In the course of his visit to Mexico, President Clinton was at pains to reassure Mexicans that the United States respects their country's sovereignty, and does not blame Mexico for all the problems that have recently bedeviled bilateral relations.

He acknowledged that drug trafficking is caused by the high demand for narcotics in the United States. He became the first president since Harry S Truman to place a wreath at the monument to the cadets who perished in a last-ditch defense of Mexico City in the war which led to U.S. annexation of almost half of Mexico. And he became the first U.S. president to meet with leaders of opposition parties.Despite all the attention to detail, however, the overarching effect of the visit was to patronize Mexico all over again.

Why, Mexicans ask, did Bill Clinton wait four-and-a-half years to visit a critically important neighboring country of almost 100 million inhabitants, when Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, in office only two-and-a-half years, has visited the U.S. three times?

Furthermore, why did he choose to visit in the midst of a closely contested electoral campaign? A similarly timed visit to Britain or to France, both of which have been holding critical elections, would be unthinkable.

So why the double standard? The conclusion is inescapable: Mexico is still not treated on a par with less populous, but more distant and prosperous, European nations.

Where Washington continues to maintain a respectful distance from European politics, it cannot resist continuing to try to influence the politics of our southern neighbor.

For about half a century, the U.S. has identified its interests with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has governed uninterruptedly since 1929. One-party rule led to staggering levels of corruption, but it also ensured the continuity and stability that were Washington's prime concerns.

More recently, when former President Carlos Salinas swung Mexico into the North American Free Trade Agreement, tacit support turned into vocal boosterism, with President Clinton lauding Salinas as a model Third World leader. With Mr. Salinas now in disgrace and exile, the Wild House is being more circumspect in its expressions of support for President Zedillo, but its behavior still betrays its commitment to the U.S.-trained technocrats who have formed the core of both administrations.

A recent string of PRI electoral defeats now has Washington worried that it will lose the unprecedented degree of influence it has gained over Mexico City in the past decade. Both major opposition parties - the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution - are promising a more vigorous defense of Mexican interests vis-a-vis the United States.

Already, the opposition governs four states and all but two of the largest 10 cities. In elections in November and March, the PRI loss control of the state legislatures in the states of Mexico and Morelos, which surround the capital. Now, the PRI faces the almost certain loss of Mexico City, which is electing a mayor of the first time. And it could also lose control of the Chamber of Deputies.

Should that happen, the opposition would almost certainly rein in President Zedillo's nearly unlimited executive powers, and Washington will no longer be able to count on automatic execution of the sorts of economic policies that have prevailed over the past decade.

That is why it is hard not to see President Clinton's timing as a deliberate - and highly partisan - effort to help a friend and fellow Yale alumnus at a particularly difficult moment.

With the July 6 election exactly two months away, the president's trip, with all its precisely orchestrated photo opportunities, was designed to portray Mr. Zedillo as a firm leader, capable of winning respect from the United States. Ironically, it has just underscored President Zedillo's dependence on the United States, and Washington's continuing inability to accord Mexico a level of respect comparable to that afforded our European allies, and commensurate with the demands of our new partnership under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe