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To have a prosperous, stable Mexico along its lengthy southern border is obviously in the best interests of the United States. That's why the five days of meetings this week between President Bush and President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is of extreme importance to both nations.

Mexico has serious economic problems, including unemployment, poverty, political unrest, a currency that has lost much of its buying power and a huge foreign debt of $107 billion, second largest in the Third World.Salinas, frustrated by the lack of new loans to help resolve some of the country's problems, is trying a new approach - expanded trade and attracting a larger flow of U.S. investment into Mexico.

U.S.-Mexico relations have not been all that warm in recent years. But the Salinas government and the Bush administration say they are both committed to "aggressive cooperation" instead of mutual suspicion.

Bush has been complimentary of Salinas in his first 10 months in office, particularly regarding his economic reforms and attempts to fight drug smuggling.

That is an encouraging change of attitude. Yet it is going to take more than attitude to pull Mexico out of its economic problems. If Salinas is pinning his hopes on expanded trade, he faces some tough obstacles.

Salinas wants to open the American market to more Mexican goods and is seeking preferential treatment regarding steel, textiles and farm products.

Steel and textiles are touchy issues. Congress is very protective about those industries, recently extending the about-to-expire quotas limiting steel imports from abroad. Mexican farm products already supply 60 percent of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States in the winter.

Mexico is the third largest trading partner of the United States, with $43.9 billion worth of two-way trade. Mexico enjoys a $2.7 billion trade surplus in that exchange.

The administration is making no promises but has agreed to listen and is being very friendly. At least seven pacts will be signed by Bush and Salinas. They will be mostly symbolic agreements to emphasize the new friendliness between the nations.

Mexico, once the most protectionist of nations, has gone to great lengths to open its economy. It hopes to attract American investment, although U.S. investors may be wary of jumping too rapidly into Mexico, given that country's past hostility to foreign-owned enterprises.

While the U.S. may not be eager to open its troubled steel and textile markets to cheaper goods from Mexico, Americans should recognize that the United States benefits by having a healthy Mexico as a neighbor.

After all, if poverty, unrest and debt undermine Mexican society, it will be the United States that gets the fallout in the form of floods of illegal aliens seeking a better life and increased drug smuggling to earn a living.