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Mexico’s Calderon stocks his Cabinet with friends

Times Staff Writer

President-elect Felipe Calderon appointed close friends and party allies to key Cabinet positions Tuesday, a sign that he is closing ranks in the face of street-level opposition to his narrowly won presidency.

The appointees reflect the conservative social and fiscal views of Calderon and his National Action Party, or PAN, and contrast with his promise made during his bitter campaign against leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador that he would appoint a multi-party Cabinet.

Lopez Obrador, who last week declared himself the country’s “legitimate” president, has ordered his party’s congressional bloc to prevent Calderon from taking office. Lawmakers loyal to Lopez Obrador have threatened to take over the rostrum of the lower house where Calderon will be sworn in Friday. On Tuesday, a group of them scuffled with Calderon loyalists in a scrum of pushing and shoving that turned into an hours-long standoff.

“They threw one of our deputies to the floor,” said Valentina Batres, a lawmaker with Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolution Party.

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She said colleagues had only approached the dais to consult on a motion.

“The first ones to rush up were the PAN because they have this fantasy that we want to take over the dais,” she said.

Faced with the prospect of strong-arm politics, as well as a leftist uprising in Oaxaca and spreading drug violence, Calderon appears poised to take a stronger hand than President Vicente Fox, who broke seven decades of single-party rule when he was elected in 2000 but had trouble navigating the emerging three-party system.

Calderon on Tuesday named a hard-liner and longtime family friend, outgoing Jalisco Gov. Francisco Ramirez Acuna, as interior secretary, a domestic security post considered the government’s second-most powerful job.

Ramirez’s first order of business will be to restore calm in Oaxaca, where thousands of protesters seeking the ouster of the state governor have controlled parts of the city since summer.

Fox’s interior secretary, Carlos Abascal, negotiated an end to the teachers strike that triggered the protests but failed to negotiate a settlement with remaining dissidents. Street violence flared again over the weekend, and the state supreme court building was burned.

Signaling his frustration with the Fox government’s failure in Oaxaca, Calderon said Ramirez, a former congressman who will leave his governor’s post two months early, would not be afraid to use his authority.

“During his career as a governor and representative, Ramirez Acuna has confirmed the need and value of dialogue, and at the same time the inalienable responsibility of the ruler to uphold the law,” Calderon said.

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Ramirez was criticized by human rights groups for failing to investigate police-abuse claims lodged by dozens of protesters arrested during a May 2004 summit of European and Latin American leaders in Guadalajara.

That same week, Ramirez showed his loyalty to Calderon, whose father was a PAN founder and a longtime supporter of Ramirez.

The governor was the host of a dinner where Calderon, then Fox’s energy secretary, was introduced to a cheering crowd as PAN’s next presidential candidate. Fox was furious, and Calderon soon resigned to run against Fox’s preferred candidate.

Calderon on Tuesday also announced the appointment of Juan Camilo Mourino, a close campaign advisor, as Cabinet secretary, a post similar to the White House chief of staff; Patricia Espinosa Castellano, a career diplomat with a doctorate from Oxford, will head the Foreign Ministry. Another key campaign advisor and diplomat, Arturo Sarukhan, will oversee U.S.-Mexico relations.

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Calderon last week announced a formidable lineup of economic ministers, all of whom are free-market advocates with doctorates from prestigious U.S. universities.

Seeking to blunt criticism from advocates for Mexico’s 50 million poor, Calderon said the market alone could not alleviate poverty. Government, he said, must help “correct the terrible inequities in Mexico.”

His new treasury secretary, Agustin Carstens, who holds a degree from the University of Chicago, later said that lower oil prices in 2007 could hamper government spending.

On Friday, Calderon introduced his secretaries for health, agriculture, education and social services -- all members of his party.

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Calderon’s health minister, Jose Cordova Villalobos, a conservative Catholic, has strongly opposed the government’s dispensing of the “morning after” birth control pill.

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sam.enriquez@latimes.com

Times staff writers Hector Tobar, Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.

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