing the honest broker apparently began to payoff. Reagan soon accepted the principle of direct dialogue with Nicaragua, and two weeks later, Secretary of State George Shultz made a brief stop at the Managua airport for the first of nine high-level exchanges between the two countries. Almost all the other meetings were held in the Mexican resort of Manzanillo, a tribute to Mexico's role in bringing about the talks.

In addition to altering its views on many Central American issues in order to make Contadora credible, Mexico has toned down its other forms of support for Central Ameri­can revolutionaries. Economic aid to Nicara­gua was cut back sharply and oil shipments were subjected to a number of financial condi­tions, leading Nicaragua to turn to the Soviet Union for what quickly became the bulk of its petroleum supplies. Sandinista leaders travel to Mexico less frequently and more discreetly than before. Two and a half years into his 6-­year term of office, de la Madrid has yet to visit Nicaragua or Cuba. Moreover, several Cuban diplomats have been either expelled from Mexico or quietly asked to leave.

Salvadoran insurgent leaders continue to hold press conferences and meet with foreign delegations in Mexico City, but they no longer enjoy their previous access to senior Mexican officials. Nor do they remain Mexico's main Salvadoran contacts; Foreign Minister Bernar­do Sepulveda Amor's attendance at Duarte's 1984 presidential inauguration was widely interpreted as a sign of rapprochement be­tween the two governments. Finally, although refugees from Guatemala continue to enter Mexico, most of them have been more or less forcibly transferred to areas removed from the border, largely in response to pressure from the Guatemalan army.

But just as Mexico did not completely forgo mediation when it most ardently supported revolution, it has not entirely forsaken its revolutionary friends while pursuing concilia­tion. It continues to maintain closer and more trustful relations with Nicaragua than with any other Central American country; it im­proved its ties with Duarte but has not given them a higher standing than those it maintains with the FMLN-FDR. In spite of the distance it has put between itself and Cuba, communica­tion, official travel, and consultations con­tinue, in a way unique in all of Latin America.

A Regional Force for Change

Yet despite sporadic achievements, Mexico's first incursion into the tricky waters of inter­national affairs has not met with resounding success. For if in 1982 Mexico had the option to shift from supporting revolution to mediat­ing, in 1985 there are no such options left.

The failure of the Contadora effort, because of U.S. unwillingness to exchange an effective, albeit aggressive, probably illegal, and certain­ly unpopular (in Latin America) policy toward Central America for a well-intentioned, theo­retically verifiable, but probably unenforce­able document, is the main sign of Mexico's frustrated ambitions in Central America. Mex­ico cannot go back to aiding or sponsoring anti-American rebellions. An increasingly vo­cal and powerful conservative opposition probably would take to the streets, the United States doubtless would consider such action unfriendly, and the ensuing confrontation undoubtedly would be more than de la Madrid could bear after nearly three years of highly unpopular economic austerity.

But with no tangible results to show for its Contadora efforts, Mexico cannot continue pursuing the elusive, if not impossible, goal of "peace with honor for all in Central America." As might be expected, it has lost leverage with its former revolutionary allies, though they continue to view Mexico as a friend. More­over, Mexican domestic support for any Cen­tral American involvement is rapidly eroding, partly because of growing disenchantment with everything the government does, and partly because of the conservative and isola­tionist drift that has been accelerated by economic ills. Yet a humiliating return to introspective isolationism also would endan­ger the political system's legitimacy. Mexico has literally no place left to go in Central America, yet has nowhere to go in interna­tional affairs other than Central America.

Washington obviously cannot entirely sub­ordinate its Central America policy to Mexi­co's problems. Indeed, some might argue that, thanks to its well-deserved failure, Mexico finally can begin to act responsibly in the region. This view, probably as widely held in Mexican business and conservative circles as it is in Washington, may win debating points, but it reveals a basic misunderstanding of Mexican politics. True, Mexico strove to create a sphere of influence for itself in the Caribbean Basin partly out of delusions of grandeur, partly out of national ambition, and partly to have more leverage in its everyday, often prickly relationship with the United States. But traditional Mexican foreign postur­ing, if not a foreign policy in the strict sense of the word, has always played a key role in the delicate system of checks and balances upon which Mexican political legitimacy rests.

This key role has made foreign affairs the one realm of government action where the gap between the rhetoric of the revolution and actual policy is not outrageously wide. The Mexican political system might be able to function effectively without the progressive international stance that until now has neu­tralized its institutional left wing. Moreover,

Mexico's support for left-wing causes abroad has rarely been intended to placate the coun­try's own extreme Left, which has always been dealt with through repression and cor­ruption. The actual domestic purpose of Mexi­can foreign policy traditionally has been to silence or paralyze sectors of the Mexican establishment that at different times may have considered opposing the government from a leftist perspective because of its various do­mestic policies.

Such opposition was deemed illegitimate to the extent that it weakened the government's support for Republican Spain in the 1930s, the Allies during World War II, Castro's Cuba in the 1950s and 196Os, Salvador Allende's Chile in the 1970s, and the Nicaraguan and Salvado­ran revolutionaries in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, official support for worthy causes abroad allowed many intellectuals and politicians in the Mexican establishment to continue supporting the government in other fields without losing face with their leftist colleagues. The current stability of Mexican politics -- however tenuous -- indicates at the least that foreign policy may be one contribut­ing factor. And current U.S. policy in Central America has helped take this tool almost completely out of Mexican leaders' hands.

Because of the ever-present tensions in bilateral U.S.-Mexican affairs, Mexico cannot afford to follow U.S. policy in Central Ameri­ca to the letter, even if domestic support for such a course among the urban, U.S.-oriented middle classes is growing. In order for Mexico to make important concessions that Washing­ton is currently pressing for on bilateral issues -- most recently, the drug trade -- it must be able to prove its independence in other ways. But if Mexico cannot support the United States or continue its Central America policy in any mode, then it has no foreign policy left at all. And if it has no foreign policy, Mexican politics must function with­out one of its most prominent features. This feature may be redundant. Yet it may also be indispensable to the system's ability to repro­duce and maintain itself. No one knows, but the risk of finding out, at a time of deepening economic crisis, seems excessive.

The United States should not humiliate Mexico and Central America, nor should it foreclose Mexican policy in the region. The Contadora process may not be a realistic way out of the Central American quagmire, and Mexico may not yet be the regional power that can conciliate the region's desire and need for change with key U.S. national security inter­ests. But until now, whatever certain conser­vatives in the United States may think, Mexico has been part of the solution in Central America, not part of the problem.

In time, a Mexican government with suffi­cient domestic clout once again may be able to play an active role in the Caribbean Basin. If this activism coincides with greater realism on the part of the region's revolutionaries and, above all, with a much more precise and more realistic definition of U.S. national security interests in Central America and the Carib­bean, Mexico may yet achieve its ambitious goals. Its recent record will serve it well in negotiations and revolutions to come. Eventu­ally, the United States will have to define its regional stake in terms that do not change with every administration, with every secre­tary of state, with every national security adviser. Only then will Mexico be able effec­tively to foster needed change, overall stabili­ty, and geopolitical realism. Only views that are clearly spelled out, serious, and constant can be conciliated.

If Washington insists on underlining Mexi­co's present regional impotence; if it continues systematically to disqualify, reject, or wear down every Mexican attempt to further its current goals in Central America; if it leaves Mexico no choice but to withdraw from all international activity and simply to manage its day-to-day affairs with the United States, then Mexican instability may become a real danger no matter what happens in Central America. This instability is much less likely to take the form of a left-wing drift or takeover than of the slow breakdown of the finely tuned, delicately crafted, clockwork-like mechanisms that have guaranteed Mexico's political stabili­ty since the 1930s. A line in the sand, whether drawn by Ronald Reagan or by anyone else, cannot possibly be worth it.



Africa's Needs

The pillars on which Africa's peace and security rest -- disarmament and development -- have been assailed by America's policies during the past four years.

Africa faces serious dangers in 1985. But the danger of the "new colonialism" that the Republican party platform waves in its face ­the "tripartite axis of the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Libya" -- is not one of them. Africa's most serious problems are the diversion of re­sources into armaments, negative economic growth, armed conflicts invariably heightened by superpower rivalry, and the denial of fundamental human rights. These are threats to America's interests in Africa as well.

Africa cannot expect to attain its full politi­cal, economic, and social potential without the global peace and security that also are essential for the progress of the rest of the world. Yet the pillars on which that peace and security rest -- disarmament and development -- have been assailed by America's policies during the past four years.

Solidarity with others has not weighed much in American thinking in recent years. Yet any threat to world security is a potential threat to every country. No single issue poses a greater threat than the continued deploy­ment and stockpiling of enormous quantities of nuclear weapons. My own country, Nige­ria, would suffer irreparable damage, if not total collapse, after a nuclear war, even if it were not struck by a single nuclear weapon. The same applies to the rest of Africa.

Since Africans cannot escape the conse­quences of decisions an American president makes, it is in their interest for him to understand Africa's point of view. A presi­dent's daily decisions can mean continuing starvation and poverty for many in Africa. And they can affect the local use of force that an aggressive, racist regime in South Africa may attempt in response to new American concepts of security. Because the Western superpower continues to show such absolute faith in nuclear weapons for strength and influence, it is little wonder that a regional bully like South Africa has, according to some reports, intensified its own nuclear program, not to mention its policy of destabilizing its neighbors. Thus the local security implica­tions of the international arms race being fueled by superpower policies are as grave for Africa as the economic consequences.

Now that the American electoral campaign is over, surely the rhetoric of military superi­ority should give way to the determined search for common security. The continued total world expenditure of nearly $700 billion on armaments is an unpardonable waste. The United States and its archrival, the Soviet Union, are responsible for the bulk of it. They must show the way toward redirecting world material and intellectual resources to econom­ic and social development by committing themselves to disarmament.

Americans must understand that having more and more missiles in their silos is false security if by diverting resources and energies it weakens the social, economic, and political fabric of the world and increases the risk of the very disorder they fear. The essential first step toward attaining genuine security must be to reopen dialogue at the highest levels. This can lead to releasing resources urgently needed for economic growth.

Africa's Economic Crises

The most immediate danger facing many African states is economic collapse. Economic problems have had and will have profound political consequences: the overthrow of re­gimes and ever-growing strife. Africa's eco­nomic crises may not attract headlines compa­rable to Africa's political turbulence, but the roots of the political turbulence can often be traced to the broader economic crisis.

Africans for their part must admit that, in the two and a half decades of their independ­ence, they have performed woefully economi­cally. The once-thriving food exports of the 1960s have given way during the 1980s to food deficits and heavy dependence on food im­ports, which drain Africa's meager foreign exchange. Food imports are, of course, only a reflection of the almost total collapse of Afri­can agriculture. Between the mid-1970s and the present, commodity prices in the world market have fallen drastically. Recently the impact of global inflation and recession has thrown African economies -- already among the world's least developed -- deeper into de­pression, made worse by escalating debt and chronic balance-of-payments deficits.

The United States has responded to this continental tragedy by merely following its conventional aid program to promote Ameri­can interests. Aid has generally gone not to the most deserving countries but to those countries whose professed political orienta­tions and military postures mesh with the currently perceived interests of Washington. Although it is true that during the past three years of severe drought in much of Africa, U.S. aid increased, some of that increase was wiped out by inflation. Food aid more than doubled, how­ever, everywhere aid was too little and, even worse, too late.

Relying exclusively on private-sector invest­ment to solve Africa's economic problems has not worked. Overseas companies simply have not been pouring investment into Africa, and no change in investment codes will alter this fact. The formula of the Reagan administra­tion should no longer be an article of faith. But neither can an ill-digested ideological approach to Africa's problems, imposed with­out due regard for African culture and for the continent's rudimentary economic develop­ment, be an unqualified success.

U.S. positions on international economic issues also have aggravated Africa's problems. American opposition to equitable commodity agreements has ensured price swings that are detrimental to raw-material producers. Some African countries are so poor and uncredit­worthy that they have never been able to attract the private-bank loans that would put them in the honored class of debtor countries. Because they have little choice but to try to maintain existing facilities and service debts with depressed earnings, it is hardly surpris­ing that most African states face bankruptcy and consequent political and social disorder.

Moreover, it is unfair and immoral that the poorest countries of the world are compelled by the nature of the international monetary system to finance the deficits of the wealthiest states. The explanation that this resource flow reflects economic recovery and expansion in developed economies is both feeble and incor­rect: Many other developed economies also are adversely affected by high U.S. interest rates. If through deficit fiscal policy America con­tinues to mortgage the future, surely someone must pay for that future. But who? When? And how? If only Americans paid, the rest of the world would worry less.

In addition, Washington has been strikingly unsympathetic to African debt problems and, indeed, to Third World debt problems in general. It has advised some African states to follow the standard IMF (International Mone­tary Fund) stabilization package, which may include devaluation of currency; reduction or elimination of subsidies; reduction of gov­ernment spending, which often results in cutting social services; and removal of trade restrictions. The IMF prescription, however, designed four decades ago for developed econ­omies, would be disastrous for many African states.

In the case of Nigeria, which obtains rough­ly 90 percent of its foreign-exchange earnings from crude oil sales and which imports even basic agricultural inputs, a drastic and abrupt devaluation of the naira, as demanded by the IMF, would only escalate inflation and fuel social and political unrest. What has led Nige­ria into its current balance-of-payments diffi­culties is precisely the unrestrained import of goods and services, both necessary and unnec­essary. Today, accepting the IMF formula would be self-destructive. In virtually all other respects, the current government of Nigeria has actually gone beyond the demands of the IMF in redirecting its economy. Indeed, it is far from clear that an American administra­tion, currently unable to qualify for an IMF program because of its high deficits, overval­ued currency, and import restrictions, would willingly meet IMF conditions.

Africa's leaders rightly perceive the IMF package as a prescription for economic con­traction and industrial collapse, as well as for the social and political chaos that would follow. They also correctly view the package as an instrument by which the developed and industrialized economies dominate the Third World. In Brioni, Yugoslavia, in May 1984, the Interaction Council of Former Heads of Gov­ernment, declared that the debt problem was created jointly by all parties-debtor coun­tries, international banks, and creditor coun­tries. Therefore, all have the responsibility to seek solutions that take into account the interests of debtors and creditors alike and that maintain a stable, orderly, and just world economic and financial system. Such solutions cannot be found without political actions by creditor countries as well as by debtor coun­tries.

For their part the debtors (as well as the lending banks that goaded them on) must recognize that their borrowings far exceeded what was possible for them to repay when they took loan after loan in the 1970s. They must be realistic and vow never to fall into such extravagant "planning" again. Agricul­ture must become the highest priority for all African governments -- as it already is for some. For Africans, food self-sufficiency is the first essential step toward genuine security and economic development. In agriculture, the private sector should take the lead, with governments supplying funds only for re­search and development and the essential infrastructure: roads and power and water systems. Of course, there will be cases requir­ing other government subsidies from time to time.

But some African states cannot possibly become self-sufficient in food production. Nor are their prospects for other economic ad­vances good. Nineteenth-century European imperialism left Africa with at least a dozen states whose resources are negligible and that exist now only because of virtual subsidies from their former colonial rulers. Their only alternative is to become part of a neighboring state with better prospects. But political difficulties apart, that measure would merely in­crease the burden on the larger, better-placed neighbor, which no doubt already suffers problems of its own.

These problems are not isolated from Amer­ica's policies and interests. The United States can take several steps to alleviate Africa's debt and agricultural difficulties. As leader of the free world and center of Western banking interests, the United States can take the initia­tive in the unpalatable task of addressing the debt of developing countries to see what can, with minimal damage, be written off. The United States not only can but must act to bring down and stabilize its own interest rates. No debtor country can plan to survive economically, let alone develop, if it cannot know from one month to the next what interest rate it will have to pay, especially if the direction of change in already high inter­est rates is ever upward.

But while Africans are striving toward growth and development, they require emer­gency assistance if millions are not to starve. If the immediate issue is relief from drought and debt, then in the long term the United States can assist Africa in developing its agricultural resources so that individual countries can once again feed themselves. Since the United States has an interest in large, consolidated markets, it might also encourage and assist such floun­dering regional economic organizations as the Economic Community of West African States and the Southern African Development Coor­dination Conference (SADCC), both of which can mobilize resources for growth and devel­opment.

The African environment in 1985 will con­tinue to be conflict-ridden, reflecting the continent's long history, colonial inheritance, and current social and economic turbulence. But Africans will continue to seek to isolate these conflicts, whatever their root causes or nature, from superpower exploitation.

American Misperceptions

Traditional American policy has been rhe­torically sympathetic to African efforts to develop African solutions to African prob­lems. More recent policy practice has been to focus single-mindedly on geostrategic consid­erations that misperceive African conflicts as extensions of superpower rivalry. Conflicts that are not related to the global balance of forces are quickly exacerbated, and regional peacemaking efforts that seek to manage con­flicts are rendered impotent by American intervention, as in Chad.

Most Americans and, I have no doubt, most Soviets, had never heard of Chad. But sudden­ly, because Libya was interested in its neigh­bor, America discovered critical strategic in­terests there. Clearly the issues in Chad did not warrant America's out-of-proportion reac­tion, either to protect Sudan or to punish Libya. Like other Chadian leaders, President Hissen Habre has enjoyed the hospitality and support of Libyan leader Muammar el-Qadda­fi. But Libyan diplomacy in Africa and be­yond has not yet attained and may never attain its objectives of Arab unity, liberation of Palestine, enthronement of the People's Congress, and placement in power all over Africa of leaders sympathetic to Qaddafi's position. Further, no African leader wants to substitute one kind of imperialism for another, no matter the color of the imperialist-white, yellow, beige, or black. Chad must be encour­aged to find the solution to its persistent internal strife on the basis of the Lagos agreement, which makes provision for includ­ing all contending factions in a government of national unity.

The immediate and full implementation of the Lagos agreement would prevent civil war and make any peacekeeping force unnecessary even after the complete withdrawal of French and Libyan troops. But if the Lagos agreement is not implemented, whatever peacekeeping force may be introduced into Chad should have the approval and financial support of the U.N. Security Council. The ill-fated OAU (Organization of African Unity) peacekeeping force of 1981-1982 foundered in no small measure because outside support for the effort was based far more on protecting the interests of Sudan and opposing those of Qaddafi than on concern for a peaceful Chad. African states, especially Nigeria, have been searching pains­takingly for a Chadian-derived solution since 1978. That search resulted in the Lagos agree­ment. It has proved impossible, however, to implement all of the provisions of the agree­ment because of external interference and the refusal of outsiders to reject the efforts of the different Chadian factions to use superpower rivalries in their own cause. That is why Security Council support is essential.

The Western Sahara is another conflict area that, with Chad, paralyzed the OAU in 1982 and 1983. Although the United States has not been directly involved, its supply of arms to Morocco, again based on non-African geostra­tegic considerations, has strengthened King Hassan II's government in its refusal to nego­tiate with the OAU-recognized Western Sahara liberation movement, the Polisario Front (Front for Liberation of Saguia Hamra and Rio de Oro).

The U.S. administration should now pres­sure Hassan to implement the 1983 OAU resolution that called on Morocco and the Polisario Front to move toward a referendum on the Western Sahara. Although a referen­dum would be difficult to arrange, by coopera­ting, Morocco could extricate itself from this costly war and also spare Africa the agonies arising from continuation of the conflict. Any other solution to the Western Sahara problem that the proposed union of Morocco and Libya might impose by force of arms or diplomatic maneuver would leave the OAU divided and disabled, and northwest Africa unpeaceful for some time to come. No matter how imperfect the OAU may be, Africa has no substitute, and it will profit no member to destroy the organi­zation.

No other African political issue is as central and emotionally charged, however, as the situation in southern Africa. South Africa has been able to maintain its intransigence in no small measure through weapons and technolo­gy supplied by the West. All American admin­istrations say they abhor and deplore apart­heid. But that is not enough. Before 1981, the United States was willing to lead the West to pressure South Africa to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 435, passed in 1978, on Namibian independence. Since 1981, however, America has clearly tilted in South Africa's favor through the policy of "construc­tive engagement."

We have been told that the recent Nkomati Accord and its aftermath have promoted re­gional peace in South Africa. But the accord is more a certification of South Africa's current and future dominance in the region than anything else. The efforts of South Africa's neighbors to extricate themselves from its historically and colonially imposed economic web they formed SADCC in 1979 for just that purpose-foundered when drought and recession undermined their strength. West­ern countries might have significantly helped their effort to reorient their econ­omies but instead provided inadequate as­sistance and continued to stress their bilateral relations and problems with the member countries. The American rejection of aid to Mozambique because of its Marxist leadership is a striking example.

Thus the Nkomati Accord between Mozam­bique and South Africa must be seen for what it is-not a victory for peace, but a setback in the war against apartheid and oppression in South Africa. Three years of drought, com­bined with a failed economic program and a successful South African destabilization policy against Mozambique, forced President Samora Machel to negotiate in order to prevent the starvation of his people and to stop the contin­ued destruction of life and property by dissi­dents trained and armed by Pretoria. For South Africa the agreement is, at best, a pyrrhic victory, and for black Africa, at worst, the loss of a battle. But the struggle to enthrone basic human rights, racial accommo­dation, social justice, and equity in southern Africa will continue until won.

The incumbent American administration has said that constructive engagement is aimed at building an "overall framework for regional security." Yet it is illusory to expect regional security and peace to be established on a foundation of racial and social injustice and economic oppression. Both in pronounce­ments and application, constructive engage­ment has cast serious doubt on the sincerity of America's stated wish to pressure South Afri­ca to undertake even minimal, cosmetic changes. The policy has encouraged the South African government to conclude that the world believes that its recent and dubious constitutional changes mean genuine progress in solving its racial problems. Africans cannot accept that the continued exclusion of the black majority from all political rights and participation constitutes progress. Nor can they understand how the United States, which daily proclaims its commitment to democracy, can condone such a trick with mirrors.

The least that Africans expect from the next American administration is abandonment of constructive engagement. With violence esca­lating inside South Africa, now more than ever it is in America's interest to change its approach of engaging only with the white minority rulers. The West, under the leader­ship of the United States, can help avert a conflagration by pressuring South Africa to involve all its citizens in the process of secur­ing meaningful social and political change. Peaceful and orderly change is obviously in the best interest of South Africa's citizens, its neighbors, and indeed the Western world.

The United States can help bring such change about by phased pressure. To begin, it can reinstitute the measures in force before 1981 and, in particular, tighten up U.S. com­pliance with the U.N. arms embargo, initiat­ed, in fact, by the United States itself in 1963. Then it can ban the sale of Krugerrands in the United States, deny landing rights to South African Airways, prohibit Americans from traveling to South Africa, assist South Africa's neighbors in reorienting their economies away from dependence on South Africa, deny technology to South Africa, and ban further American investment there, encouraging in­vestors instead to go into other countries in the region. If there is movement toward full participation by all South Africans in the government of their country, some of these measures may be relaxed. If not, further pressures can and should follow.

Cooperation between the United States and African states was never closer, or more successful, than during the Namibia negotia­tions from 1977 to 1980. The Contact Group of five Western countries -- Canada, France, Great Britain, the United States, and West Germany -- with the United States in the lead, worked to pressure South Africa toward agreement based on terms spelled out in Resolution 435. At the same time, in consulta­tion with the Contact Group, African states were pressuring the South West Africa Peo­ple's Organization (SWAPO) and its ally Ango­la to accept the same terms.

But in 1981 the new Reagan administration effectively undermined the work of the Con­tact Group when it linked progress on Nami­bian independence to the withdrawal of Cu­ban troops from Angola. This linkage, rejected by some Contact Group members as well as by African states, was embraced by South Africa as a new and firmer basis for stalling on a Namibian settlement. The rapid collapse of the SWAPO-South African talks of July 1984 showed clearly South Africa's reluctance to withdraw its troops from southern Angola and to implement a cease-fire with SWAPO.

Meanwhile, not only has the Contact Group been gutted (France has suspended its partici­pation), but African states have no more points on which to pressure Angola and SWAPO. They cannot ask the Angolan gov­ernment to leave itself defenseless with South Africa's troops still on its territory. It is not possible even for those Africans who most want peace in South Africa to press further than they had before linkage and other post­1980 conditions were injected. The ball is now in the court of South Africa and its friends.

The past four years should indicate to the American administration that Namibian independence, like stability in the region, cannot be achieved by appeasing South Africa. A new U.S. initiative should begin by separating the issue of Cuban troops from the independence of Namibia. The United States, South Africa, and Angola along with SWAPO should work together for Namibia's independence. Favor­able conditions and a workable agenda could follow this scenario: South Africa withdraws from Angolan territory; the Namibian and Angolan bases of Angola's South African-­backed rebels are dismantled in Namibia; Resolution 435 is implemented; Cuban troops leave Angola; and the Angolans arrive at an internal political settlement including all par­ties.

In the almost three decades of U.S.-African relations there has never been a period as frosty as that of the last few years. The U.S. government has been largely responsible for that chill because of its insensitive and, at times hostile, attitude toward African aspira­tions for political stability and a better quality of life. The bias shown by the United States in favor of South Africa has made Africans suspicious of American intentions in southern Africa. Equally unsettling for Africa is the eagerness of the United States to get involved in local conflicts because of its opposition to, or support of, certain African leaders, its overreaction to what it sees as communist incursions, and the related matter of geostrate­gy.

American presidents should realize that historical ties between Africa and the United States, as well as medium-and long-term American interests, demand policies that will enhance the capability of Africans to cope with their own problems. Africans, even more than Americans, want Africa to be free from foreign rule and from the threat of foreign domination. Africans want a peaceful and secure continent and sustainable social and economic development. Such a continent will make a substantial contribution not only to the well-being of Africans but also to a revital­ized world economy, and thus to the contin­ued prosperity of the United States.

William Betsch/AFP/Getty Images