June 9, 2006

Mexico conservative to counter Chavez influence

By Alistair Bell

AGUASCALIENTES, Mexico (Reuters) - The conservative tied
for first place in Mexico's presidential race said on Thursday
he would counter the influence of U.S. foe Venezuelan President
Hugo Chavez in Latin America if elected.

Felipe Calderon told Reuters he wanted Mexico, which has
close trade ties with the United States, to play a more active
role in the region.

"It is going to be a factor of deliberation, balance and
good sense compared to the leadership and active policies, to
give them their polite name, of Hugo Chavez," Calderon said.

Armed with wealth from high oil prices, Chavez has extended
his clout in Latin America in recent years as leftist allies
like Bolivian President Evo Morales have taken power.

Calderon, locked in a bitter rivalry with leftist Andres
Manuel Lopez Obrador for the July 2 election, said Mexico did
not want to clash with the firebrand Venezuelan leader but
would in no way take its cue from him.

"It wouldn't have to be a leadership in confrontation with
Chavez but of course we wouldn't have to ask permission from
Chavez or anyone else to carry out our foreign policy,"
Calderon said on his campaign bus on the way to the central
city of Aguascalientes, a textile and manufacturing center.

Mexico and Venezuela withdrew their ambassadors from each
other's countries last year in a dispute after Chavez called
Mexican President Vicente Fox a "lap dog" of Washington.

Calderon, from Fox's National Action Party, said Chavez was
hoping for a Lopez Obrador victory in Mexico.

"The sympathies of Chavez are with Lopez Obrador but for me
it's the sympathies of the Mexicans, not Chavez's, that are the
most relevant," he said.


Chavez suffered a blow in Peru over the weekend when Alan
Garcia, a self-styled moderate who was accused by the
Venezuelan leader of being corrupt, beat leftist nationalist
Ollanta Humala in a presidential election.

In Mexico, Calderon's party complained to electoral
authorities earlier in the campaign that Caracas was lending
support to Lopez Obrador's cause, and perhaps even helping
finance it, but the Mexican conservatives have not backed up
the accusations.

Opinion polls show Calderon and Lopez Obrador in a dead
heat and campaigning has turned nasty, partly due to a TV ad
comparing the leftist unfavorably with the Venezuelan leader.

Calderon, a former energy minister under Fox, said his
leftist opponent lacked a good grasp of foreign affairs.

"He is a man who has no vision of how the world has
changed, of how important international relations are for
Mexico, especially relations with the United States," he said.

Mexico sends almost 90 percent of its exports to the United
States, which in turn needs Mexican help to secure its border
against terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal immigration.

Calderon said the United states and Canada, Mexico's
partners in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement,
should help Mexico build dams and roads to develop poor regions
in Mexico so that people do not immigrate northward illegally.

"If the United States wants a secure border it's in its
interests to play its full part to ensure that Mexico has
growth and employment," he said.