By Andres Oppenheimer

If Mexico's presidential election winner Enrique Pena Nieto gets his way, there will be a major upgrade of the 1994 U.S.-Canada-Mexico free trade deal, as well as a joint plan to draw billions in public and private investments for roads, bridges and ports along the U.S.-Mexican border, and a "re-adjustment" of the war on drugs.

That's what Pena Nieto told me in a 40-minute interview, in which we also talked at length about his contested election victory, and the opposition claims that his party engaged in massive vote buying. Before we get into my own opinion on whether his plans for upgrading Mexico's ties with Washington are realistic, let's listen to what he had to say.

"I will seek to have a much more intense bilateral relation (with the United States) of greater collaboration, but above everything else of obtaining more and better results," he said. "We must go beyond the three-country free trade agreement that we have today."

Pena Nieto, 45, a former Mexico State governor married to a soap opera star who has little experience in foreign affairs, added that in a world of economic blocs, in which China and its neighbors are becoming major economic players, the three North American countries need to increase their economic integration in order to compete more effectively with Asia.

"Our geographic vicinity must be an advantage, rather than a threat," he told me. "It must be an opportunity that must be taken advantage of."

He said that he plans to do this through "an agreement among the heads of state" of North America, adding that "with the United States, we will have the advantage that we will be starting our administrations virtually at the same time, and that can help us define concrete goals for developing more infrastructure, greater connectivity, new ports."

But how are you planning to persuade the next U.S. president to invest in border infrastructure at a time of U.S. economic hardship? I asked.

He answered that he is "optimistic" that the United States will see the economic advantage of stepping up cross-border supply chains so that U.S. companies can better compete in the global economy. He added that one of his main proposals will be to create public-private partnerships, in which the United States and Mexico would invite private sector companies to invest in roads and bridges along the border.

On the U.S.-backed war on drugs, which has left more than 50,000 deaths over the past five years, Pena Nieto said that there will be a "strategy adjustment." Rather than only concentrating on capturing big cartel bosses, the new strategy will place a greater focus on combating violence, specifically going against those criminals who engage in homicides, kidnappings and extortion. "It means expanding our current policy, not changing it," Pena Nieto said.

On his planned foreign policy, he said that it will be guided by Mexico's traditional principles of "respect for each country's sovereignty," and "respect for people's right to self-determination."

Interestingly, he did not mention the defense of human rights and the principle of a collective defense of democracy, which have been added to Mexico's foreign policy priorities by the country's last two presidents.

When I asked him about this omission, he said that he is committed to human rights. Pressed on how he would react to the recent presidential ouster in Paraguay, or if President Hugo Chavez rigs the October elections in Venezuela, Pena Nieto said that "it will not correspond to my government to make judgments on the democratic processes that take place in other countries."

So you don't believe in the collective defense of democracy in the Americas?, I insisted. "I'm in favor of bolstering democratic values, of fomenting them ... but observing a total respect to the free self-determination of each country's people," he answered.

My opinion: I obviously don't agree with Pena Nieto's outdated view of Mexico's foreign policy, which seems anchored in the times when his Institutional Revolutionary Party was an authoritarian party that resisted any collective pressures to defend democracy and human rights in other countries, because it didn't want others to look into its own authoritarian abuses.

But regarding his plans for North American economic integration, Pena Nieto is right. He may be naive in thinking that he has a chance to carry them out amid the current U.S. isolationist mood, in which words such as "outsourcing," and "economic integration" with Mexico are politically radio-active. But, at some point, the next U.S. president will have to think in that direction if he wants the United States to be more competitive in a world of increasingly powerful economic blocs.


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