Mexico's foreign minister says his government seeks a closer, "more strategic" relationship with Canada – one that some day might include a North American border security deal between all three NAFTA partners.
Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena, Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's eight-month-old administration, met Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in Ottawa on Thursday. It's Mr. Meade's first visit to Canada in the job.
Canada-Mexico relations suffered a setback in 2009 when the Harper government imposed entry restrictions on Mexicans seeking to enter Canada. And Canada in turn is frustrated at Mexico's slow pace in lifting a partial ban on Canadian beef shipments because of mad-cow-disease outbreaks in years past.
Canada and Mexico are partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement, but efforts at deeper one-on-one ties are frequently overshadowed by each country's separate relationship with the United States, the third NAFTA partner.
"What has happened with Canada and Mexico is that we don't seem to recognize how important we are to each other and how much more important we could be if we dedicated more time to building up the relationship," Mr. Meade said Thursday in an interview.
This also extends to mutual security. Both Canada and Mexico have separately signed border security agreements with the U.S., but Mr. Meade said it makes sense for Ottawa and Mexico City to see where it might benefit them to create a trilateral deal with Washington.
"I think there are common elements within the two that would be good building blocks for a North American border security agreement," the Mexican minister said.
Part of a closer friendship would also entail dropping visa requirements for Mexicans that Canada imposed in an effort to stem the flow of what the government called "bogus" asylum seekers. To this end, Mr. Meade is also meeting with Canadian Immigration Minister Chris Alexander on Thursday.
He says the visa requirement has significantly cut tourism to Canada from Mexico.
"We think it has hindered part of the relationship. If you look at the number of tourists from Mexico that visit Canada, they have fallen from 200,000 Mexicans a year to 130,000 Mexicans per year," Mr. Meade said.
"We think a freer and fair mobility, not only of capital and investment and trade, but also of people, would allow for a closer relationship."
Mexico is hopeful the visa will one day be eliminated, with its foreign minister saying the country was pleased to see Canada's Immigration Minister designate his country as one unlikely to be a source of refugees. That means refugee claims from Mexico are processed faster, with fewer appeals. Mr. Meade sees this as a step toward lifting the visa.
Canada, in turn, is pressing for a liberalization of beef shipments to Mexico, arguing that its cattle are not a source of mad-cow disease.
However, Mr. Meade says Mexico still requires Canada to provide scientific data that could help eliminate concern. The Mexican government has not had a reported case of mad-cow disease, his officials say, and the country wants to keep its record clean.
"We are aware it is a source of irritants, but we want to be very sure, especially in a country that consumes the whole of the cow, that this trade will not result in a sanitary condition that has never been present in Mexico," Mr. Meade said, noting Mexicans tend to eat more beef brains, tongue and cheeks where mad-cow disease can be found.
The Mexican government is trying to play down fears about travel to Mexico in the wake of well-publicized deaths of Canadian tourists in recent years. Mr. Meade said the overall stastistics suggest the threats to Canadians are not great. He said in the past four or five years, there have been about 70 cases where Canadians tourists in Mexico have run into trouble.
At the same time, however, visits from Canada have risen. "Visitors from Canada have gone from 800,000 in 2006 to 1.7 million in 2012," the minister said.
"That's a very impressive trend," he said, "and would appear to show the majority of experiences of Canadians in Mexico have been a positive experience."
Asked about violence in Mexico, Mr. Meade says it's part of a regional jump in violence across Latin America between 2000 and 2010 – caused by organized crime, the drug trade and economic change – but one that's abating now.
He suggested at least one Canadian city has also seen violence rise over the same period.
"If you look at some numbers in Canada, specifically in the case of Vancouver, violence in Vancouver in relative terms has also increased within the [last] decade if you compare the numbers from 2000 to 2010. There has been some increase from a very low number to a still very low number."