By Andres Oppenheimer

President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto is likely to step up his country's activism in Latin American affairs, where it has been completely overshadowed by Brazil in recent years. That's in the political DNA of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled Mexico for much of the past century.

The big question is whether he will do it by revamping Mexico's ties with Brazil, Cuba and other left-of-center governments in the region, or - on the contrary - he will try to play a more active role in the newly-formed Alliance of the Pacific Alliance group made up of Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile, which has closer trade ties with Washington.

Pena Nieto gave few hints of his foreign policy plans during the campaign. The PRI has a long tradition of supporting Cuba and other Third World causes, largely as a way to keep its leftist wing happy while it pursued pro-business economic policies.

But well-placed PRI politicians and some of the president-elect's top foreign policy advisers say that Pena Nieto is a pragmatist whose foreign policy will be strictly focused on economic goals.

Emilio Lozoya, coordinator of Pena Nieto's international relations, told me that the president-elect "will seek a more modern, more pro-active foreign policy, aimed at becoming an engine for the country's economic development."

That will include expanding the current drug-centered agenda with Washington to energy and infrastructure plans, such as private sector investments in Mexico's Pemex oil monopoly and shale gas industry, he said.

Rosario Green, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair and former foreign minister, says that Mexico won't neglect its ties with the United States, by far Mexico's largest export market.

"If you ask me what is likely to be his first, second and third priority, I would say the United States first, Central America second, and the Pacific Rim third," Green told me. "It is a fact that the center of gravity has shifted to the Pacific, and that there are a lot of things that we can gain from looking east."

Pena Nieto will maintain and even deepen Mexico's participation in the Alliance of the Pacific, PRI insiders say. The new bloc, all of whose members have bilateral free trade deals with the United States, aims to negotiate its participation in President Barack Obama's proposed Trans Pacific Partnership, which would include nearly a dozen Asian countries and could become the world's largest free trade area.

Among the names floating around as possible choices to become secretary of foreign relations in Pena Nieto's government are former ambassador to Washington Jorge Montano, former ambassador to Washington, London and Moscow Juan Jose Bremer, former Finance Sectary Pedro Aspe, Secretary General of the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development Angel Gurria, and Pena Nieto's foreign policy advisor Lozoya.

Any of them would focus on improving economic ties with the United States and the Pacific Rim, party insiders note.

But some well-placed PRI members see things differently, saying that Pena Nieto has a private commitment to appoint former PRI president Beatriz Paredes, who served as ambassador to Cuba and is a strong advocate of teaming up with Brazil and other left-of-center ruled Latin American countries.

According to this story, Paredes grudgingly accepted Pena Nieto's request that she run for mayor of Mexico City in last Sunday's election, knowing that she had virtually no chances of winning because of the overwhelming political muscle of the leftist Party for the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in the capital.

Paredes, who lost by a wide margin in Sunday's vote, reportedly accepted the PRI mayoral candidacy in exchange for Pena Nieto's vow to appoint her foreign relations secretary in the new government.

"It will be hard for Pena Nieto not to keep his word with her, unless he convinces her to take a different job," one well-placed PRI member told me. "But she wants to be Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and has told everybody so."

My opinion: Pena Nieto is likely to find another job for Paredes, among other things because she did so badly in Sunday's election - she got only 19 percent of the vote - that she won't have political capital to demand much. More importantly, she does not have close connections in Washington, speaks virtually no English, and would not have the business profile Pena Nieto would need to escort him around the world seeking new investments.

Barring suprises, Pena Nieto will pick a foreign affairs secretary who has what he does not: vast foreign policy experience, and good connections in Washington, Europe and Asia.


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