MEXICO CITY — Arguably the most powerful man in Mexico after President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is a slight, bespectacled economist with a French accent and a deliberately low profile.
Jose Cordoba Montoya is the president's closest adviser. The press and political pundits alternately refer to him as "a virtual vice president," "a prime minister" and "a combined secretary of state and presidential chief of staff."
Or, the Henry A. Kissinger of Mexico.
Born in France to Spanish exile parents, Cordoba, 42, became a naturalized Mexican citizen in 1985. As such, he will always be considered a foreigner by nationalistic Mexicans who find his proximity to the presidency unnerving.
"Cordoba is a national security risk for Mexico," said El Financiero newspaper columnist Carlos Ramirez. "He runs foreign policy and controls our relations with the United States. But he doesn't understand that relationship is defined by the fact that the United States stole half our territory. It is difficult for him to have any criteria for national sovereignty when as an adult he renounced his citizenship. Tomorrow he could become an American or French again."
Cordoba responds with an understated shrug. "I am a Mexican. That is the reality," he said in an interview. He minimizes his power with a nod toward Salinas' office across a hallway in the official residence, Los Pinos. "The power is over there," he said.
But Mexican presidential power is vast--almost without limit for a single, six-year term--and Cordoba is involved in nearly every important decision Salinas makes.
"His agenda is the president's," said a former member of the presidential staff. "He is in contact with constituencies abroad and knows what they want from Mexico. Salinas relies on him to make a coherent, broad economic policy. Salinas is skillful at the tactical level, but Cordoba has the strategic, long-term view."
Cordoba is Salinas' personal envoy, be it to Washington for talks with Brent Scowcroft about North American free trade or to Veracruz to meet with business leaders just before the federal government took control of the nation's largest port.
He took part in drafting legislation to reform the federal electoral code. He was also one of three people who helped Salinas choose the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's candidates for the federal Chamber of Deputies election last August, said the former staff member, who asked not to be identified.
As the caretaker of Salinas' image, Cordoba oversees the president's speech writer and pollster and may even decide what painting to hang behind the podium when Salinas speaks at Los Pinos.
Cordoba is so close to Salinas that one Cabinet minister is said to have complained that he can never get a word with the president alone. Salinas' chief aide routinely appears by his side at official ceremonies, including those for foreign ambassadors to present their credentials--another point that riles Mexico's political elite.
While he is often seen, Cordoba so rarely speaks in public that an address he gave at the Mexican Stock Exchange a few weeks ago drew attention primarily because it was Cordoba who spoke.
"We live in an era of great world transformations," he told the audience. "The internationalization of the world economy is generalized, and countries that do not manage to integrate into the currents of change will distance themselves more and more from development and postpone the well-being of their people."
This theme is the centerpiece of Salinas' neo-liberal economic policies and the reason he has aggressively pursued a free trade agreement. Cordoba, political observers say, is a key architect of these policies.
He is not a boaster and has little to gain by doing so. Typically, Cordoba dismisses his influence on Salinas with a wave, noting that the president is an economist with a doctorate from Harvard University.
Cordoba--whose original name was Joseph Marie--began his own studies in Paris at the Sorbonne. One of his few public controversies stems from his graduate education at Stanford University. His official biography falsely stated that Cordoba received a doctorate in economics from Stanford in 1977. The weekly magazine Proceso disclosed that although Cordoba studied at Stanford for four years and wrote a dissertation, he never completed the requirements or received his degree. This may be viewed as a grave offense elsewhere, but the Mexican government wrote it off as a mistake.
A fellow Stanford student, Deputy Treasury Secretary Guillermo Ortiz Martinez, brought Cordoba to Mexico and, eventually, to Salinas. Cordoba began working for Salinas during the previous administration, when Salinas was secretary of programming and budget and was a key adviser in his presidential campaign.