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Front-runner signals he'll return Mexico to tradition foreign policy

MEXICO CITY—Tens of thousands of Mexicans filled an ancient square in this capital Sunday to hear leftist presidential front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pledge to distance himself from U.S. policies.

While not naming the United States or the Bush administration, Lopez Obrador, a fiery former mayor of Mexico City, made it clear that he would return Mexico to its traditional foreign policy of non-intervention in the affairs of its neighbors.

Conservative President Vicente Fox broke that tradition after taking office in 2000 when he joined the United States in condemning the lack of fundamental liberties in Cuba and elsewhere. Like U.S. foreign policy, Mexico's under Fox sought to promote human rights and civil liberties abroad.

That'll change, Lopez Obrador signaled to a crowd estimated between 70,000 and 120,000. Having led public opinion polls for two years, Lopez Obrador is on track to become Mexico's first president elected from a left-wing party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

"We're not going to meddle in the internal life of other peoples and other governments, because we don't want them meddling in ours," Lopez Obrador told a sea of supporters in the Zocalo, the city square that Spanish conquistadors built atop Aztec ruins.

That was a slap at the close relations between Fox and President Bush, and Lopez Obrador added that "the next president of Mexico is not going to be the puppet of any foreign government."

The phrase was a dig at Fox, whom Cuban dictator Fidel Castro famously called a "bootlicker" for mirroring the U.S. rights policy.

Many Mexicans reject closer foreign policy alignment with Washington, and howled earlier this month when a Sheraton hotel in Mexico City tossed out a visiting Cuban government delegation. The hotel was trying to uphold the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba at the apparent expense of Mexican anti-discrimination laws.

Just last year, it appeared Lopez Obrador might be banned from running for president because of a municipal land dispute with the courts and the Fox government. Now, if he wins on July 2, it will bring to the U.S. doorstep a string of leftist victories across Latin America. Elected left-leaning governments now rule Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela and Chile.

The Bush administration has avoided comment on Mexico's electoral debate, but Lopez Obrador Sunday homed in on the thorny bilateral relationship. He vowed to turn Mexico's 45 consulates in the United States into "prosecutorial offices" that defend the rights of migrant workers. U.S. anti-immigration efforts, including construction of a wall at the Mexico border, have added to the defiant Lopez Obrador's appeal here.

Although he rejects being labeled a populist, Lopez Obrador on Sunday sounded like an old-style Latin American strongman. He pledged to lower electric, gas and gasoline prices and vowed to end taxes on food and medicine. He said he'd keep foreigners from investing in the energy sector, yet said he'd make the sector "the gearshift for economic development."

The presidential front-runner also said he won't raise taxes, so it's unclear how he'll pay for his promises. He did say he'd slash the pensions of ex-presidents and cut salaries of cabinet secretaries. Mexico's finance minister earns more than the U.S. treasury secretary, he said.


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-LOPEZ

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