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Life as neighbor to a superpower
MEXICO CITY — Playing neighbor to a superpower is no easy task.
Porfirio Diaz, the 19th century dictator, summed the relationship up like this: "Poor Mexico, so far from God, and so close to the United States." At the time, the country had recently lost half its territory to the U.S. in the Mexican-American war.
More than a century later, the unpopular Bush presidency has exacerbated the historic ambivalence many Mexicans feel toward their northern neighbor.
"It's a love-hate thing," said Andrea Leon, a 9th-grader who was sipping coffee recently at a Starbucks cafe in Mexico City. "As a superpower, they make decisions that affect the whole world. That can be a good thing. Or, like the war in Iraq, it can be terrible."
Her friend, Daniela Lopez, 15, agreed. "Sometimes I like them," she said of Americans. "And sometimes I don't."
The U.S. is often seen here as a meddling big brother, quick to criticize but slow to see its own faults. When the U.S. economy goes sour, Mexico, which sends more than 80 percent of its exports to the U.S., typically gets hit even harder.
But the U.S. is also an escape valve for Mexico's impoverished millions. Each year, an estimated 500,000 Mexicans migrate illegally across the border, sending billions of dollars back home to their families. Those remittances are Mexico's second largest source of foreign income after oil.
However, the bounty has begun to dry up amid a recent U.S. immigration crackdown, which includes plans to extend the wall along much of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon has been unusually outspoken in protesting the plan, arguing that it would force would-be migrants to choose even more perilous routes across the desert into the U.S. Already, 400 Mexicans die each year from dehydration or drowning along the border.
The new U.S. practice of jailing undocumented immigrants for weeks or months before deporting them has also sparked outrage in Mexico.
"They treated me badly," said Candido Hernandez, a Mexico City parking lot attendant who was deported in 2007. He said he was held for six weeks in a Los Angeles detention center before being bused across the border to Tijuana.
"They shouldn't jail you just for trying to have a better life," said Hernandez, his light brown eyes welling up with tears. He left behind his pregnant girlfriend, who is now struggling to raise their 1-year-old daughter alone.
Still, Hernandez conceded of the U.S.: "It's a country of opportunities for the people who really want to work."
Many Mexicans are now looking to Barack Obama to revive their faith in the American dream. In an October poll in the Mexican daily Excelsior, 63 percent of those interviewed said an Obama presidency would help Mexico, while more than half thought John McCain would be as bad or worse than Bush.
"I think Obama will benefit all classes, not just one class," said Lionel Delgado, manager of valet parking at Starbucks, eying the well-heeled customers inside. "I think it will be a positive change, because he won't spend so much money on war."
"If there's a positive change in the United States, it benefits us," added Delgado, who worked in California and Chicago for four years in the early 1990s. "Just like the crisis there now is pulling us under."
Others were less optimistic.
"Nothing is going to change," said Javier Lopez Perez, a 64-year-old chauffer who worked legally picking fruit in the United States in the 1960s. "From Abraham Lincoln to today, it's always been the same. The United States has always been an expansionist power."
Such skepticism toward the United States runs deep in the Mexican psyche, often bolstered by fact.
Early in his first term, President George W. Bush vowed to make improving relations with Latin America a top priority. He also promised to push through sweeping U.S. immigration reform that would have benefited millions of undocumented Mexican migrants. Neither pledge came true, however, in part because the war on terrorism diverted Washington's interests elsewhere.
However, many here are hopeful that Obama will again look to Latin America, and Mexico in particular.
"We feel a kind of sympathy for him that's different from that of Anglo-Saxon presidents," said Marcela Bobadilla, a political analyst in Mexico City. "In the Mexican consciousness there's a strong identification with the poorest and most underprivileged. With Obama, there's this feeling that the underdog won."
That sympathy is widespread, she said, despite the fact that Obama made little reference to Mexico during his campaign.
"The hopes of the world are set on Obama, not just the hopes of the United States," Bobadilla said. "In Mexico, as neighbors of the United States, that hope runs even deeper."