A foreign nation has never had a permanent diplomatic presence in Arkansas since it became a state in 1836. But that may change next year, if Mexico follows through on its intention to open a consulate in Little Rock.
The Mexican consul-general from the Dallas Consulate, Carlos Eugenio Garcia de Alba Zepeda, visited Arkansas recently for a variety of public appearances and private meetings with political and business leaders. Garcia de Alba told the Arkansas Times that the Mexican government is committed to establishing an official presence in Little Rock by the end of 2005.
"That was the main purpose of my visit," the consul-general said. "I had several meetings both with the state authorities and with the mayor of Little Rock. In both cases there was a very strong will -- and of course also from the Mexican government -- to open as soon as possible a permanent career consulate in Little Rock. It is possible, and I am optimistic, and I think we are in the position of opening this office in the next year."
According to Bob Trevino, who is an economic development policy advisor to Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and the state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the idea of a Mexican consulate for Arkansas was discussed when the LULAC national board met with Mexican President Vicente Fox in Mexico City in March 2003. Then Huckabee went to Mexico in October 2003 through his role as president of the Council of State Governments, and made time during that trip to meet with senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the consulate issue. He presented them with a letter that indicated that Arkansas had made "significant and substantive preparations" to assist the Mexican government with establishing a presence in the state, and he invited further discussions.
Mexico has 45 permanent consulates in the United States, with the great majority located in California and Texas. Currently the offices closest to Arkansas are in Dallas, which has jurisdiction for Arkansas, and Kansas City.
"We have no less than 100,000 Mexicans in Arkansas," Garcia de Alba said. "You can imagine how convenient it is to avoid traveling to Kansas City or Dallas to obtain a passport or ID or to obtain other services."
Arkansas has the second-fastest growing Hispanic population in the U.S., (only North Carolina's segment is growing faster), and Mexicans comprise the majority of that population. Regional trends show that Hispanics in the South are moving north from the Gulf Coast, and this is evidenced by the recent closing of the Mexican consulate in New Orleans.
Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey said that he and City Manager Bruce Moore met with Garcia de Alba and indicated that they would work with state and federal officials to do whatever is necessary to secure the consulate for the city..
"We offered to partner with state and other agencies to look for facilities that we might have, facilities that are available in southwest Little Rock, where the strongest growth of the Hispanic population is concentrated," Dailey said. "We would identify existing buildings that might be available. The goal was to mainly say that we want it to happen and will be partners in whatever is required to assure that it will happen."
Trevino does not anticipate spending public money to help Mexico open its consulate in Little Rock, although Huckabee promised to help minimize the costs involved in obtaining office space, hiring a staff, and paying for utilities and other essential items.
Garcia de Alba emphasized that a consulate can be helpful to Arkansas companies that want to do business in or with Mexico. He said that he met with top management of Wal-Mart and the CEO of Tyson Foods while he was in the state last week. Trevino mentioned that 125 Arkansas companies do more than $250 million worth of business with Mexico annually, not including Wal-Mart and Tyson. Mexico is currently the largest trading partner with the U.S.
The growing Hispanic population in Arkansas also has the potential to create occasional frictions. Garcia de Alba took time during his travels around Arkansas to visit Rafael Camargo, a Mexican national on death row at Varner Unit. Like most other nations, Mexico does not impose the death penalty.
The prospect of the state's first diplomatic mission excites local officials. Trevino believes the new consulate will "elevate our profile on the international stage," adding that its opening will likely coincide with the LULAC national convention scheduled to take place in Little Rock in June 2005.