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Bush, Calderon to meld new relationship

MERIDA, Mexico—When President Bush meets his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, here Tuesday, it will mark the start of an entirely new relationship between countries whose common agenda includes sensitive issues such as immigration, trade and increasingly violent drug gangs that operate on both sides of the border.

How the two men get along at the daylong meeting at a restored hacienda outside Merida on the sweltering Yucatan peninsula will set the tone for relations in the final two years of Bush's term.

One thing is certain: This won't be the back-slapping "two amigos" show that characterized visits between Bush and Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox.

Fox's close relationship with Bush nearly cost the ruling National Action Party the presidency in elections last July. Fox thought that his friendship with Bush eventually would lead to an immigration-overhaul package, but after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Mexico struggled to get any attention from the Bush administration and Fox was criticized for his approach.

Calderon will hedge his bets, especially since in Bush he's dealing with a troubled lame-duck president with a race already on to succeed him. That's likely to mean that Mexico will restore its fractured relations with Cuba and limit its consultations with the United States.

"In the Fox administration, there was a lot of wishful thinking about what they could get out of the relationship," said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who expects Calderon to be more distant with Washington than the past three Mexican presidents. "I think it will be good for the relationship. It will be a good but realistic relationship."

A wide array of U.S. and Mexican diplomats told McClatchy Newspapers privately that Calderon seeks an aggressive, businesslike relationship devoid of chumminess. That was on display when the two leaders met in Washington last November before Calderon's December inauguration.

"He came with a list of items to discuss," said a U.S. diplomat who's familiar with the meeting but who spoke on condition of anonymity because the diplomat isn't authorized to discuss it publicly. Bush reportedly was impressed with Calderon's desire to move on a number of issues of common concern and to "get down to business."

Some of those issues will be discussed Tuesday at the meeting. Calderon will press Bush to help finance infrastructure projects in Mexico's center and south.

The North American Free Trade Agreement created a North American Development Bank to finance road, water and sewage projects along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Calderon wants a new mandate for the bank, with an eye toward attracting investment in the center and south of Mexico, which haven't prospered under NAFTA as Mexico's northern states have.

"That's where we need to have that type of investment and development," said Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's new ambassador to the United States, who presented his credentials this month.

There's a political message implicit in this channeling of investment to Mexico's center and south. Calderon was elected by fewer than 300,000 votes and lost almost the entire south.

He's also expected to discuss ways of boosting ethanol production in Mexico and to express concern that increasing the use of corn-based ethanol as an alternative fuel is driving up global corn prices, hurting poor Mexicans.

There were scattered small protests in Merida before Bush's arrival late Monday night, and security was drum-tight. Bomb-sniffing German shepherds climbed over the bags of arriving passengers at the local airport over the weekend and security guards patted down even top Mexican politicians as they arrived.

Local papers reported that the U.S. Secret Service had demanded that local police be disarmed during Bush's visit, a charge that U.S. diplomats denied. Several blocks surrounding the hotels where Bush's delegation will stay were blocked off with barricades. Classes were canceled at nearby schools until Bush departs Wednesday.

Bush's schedule Tuesday (times are local):

9:35 a.m.—Meets with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

11:45 a.m.—Lunch with Laura Bush, Calderon and Calderon's wife, Margarita Zavala.

2:55 p.m.—Tours the Uxmal archaeological site.

8:30 p.m.—Dinner with Laura Bush, Calderon and Zavala.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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