A Leftist Leader in Mexico, Too? ; If Presidential Front-Runner Obrador Wins in July, It Could Alter US- Mexico Ties

Article excerpt

As President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, together with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, wrapped up their two- day summit in this Caribbean resort town, deeper cooperation on trade, energy, security, and immigration were all promised.

But what's really ahead for US-Mexico relations is not completely clear.

The tenor of the bilateral ties will certainly depend on the sort of immigration bill US lawmakers adopt in the months ahead. But future relations may also depend on another factor, or rather, another actor: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The leftist leader of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) has consistently polled ahead of his rivals over the last year and is expected to win July 2 presidential elections here when Fox, constitutionally, must step down.

A former mayor of Mexico City who endeared himself to many with folksy speeches, handouts to the poor, and big public works projects - and a person sometimes compared to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez - Obrador is a frequent critic of various aspects of current Mexico-US ties. If elected, he would add to the growing number of leftist leaders in Latin America.

Claudio Gonzalez, president of the Center for Economic Studies of the Private Sector calls Obrador "a retrograde and dinosaur-like leftist" who would spook investors and threaten the nation's hard- won economic stability and close relations with the US. "If populism returns ... Mexico could be left friendless and in bankruptcy."

Laura Carlsen, Director of the Americas Program at the International Relations Center, a left-leaning civic-advocacy group based in Mexico City, says that US-Mexico ties might get a bit more complicated, but not necessarily worse. "There will no doubt be points of disagreement along the line between Lopez Obrador and Bush," she says, "... but a lot of Mexicans would actually like to see a president who stands up to the US a little more - and I don't think the Bush administration is afraid of that either."

Obrador has come out against many of the free-trade economic policies supported by the US. Just as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) enters the final years of its 15-year phase-in period, with the last agricultural tariffs to be lifted in 2008, Obrador talks of reopening chapters of NAFTA that he says have hurt Mexican corn and bean farmers.

On foreign policy, Obrador has reiterated his support for Mexico's long-standing nonintervention and pacifist policies, and made digs at what he sees as Fox's "mirroring" of US foreign policy, especially regarding Cuba. "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," Obrador said at a late February rally in Mexico City. "The next president of Mexico is not going to be the puppet of any foreign government."

And, on the question of illegal Mexican immigration to the US, Obrador talks particularly tough. He has, for instance, proposed taking a much more proactive role than Fox by using Mexico's 45 consulates in the US as "prosecutorial" offices to "protect our countrymen from mistreatment, discrimination, and the violation of their human rights. …