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Mexico's Calderon set to steer foreign policy toward South America

WASHINGTON—Mexican President-elect Felipe Calderon hardly seems like one to chart a new foreign-policy course.

He hails from the same conservative National Action Party, or PAN, as President Vicente Fox, a free-trade defender and the man Calderon will replace on Dec. 1.

He's U.S.-educated, like former Presidents Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo, who nurtured closer ties with the United States, which absorbs most of Mexico's exports and millions of its migrants.

Yet Calderon is set to steer Mexico on a new foreign-policy path that aggressively courts South American nations and reframes his country's relationship with the Bush administration to downplay the immigration issue—a departure from the Fox administration's priorities.

Calderon also will try to mend ties with Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba, say observers and Mexican officials, and he'll seek to position Mexico as a mediator between Washington and other left-wing governments opposed to U.S. policies.

Last week, after meeting with President Bush in Washington, Calderon told reporters that immigration was only one issue that needed attention. He suggested that Fox's insistence on an immigration deal with the United States had run its course and that other issues, such as security and trade, were of equal importance.

"I don't say it was a mistake to have made immigration not only the main issue but almost the only issue of our bilateral relationship," Calderon said. "It is something that happened given the importance of the issue and the expectations that the matter generated. I am going to insist on the subject, but without making it the only issue in the bilateral relationship."

After Calderon defeated populist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in a bitterly contested vote, he headed south, not north, visiting eight Latin American nations, including left-leaning governments in Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

One Mexican official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't an authorized spokesman for Calderon, described the gesture as deliberate and noted that the president-elect has said publicly that he'll seek better ties with Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela, nations that have clashed with Fox over free trade and Mexico's closeness with Washington.

Both Calderon and Bush have realized that emphasizing immigration was a mistake because the issue fuels political passions on both sides of the border, said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"It ended up becoming the barometer of the U.S.-Mexican relationship," Peschard-Sverdrup said.

Peschard-Sverdrup and several other analysts who met with Calderon during his visit to Washington said Calderon cast himself as a "Latin Americanist" and a pragmatist looking to resolve Mexico's pressing problems, such as poverty and rising violence.

In an indication of his style, Calderon told McClatchy Newspapers after his election that he admired former Chilean President Patricio Aylwin, a centrist and a Christian Democrat who made difficult compromises as he steered Chile through the transition that followed the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

The unassuming Calderon cuts a different figure from Fox, a tall, former Coca-Cola executive with a booming voice. The son of a well-known conservative leader, Calderon is a consummate politician who quickly rose to become PAN president in his early 30s. He led the party as it moved from the opposition to the ruling party.

The experience, said Andrew Selee, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute in Washington, taught Calderon to have "a clear set of values and objectives, but also knowing that in the end you have to negotiate."

Although most of Mexico's trade and investment involves the United States, Calderon has an incentive to boost his nation's ties to Brazil and Asia, regions that have been luring manufacturers and jobs away from Mexico.

Job creation and poverty reduction are top priorities for Calderon, and he wants to bring Asian manufacturers and investment back to his country.

During his trip to Brazil, Calderon devoted attention to energy issues in talks with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Calderon told McClatchy Newspapers that he hoped to learn from Brazil's experience with ethanol production and offshore drilling.

Brazilian oil giant Petroleo Brasileiro, or Petrobras, has opened to foreign investment in a way that could serve as a model for Mexico's state oil firm, Pemex. Calderon wants the two firms to explore joint investments in Mexican energy projects.

But Brazil and Mexico have had a long rivalry over who exerts influence in South America, so Calderon will have to move cautiously, said Peschard-Sverdrup.

Then there's Cuba and Venezuela. Fox and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have traded barbs, and Chavez has suggested that Venezuela may not recognize Calderon's razor-thin electoral victory.

Peschard-Sverdrup said Calderon may revert to Mexico's traditionally pragmatic approach to Cuba: Mexico has preferred to have good relations with Havana because of Cuban leader Fidel Castro's perceived influence over Mexico's radical movements.

"Calderon may have to be more strategic in rethinking (Mexico's) policy with Cuba," Peschard-Sverdrup said, "bearing in mind the national security dimension."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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