Bush Family Ties

In 1960, George Bush senior, then a Texas oilman, looked to Mexico to expand his fortune. It was not the easiest place for a foreigner in his line of work, since the state had a monopoly on the energy business. But Alfonso Adame, a Mexican oil executive he met at a Texas A&M football game, had a government contract to go oil hunting in the Gulf of Mexico and needed a drilling rig. He hired Bush to bring his equipment into Mexican waters. The two were among the first to tap into Mexico's vast off-shore reserves. "George came for the oil," recalls Adame, now 78. "And when oil wasn't the conversation, he was always asking about Mexico--the people, the economy."

The venture marked the start of the Bush family's long involvement with Mexico--and its power brokers. The latest chapter began last week when George W met with Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, the former Coca-Cola executive who dethroned the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after 71 years in power. During his campaign for president, Bush played up his Mexico ties to counter all the snickers about his lack of foreign-policy experience. Once, while flunking a television reporter's pop quiz on foreign leaders, Bush fired back: "Can you name the secretary of state of Mexico?"

Bush is quite fluent when it comes to the names of Mexican politicians. His knowledge comes from his years as governor of Texas and from his family's close association with the old political establishment. Like any foreigner doing business or practicing politics in Mexico over most of the past century, the Bushes' best contacts were inside the PRI, one of the world's most enduring political machines. That will not impede him from adjusting to Mexico's new political order. But as he gets to know the new crowd, he would best forget some old family friends.

Many of the old ties stem from oil. George senior cofounded Zapata Petroleum Corp. in 1953. He and his partner chose the name after seeing a theater marquee for the Marlon Brando film "Viva Zapata!," the story of the famous Mexican revolutionary leader. In the early 1960s, Bush would visit Mexico at least once a month to oversee his company's off-shore-drilling contracts. His friend Adame introduced him to Jorge Diaz Serrano, a dashing millionaire oilman who was looking to buy a floating oil platform. Bush sold him one on credit and for a short time served on the board of directors of his company. The two men became friends. "George had the cut of a politician," says Diaz, now 80. "He shook hands with everyone."

While Bush soon left oil in favor of politics, Diaz became one of Mexico's most controversial figures. As head of Pemex, the government-owned oil giant, from 1976 to 1981, he became a national hero by turning Mexico into the world's fourth largest oil producer. In hearings before Mexican legislators in 1979, he was forced to defend his relationship with Bush, then the CIA director: "I told them, 'I feel very proud to be a friend of George Bush the oilman'." A die-hard PRI supporter, Diaz once aspired to the presidency. Instead he was made ambassador to Moscow, stopping in Washington in 1982 on his way to his new posting to visit Bush, by then vice president of the United States. The next year, though, Diaz was arrested on charges that he had taken $34 million in kickbacks on the sale of two oil tankers. Diaz, who claims he was the target of a political vendetta, served five years in jail, where he received Christmas cards from the Bushes.

While George senior was climbing the U.S. political ladder, his second son, Jeb, was off forging his own Mexican relations--of a different sort than his father's. In 1971, after graduating from high school, he went to Mexico on an exchange program. There he began dating Columba Garnica Gallo, a Mexican woman who knew Miguel Aleman --the son of a former president and, at the time, a top executive at Televisa, an entertainment giant in which his family was one of the largest shareholders. Jeb and Columba often visited the Aleman ranch. "Jeb was always there," remembers Aleman, now 65 and the PRI governor of Veracruz. "He's a heck of a good tennis player." George W once visited his brother and met the Alemans too. It was the beginning of a long friendship between the Bush and Aleman families that included vacations in Acapulco, dinners in Houston and invitations to all the Bush political inaugurations. Years after Jeb and Columba married, George Bush senior, trying to win over Latino voters, proudly announced that he has "brown grandchildren," and in 1988 he made Columba part of the official U.S. delegation to the inauguration of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Salinas became a close ally of President Bush in crafting the North American Free Trade Agreement, which fundamentally transformed U.S.-Mexican relations--tripling bilateral trade since it went into effect seven years ago. Bush was out of office by the time the Salinas family fell from grace in a swirl of scandal, but Mexicans are periodically reminded of the partnership. In 1997, the daily newspaper Reforma printed a story about an embarrassing video that prosecutors had secretly taped two years before. It shows the attorney of Carlos Salinas's brother Raul--who has been convicted of the murder of a political rival and is suspected of taking millions of dollars in payoffs from drug traffickers--displaying pictures of himself with Jeb Bush at Salinas's ranch in Puebla in the early 1990s. "He and Columba visited us several times. It was a pact of friendship," says Raul's ex-wife, Gladys Franco. "They were very interested in Mexico and all of its problems." Jeb, now the governor of Florida, once told a reporter that he had socialized with Raul "two or three times" at the ranch and several other times in Miami, but that they "never did any business together."

Meanwhile, George W, who had worked in the oil industry--he had named his struggling company Arbusto, Spanish for "bush"--and owned a Texan baseball team, was carving his way into politics. As governor of Texas, that often meant looking south of the border--most often to PRI governors. Of the 12 governors who visited Bush in Austin, 10 were from the ruling party. He forged a particular closeness with Tomas Yarrington, the governor of Tamaulipas, on the Texas border. On one occasion, Bush went to Yarrington to ask for leniency for several Texans who were thrown in jail when they unwittingly carried their guns across the border. The Mexican governor couldn't undo the charges, but he did heed Bush's advice and posted billboards on the border advertising Mexico's strict gun laws.

As governor, Bush made 10 trips to Mexico, including several meetings with the then president Ernesto Zedillo, as well as several hops across the border to inaugurate cross-border bridges and a waste-water-treatment plant. He also provided tuberculosis vaccines and emergency water supplies to Mexico. "He has a sensitivity toward Mexican issues," says Antonio Ocaranza, who served as a spokesman for Zedillo. "With the governors, he always considered them his counterparts, his equals. He'll have the same relationship with Fox."

But running the United States is not the same as running Texas--where Spanish is practically a first language and every politician has to be somewhat sympathetic to Mexico. In the old days, Bush took several stands that sometimes put him at odds with his fellow Republicans but won him widespread favor across the border. While Pete Wilson, the governor of California in the mid-1990s, was trying to cut off state benefits to illegal immigrants, Bush defended their rights. He also shares Mexico's disdain for the yearly U.S. congressional vote on whether Mexico is a loyal partner in the war on drugs. He supports letting Mexican truckers into the United States despite objections from the Teamsters union. In 1998, he bowed to pressure from Mexican politicians and scrapped plans to build a dump for low-level radioactive waste in Sierra Blanca, a Western Texas town 18 miles from the border. And when the peso crashed in 1995, Bush supported a U.S. bailout; he was one of the few foreign officials to visit Mexico and publicly pledge support for Zedillo. "I did not come here with a set agenda," Bush told reporters at the time. "I came here as a friend."

Last week he came to Mexico as many things: friend, U.S. president and, not least, oilman. All of those identities will help him see eye to eye with Fox. Much has been made about the similarities between the two leaders. Both wear cowboy boots and own ranches and ride horses. Both are devout Christians. And both ran businesses before entering politics. But there is an important difference. Bush hails from the U.S. political establishment, and Fox is a true rebel. Bush's presidential victory in extra innings was far less spectacular than Fox's ousting of the PRI, which he routinely blasted as the source of the country's ills.

Certainly, the two amigos did not get off on the most amicable footing. As both the U.S. and Mexican presidential campaigns were underway last year, several members of the Fox team secretly grouped Bush with their enemies. At the time one senior Fox official told NEWSWEEK: "Bush has to understand that Mexico has been in serious trouble, and this old boy's club he associates with hasn't solved its problems. It has made them worse. The U.S. is missing the bus with Mexico, and Bush is part of that." At that time, Bush--like most of Washington--appeared to be betting on the PRI. He posed for a photo op with the PRI candidate's wife while refusing a similar request from the Fox campaign. And Jeb Bush met with a senior PRI campaign official, leaving some Fox staffers feeling snubbed.

Fortunately for both countries, Fox is a pragmatist who understands that Bush's family ties to his establishment enemies matter far less than Mexico's deep reliance on the U.S. economy. To fathom how far the two neighbors have come, consider that more than 90 years ago, the United States was unsuccessfully attempting to help put down the Mexican revolution. It happens that Prescott Bush, W's grandfather, trained during the summer of 1916 in a battalion of Yale students preparing to fight the likes of Zapata and Pancho Villa. He never did make it to Mexico.

Bush Family Ties | News