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Calderon makes early gains on his tall agenda

September 01, 2007|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Felipe Calderon is often shown in caricature as a small, blunt-featured man wearing an oversized general's cap and a field jacket too long for his arms. The image derives from a photo last winter of Calderon launching his military campaign against violent drug traffickers.

Calderon is indeed a short man with big ambitions, and time will tell whether his reach exceeds his grasp. Political opponents today hope to block him from delivering his first state-of-the-union speech in the congressional chambers, the traditional venue, and force him to address the nation from somewhere else Sunday.

But that is a small obstacle compared with what the conservative president has taken on in his first nine months in office: drug violence, corruption and a tax system that's long been the butt of jokes.

Calderon has also sought compromise with a contentious Mexican Congress and is negotiating a landmark aid package from the U.S. designed to strengthen security ties between the countries and help rescue Mexico's foundering drug war.

Already, he has won approval for changes to social security and has sidelined the charismatic leftist he narrowly defeated in last year's presidential election.

In his state-of-the-union address, Calderon is expected to highlight economic growth and expansion of Mexico's public health system and the fight against drugs.

Though the jury is out on the prospects of his fixing Mexico's many troubles, analysts agree that since taking office in December, Calderon has shown himself a far shrewder politician than his predecessor, Vicente Fox, also of the National Action Party.

"His style is more discreet, more professional, less concerned with the spotlight and more focused on results," said Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, a political analyst and former Mexican diplomat. Compared with the government under Fox, he said, the Calderon administration "makes fewer mistakes, fewer gaffes, fewer foot-in-the-mouth outbursts."

Calderon's campaign pitch was a call for order in the face of rising crime, drug trafficking and what he depicted as leftist chaos. It resonated with a silent majority that recoiled at the demonstrations that swept the capital last summer after Calderon's narrow, and disputed, election win over Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Lopez Obrador inadvertently boosted Calderon after the tight balloting victory by declaring himself Mexico's "legitimate" president, a claim that alienated all but his core supporters. Lopez Obrador remains a leader of Mexico's poor, but with only symbolic authority.

"Certainly Calderon is much more established than when he first took office," said Jorge Chabat, an analyst at the Center for Economic Teaching and Research, a Mexico City think tank. "He has much more control over domestic politics, and he'll probably have even more in the coming year."

Calderon has kept a tight rein on his administration and its message: orderly progress, his way, versus chaos, everybody else's. He has promised growth and new jobs, which the economy has nudged favorably in his direction. His advisors pray for U.S. prosperity to keep the trend going. Any downturn sends more citizens north.

The joke here is that Fox looked like a president -- tall, handsome and engaging -- whereas Calderon acts like one. And though charming in conversation, Calderon maintains a serious presence at the lectern, a no-nonsense leader who can stand up to drug cartels, political opponents, even the United States.

Calderon has sent nearly 20,000 soldiers and federal police to nine states to recover territory from the drug traffickers. Despite the military presence, the violence continues unchecked.

Even as Calderon seeks $1 billion in U.S. aircraft, spy technology and training to combat drug traffickers, he refuses the role of supplicant. This is not an aid package, Calderon aides say in "deep background" conversations, the only kind their boss usually allows. Transnational drug gangs, arms smuggling and money laundering are a joint U.S.-Mexican problem, they say, and the United States needs to own up.

Calderon frequently points to U.S. demand as the catalyst for drug-related killings that are expected to easily surpass 2,000 in Mexico for the second year in a row. But, as others point out, Mexico's own growing demand also plays a role in the violence.

Some of Calderon's tough talk is strictly for domestic consumption. Whereas Fox was derided for betraying Mexican pride by cozying up to President Bush even though he failed to deliver on promised immigration reform, Calderon, despite his words, has acted as a reliable ally.

Mexico in 2007 has already tallied a record number of extraditions to U.S. courts, 64, as compared with previous years. And unlike Fox, Calderon has largely kept out of the U.S. debate over immigration reform. And in a show of independence from U.S. influence, Calderon is repairing relations with Cuba and Venezuela that deteriorated under Fox.

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