RAY SUAREZ: Joining me is Jorge Castaneda, the foreign minister of Mexico. He's been in Washington meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to talk about security, immigration and the future of the relationship between the United States and Mexico. Mr. Minister, welcome back to the program.
JORGE CASTANEDA, Foreign Minister, Mexico: Thank you, Ray, for having me.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, tell us what you can about the meetings with the Secretary of State and the National Security advisor.
JORGE CASTANEDA: Well, we had very, very good meetings with both of them, as well as with Governor Tom Ridge on security matters. We talked about the whole gamut of issues on the bilateral agenda, this very ambitious, very forward-looking agenda that Presidents Fox and Bush laid down when they met in Guanajuato in Mexico at President Fox's home in February of last year. We talked about immigration issues; we talked about security matters. We talked about trade. We talked a lot about the regional issues that are of great importance and concern to both our governments and countries: Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela. So we have a broad range of issues that we discussed, and I must say we moved forward very briskly and very significantly, substantively on all of these issues, Ray.
RAY SUAREZ: When President Fox was here toward the end of the summer, immigration was a prominent part of the conversation with the Bush administration. There was talk of regularizing the status of illegals, finding a more orderly way for Mexican labor to do work in the United States. But I'm wondering now, since the terrorist attacks of September, whether that isn't something of a back burner issue.
JORGE CASTANEDA: I think the first point I'd like to emphasize, ray, if I may, is what President Bush has been telling President Fox on the phone and personally over the last few months, and what Secretary Powell and National Security Advisor Rice told me just these past days, that the U.S. Government's commitment to reaching an agreement with Mexico on migration issues, on the full gamut of migration issues, is a commitment that stands and that is as valid and as present and as important as ever, and that there has been no change whatsoever in that commitment. Now, obviously, we are sensitive to the fact that the events of September 11 have changed the timetable, the calendar, that other issues have become somewhat more prominent for this period of time, that the same U.S. officials cannot attend to so many different issues at the same time, that there is a question of trying to get things back moving once this... The terrorism period is, not over, but at least has been... A lot of headway has been made on it, as seems to be case. So what I came out of my meetings with was a sense, one, the commitment is there as firm as ever; two, the technical talks are progressing and will continue to progress expeditiously, seriously, substantively trying to reach agreements on the very complicated technical issues that are involved; and that during the course of the year the two Presidents and the high level ministerial groups will review the advances that the technical groups have made and find the best moment when they can reach a final agreement and try and present it. But yes, timetable has change, the commitment has not.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, that's the movement of people. What about the movement of goods? There was a lot of trouble on the border late in 2001 as United States officials tried to beef up security.
JORGE CASTANEDA: Well, this was one of the important issues I took up with Secretary Powell, with tom ridge, with Governor Ridge. What we have said is that the delays at the border for cargo have diminished since September 11, since the first period of a lot of delays. By December we were doing almost back to normal. The traffic in December of many Mexicans returning home and coming then back to the U.S. was about normal, the delays were about normal. We're a little concerned, though, that volume is low. What's going to happen when the U.S. economy recovers, the Mexican economy recovers and volume of cargo, mainly, returns to its previous levels. And we talked about a number of ideas that have a double purpose -- one, to enhance security at the border for both our countries. We both understand that this is of great importance to the United States and to Mexico. We want a more secure border. But we also want a border where goods and people move freely and legally more expeditiously, that we not do too many things on the security side that make movement less expeditious, but that we not be too relaxed on the movement side that we weaken security. And we're working on this very closely. We have been doing it since September 11, and I think we've made a lot of progress. And many of the ideas that we talked about will soon translate into real policy.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you've mentioned wondering about what happens when the cargo volume increases. This is the first American recession since the signing of the NAFTA agreement. And Mexico's economy has increasingly become oriented toward the United States. How is Mexico weathering this downturn in America?
JORGE CASTANEDA: Well, it would be perhaps not wise to say that the U.S. Slowdown has not affected us. It has affected us and very significantly. We had zero growth in the year 2001, which is much less than we expected and hoped for. We had hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs, and this is very significant in a country where employment levels are low and where we don't have the type of safety net that the United States or other western European countries have, for example. That said, the macro economic fundamentals are very solid in Mexico. Inflation is way down to its lowest level since the 1960s. Interest rates are down to the lowest level since the 1970s. Reserves, international reserves, are at historically high levels. Foreign direct investment continues to pour into Mexico at unprecedented rates. So yes, we have a slowdown brought about largely by the U.S. slowdown. We have a recession. Ours is a full-blown recession. But we think we can come out of it soon, and we think we can come out of it very strong because the macro economic fundamentals are so solid that once the U.S. economy begins to recover-- and we hope this will be soon-- the Mexican economy will also recover, and recover the high rates of economic growth that we had in the year 2000, 1999, 1998.
RAY SUAREZ: Let's talk a little bit about the state of the bilateral relation. There was a lot of complaining both in the United States and in Mexico about how Mexican leaders handled the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. When the first noises from Mexico City were not forthright enough, Americans complained. When President Fox declared his unconditional support for the United States, many Mexicans, including political leaders, complained. What's been happening since?
JORGE CASTANEDA: I think that these were minor, I wouldn't even say episodes. I think they were opinions by groups on one side or the other of the border or of the political spectrum who always, as is logical in something that is so important to both countries as the bilateral relationships, have axes to grind, Ray. I think what's so important is one, the bilateral relationship was extraordinarily strong, bold, far reaching, visionary before September 11 and continues to be so today. I think what we will see during the year 2002 is a strengthening of the bilateral relationship, a strengthening of the personal relationship between Presidents Fox and Bush. I think we will see that on a growing number of issues-- whether these are bilateral, migration, drug enforcement, border security, water, the environment, et cetera; or regional issues, the situation in Colombia, the situation in Venezuela, the Argentine crisis, evolution in Cuba on a series of areas, U.N. Security Council, where Mexico is now going to be a member for two years-- we will see increasing cooperation, increasing convergence, and on occasion, disagreement between the United States and Mexico, but disagreement which will take place in this framework of a much more mature, balanced and complete relationship. I think what we're building here, Ray, is a long-term strategic relationship between Mexico and the United States, which we had had not had before. I think the blips on the screen after September 11 were only that-- blips on the screen.
RAY SUAREZ: Are they part of growing pains for a country that really is a large country, a large economy but has a non- interventionist tradition, has not been a big player on the world stage?
JORGE CASTANEDA: I think growing pains may not be the metaphor I would use, but it certainly points to the issue properly. I agree with that. Mexico is a country that traditionally was both inward- looking economically, historically, culturally, and with good reason, because Mexican culture is to vibrant, so vigorous. There's a lot to look inward too in that sense, a country with a strong national identity. But also a country that perhaps did not have the sense of a world role that today a nation of 100 million people, $700 billion in GDP per year, the ninth largest economy in the world, the United States' second largest trading partner, and enormous cultural vibrancy and vitality-- a country like that has to have a world role.
RAY SUAREZ: The foreign minister of Mexico, Jorge Castaneda, thanks for joining us.
JORGE CASTANEDA: Thank you, Ray.