Bush, Fox Push to Mend Strained Relations

President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, their relationship strained by tensions over immigration and Iraq, met privately for talks on a range of issues Monday as a prelude to an international summit of 34 Western Hemisphere nations.

The Bush White House saw the face-to-face meeting not only as a chance to mend ties between the two countries, but also to earn some political capital for a president who wants a second term.

Bush arrived in this industrial city at midday at an airport where gun-toting troops in green fatigues and security officers roamed the grounds. He and his wife, Laura, walked down into a phalanx of Mexican officials - all men wearing dark suits.

The couple was followed in the procession of greeting by Secretary of State Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House chief of staff Andy Card. Once in his motorcade, Bush passed large expanses of brush and cactus- covered land. Men digging ditches alongside the road stopped and leaned on their tools to watch him pass by.

On a 90 minute flight here from Texas, Bush got a briefing from Rice and Powell on the summit, said his press secretary, Scott McClellan.

In his meeting with Fox, the spokesman said, the president was expected to discuss his new, more open immigration policy, strengthening border security and free trade. McCellan dismissed talk of the meeting as an opportunity to air grievances.

"We have a good relationship with Mexico and President Fox is a good friend of the president's", McClellan said. "Whatever differences we had in the past, we have a lot of common challenges that we are working closely together on."

Bush annoyed Fox when he put immigration reform on the back burner after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Their relationship further soured when Mexico failed to back the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But the two were expected to be smiling - at least for the cameras - at the summit of democratically elected leaders. Cuba was not invited.

"Fox has an opportunity to hail the Bush immigration proposal as a political victory, given that he has been asking for an immigration agreement since day one," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I think to some extent, Bush will use it as a photo-op for reaching out to the Hispanic voters."

Amid the congenial handshakes will be disagreements. Latin American nations butted heads with the United States until nearly dawn Sunday in failing to agree on several points of a draft document to be debated at the two-day summit.

The United States wants the draft to call for re-emphasizing a 2005 deadline for finishing negotiations on a Free Trade Area of the Americas, a hemisphere-wide trade zone that is one of Bush's top policy goals for Latin America. Brazil and Venezuela say the summit is not the place to discuss it.

The United States also wants to kick corrupt governments out of the Organization of American States, a move opposed by several Latin American nations.

Other discussion topics at the summit, held in Mexico's third largest city, 150 miles south of the Texas border city of Laredo, include strengthening democracy, ending poverty, security and helping small businesses with low-interest loans.

Argentina's President Nestor Kirchner is upset about recent U.S. criticism over its warming relations with Cuba. U.S. officials privately worry that President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who warned U.S. officials on Saturday not to "stick their noses" in his nation's affairs, is working with Cuba to oppose pro-American democracies in the region.

Some Latin American leaders accuse America of being heavy-handed. They argue that the United States has neglected social issues, such as raising the standard of living for some 200 million people - nearly one-half the region's population - who live in poverty.

Between bilateral meetings Monday with President Ricardo Lagos of Chile and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Bush's schedule called for his speech at the summit's opening ceremonies. He planned to promote free trade, open markets, clean elections and anti-corruption steps to help strengthen democracy in the hemisphere.

An administration official said the United States also planned to announce it will return to Peru $20 million allegedly stolen by Vladimiro Montesinos, a former Peruvian intelligence chief, and stashed in American bank accounts.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved.