- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 30, 2000

MEXICO CITY Vicente Fox dons Mexico's presidential sash tomorrow with a hand-picked team of Cabinet ministers that promises economic orthodoxy combined with a bold foreign policy that distances his nation from Washington.

The moment he takes the oath of office, Mr. Fox will make his mark on history, ending 71 years of single-party rule in Mexico's first-ever peaceful transfer of power to an opposition leader.

At the same time, the inauguration will set the clock ticking on the new president's sweeping promises to end corruption, reduce poverty and fight crime.

To skeptics, it adds up to a tall order and a potential time bomb for the 6-foot-5-inch Mr. Fox, who defeated the entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) by convincing Mexicans they could expect more than the old system provided.

The big day for the iconoclastic former businessman is due to begin with a populist touch a breakfast with street children.

"The task of the president should be to inspire, which is why I am going to be a president who is always in the street, always outside with the citizens," he told foreign reporters in a recent press conference.

"That's why I have chosen such a professional team, so that they can take care of the office work," he said after announcing his Cabinet lineup.

Inauguration day also will include a ceremony in which he receives the presidential sash before 1,500 guests in the Congressional Palace and an evening banquet for visiting heads of state.

Having spent three years persuading voters to put their hopes in him and five months in a limbo-like transition period after winning the election in July, Mr. Fox appears eager to begin work.

Mr. Fox's choice of a Cabinet sent a reassuring message of macroeconomic orthodoxy to the markets, and it offered a promise of conciliation and dialogue in internal politics.

It also charted a bolder foreign policy, including a new office dedicated to the migration phenomenon that increases the number of Mexican-born U.S. residents by about 300,000 every year.

Foreign Minister designate Jorge Castaneda, a prominent U.S. college professor, was Mr. Fox's most daring choice given his reputation among many in Washington as a left-wing, anti-American intellectual.

He is distrusted by American conservatives because of his Marxist past and also distrusted by Cuba because of his persistent criticism of its human-rights record something that Mexico has avoided in the past.

Mr. Castaneda also is known for his prickly relationship with Mexico's domestic press. He criticized Mexican reporters covering a recent Fox visit to the United States with complaints that they should speak better English.

But the new foreign minister's nationalist credentials should help Mr. Fox head off potential problems at home caused by criticism that the new president, a champion of free trade, is too keen to pander to U.S. priorities.

Mr. Castaneda, meanwhile, can be expected to promote a new vision of foreign relations in which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is transformed into something akin to the European Union, and Mexico serves as a bridge between the United States and the rest of Latin America.

Apart from a taste for a flashy foreign policy, Mr. Fox's government oozes a business ethos reflecting his conviction that Mexico's salvation will come through efficient management and creative marketing.

"The next government will be a government of total quality that will give results," the Jesuit-educated former Coca-Cola executive-turned-president said recently. He promised a battery of quantitative indicators to chart progress in job creation, poverty reduction, corruption eradication and just about anything else.

The Cabinet appointments have gone down well with Mexicans, who over the decades have acquired a deep-rooted skepticism of politicians.

"People like it. How else are you going to get rid of corruption, depoliticize public administration and introduce more modern managerial techniques into government," said political analyst Federico Estevez.

Beyond the big ideas, Mr. Estevez, the political analyst, is convinced that the new government has a good chance of success in the key aim of expanding the Mexican middle class, which he said is the baseline by which Mr. Fox will be judged.

He cited the country's sound economic indicators, the disarray of the defeated PRI, now in opposition, and the new president's willingness to negotiate with anybody.

Mr. Fox's National Action Party lacks a simple majority in Congress, a potential obstacle to many of his promised reforms.

But he will be able to call upon his consummate communications skills that served him well during the campaign and transition, when he articulated his vision of a "new Mexico."

"This guy is really good at stage managing and orchestrating the show for the common folk," said Mr. Estevez. "He's extraordinarily talented at media politics as well as being an utterly pragmatic politician. It's a marvelous combination."

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