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Thursday, November 23, 2000

Fox Cabinet Bodes Historic Change

Mexico: Breaking with tradition, president-elect shuns political insiders, names U.S.-trained economic team, leftist foreign minister.

By MARY BETH SHERIDAN, Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY--Setting the tone for a historic change of government, President-elect Vicente Fox on Wednesday named a U.S.-trained economic team keen to continue Mexico's free-market development and a foreign minister known for his critical views of U.S. policy.

The appointments are part of a new Cabinet that will be strikingly different from those that served under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which lost the presidency in July after 71 years.

Fox, who takes office Dec. 1, broke with the tradition of recycling political insiders. Instead, he filled several key ministries with business executives. Few of the 13 officials named Wednesday had much experience in Fox's conservative National Action Party, or PAN.

In fact, the new foreign minister, leftist academic Jorge Castaneda, came from the other end of the ideological spectrum.

The appointments came at the end of a five-month talent search in which Fox used private headhunters and accepted thousands of resumes from the public. He had vowed to create a Cabinet that would reflect the country's pluralism and reach beyond party lines.

"This team should give clear accountability to everyone and be open to the ideas of society," Fox said at the ceremony in which he announced roughly half of his Cabinet.

In brief speeches, the new ministers pledged to pursue goals announced by Fox, from maintaining economic stability to providing greater assistance to Mexicans living abroad. In a sign of the importance of immigration problems, Fox named a coordinator for U.S. border issues. His choice, Ernesto Ruffo Appel, was Mexico's first opposition governor, serving in Baja California from 1989 to 1995.

Wall Street analysts cheered Fox's choices for key economic posts, especially the new finance minister, Francisco Gil Diaz. Gil, 57, won fame in the late 1980s and early '90s as the "Iron Taxman" who cracked down on tax evaders during the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

An economist with a doctorate from the University of Chicago, Gil most recently was the chief executive officer of Avantel, a Mexican telephone company that is 45% owned by Mississippi-based WorldCom Inc.

"It's an outstanding team," said Jorge Mariscal, head of Latin American investment strategies at Goldman Sachs in New York.

If the economic Cabinet was applauded in Washington and on Wall Street, however, Fox's foreign minister is likely to face a cooler reception.

Castaneda, 47, is a political scientist and author who has at times raised hackles in Washington for his opposition to some U.S. policies. He fought against the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, before its passage in 1994. Some U.S. officials had expressed concern at the possibility of his being named foreign minister.

In an interview, Castaneda insisted that such criticism doesn't constitute a "groundswell" and said he has supporters in both the Republican and Democratic parties. Furthermore, he said, he doesn't intend to have a confrontational attitude.

"I am going to implement Fox's foreign policy. That's my job, not to invent mine," Castaneda said.

He added that there will generally be continuity in Mexico's foreign policy, which in recent years has embraced much warmer relations with its onetime enemy the United States.

But he said there will be some changes in emphasis, such as greater attention to Mexican immigration to the United States. Fox has urged a gradual opening of the border, an idea that has won little support in Washington.

"He [Fox] will try to engage the U.S. on many immigration issues, whether it's violence on the border, amnesty [for illegal immigrants], an increase in permanent visas, temporary agreements," Castaneda said. "He will try to be more imaginative and engage the U.S. on these issues."

Castaneda is well known in the United States, having taught at several universities and published opinion articles in newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. He is one of a small group of leftists who campaigned for Fox in hopes of unseating the PRI. Castaneda's father was foreign minister from 1979 to 1982.

Some analysts said Castaneda's appointment was aimed in part at deflecting criticism that Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, is too close to the United States.

Other top officials named Wednesday include Ernesto Martens as energy minister, a critical post in Mexico, the world's fifth-largest oil producer. Martens is a business executive from the glass and airline industries.

The top economic advisors from Fox's campaign also joined the Cabinet. They are Luis Ernesto Derbez, a World Bank economist, who will handle trade and small-business promotion at the newly named Economy Ministry, and Eduardo Sojo, who worked for Fox when he was governor of Guanajuato state. Sojo will be economic czar, coordinating activities of different ministries.

Three other business executives were named to the agriculture, transportation and tourism ministries, and Victor Lichtinger, former director of the NAFTA environment commission, became environment minister. The rest of Fox's Cabinet is to be announced during the next week.

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