Mexico's Economy Chief Replaces Foreign Minister

Times Staff Writer

President Vicente Fox named Economy Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez to head his foreign policy team after accepting the resignation Friday of his mercurial ally, Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda.

At a brief news conference to announce his first Cabinet changes since he took office two years ago, Fox lavishly praised Castaneda, crediting him with elevating Mexico's standing in the world.

Castaneda ushered in a more productive era of U.S.-Mexican relations and also bolstered long-neglected ties with European countries. Despite his having alienated left-wing Mexican politicians with harsh words and actions against longtime ally Cuba, Castaneda's departure was clearly a disappointment for Fox, who thanked the diplomat for his "commitment, loyalty and professionalism."

Appearing with Fox, Castaneda said he was returning to writing and teaching political science at Mexico's National Autonomous University. He confirmed that he had decided to quit because he was frustrated with his failure to achieve a migration accord to better protect the more than 20 million people of Mexican nationality or descent living and working in the U.S. Washington has refused even to set a date for resumption of negotiations on a migration treaty.

"I'm not a professional politician, but I know when to enter the political arena to fight for what I believe in and when it is the right time to leave it," Castaneda said.

Fox's selection of Derbez is unlikely to bring drastic changes in Mexican foreign policy. But the economist -- who, like Castaneda, has studied and taught in the United States -- has been forceful with Mexico's northern neighbor on issues involving the North American Free Trade Agreement. Derbez is expected to focus more on Latin American developments than on U.S. relations, having spent much of his career at the World Bank, where he oversaw political and economic reforms in Chile, Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala.

Replacing Derbez at the Economy Ministry will be Nuevo Leon Gov. Fernando Canales, whose northeastern state has become a model for the kinds of economic and anti-corruption moves Fox wants implemented throughout the country.

As a longtime member of Fox's National Action Party, Canales also brings to the Cabinet a degree of political clout the president probably expects will help his party win votes in July congressional elections. No party currently controls Congress, which has blocked Fox's program.

Derbez, 55, is expected to make trade issues a priority, in contrast to Castaneda, whose agenda was shaped by human rights concerns and efforts to make Mexico a more influential global player.

Fox indicated, though, that Castaneda's foreign policy directions would continue.

"In this new stage that we're beginning today, we are determined to make Mexico a bridge between the world's regions and visions," Fox told reporters.

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