March 21, 2006

Leftist Mexican front-runner wants good US ties

By Alistair Bell

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - The leftist front-runner
in Mexico's presidential race said on Tuesday he wanted to get
along well with Washington, sending a message of conciliation
as concern in the United States grows that Latin America is
turning against it.

In a speech he had advertised as a major presentation of
his foreign policy, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told supporters
he would avoid diplomatic friction if elected in July.

"The relationship with the U.S. government should be one of
mutual respect and cooperation," he said at a campaign rally in
the border city of Ciudad Juarez, next door to El Paso, Texas.

Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, leads his
two main rivals by around eight points in opinion polls.

He promises to give priority to Mexico's poor if elected
but denies he is a populist like left-wing Venezuelan President
Hugo Chavez, the main U.S. foe in Latin America.

Speaking in a square just south of the Rio Grande, Lopez
Obrador promised "a measured foreign policy" and said Mexico
and the United States had much in common.

"Not only are we united by 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles)
of border but also by ties of history, culture, economy, trade
and friendship," he said.

The Bush administration and U.S.-backed economic policies
have come under increasing fire from leftist governments in
Latin American countries, notably Venezuela and Bolivia. Even
regional giant Brazil is often at odds with Washington over
free trade.


But Mexico is too just too close to the United States to be
able to afford bad blood, Lopez Obrador's aides say.

Tens of millions of Americans claim Mexican descent and
almost everyone in Mexico has a friend or relative working
north of the border.

Mexico sends almost 90 percent of its exports to its larger
neighbor, which relies heavily on cheap Mexican labor in
industries ranging from agriculture to hospitality. Disputes
between the two countries rarely spin out of control.

"It can't get to that extreme for the plain and simple
reason that they need us and we need them. It's common sense,"
said electronic goods salesman Pedro Flores, 53. Like many in
Ciudad Juarez, he has dozens of relatives in Texas and

Despite their close trade ties, the two countries have been
at odds for more than a year over drug gang violence in Mexican
border cities and illegal immigration.

But a U.S. Senate panel last week neared agreement on a
proposal that would give some of the 12 million illegal aliens
living in the country, most of them Mexicans, an opportunity to
earn citizenship.

Lopez Obrador criticized a plan passed last year by the
U.S. House of Representatives to build a high-security fence
along a third of the Mexican border to stop illegal immigrants.

"We are going to convince the U.S. authorities that the
best policy between a strong economy and a weak one isn't to
build walls but to cooperate on development," he said.