GARCIA: Jorge Castaneda, Minister of Democracy

How does a man go from being a super-radicalized, left-leaning iconoclast to taking a job working for Mexican President Vicente Fox, that nation's cross between Ronald Reagan and Lee Iacocca?

That's just one of the public contradictions that make Mexico's Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda a man worth listening to. Castaneda was the featured speaker at the annual convention of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, held in Phoenix last week.

He spent about 90 minutes fielding questions from reporters on everything from the death of 14 immigrants in southern Arizona to reports that Fox spent $400 buying bath towels for Los Pinos, Mexico's equivalent of the White House.

Gifted speakers understand the need to entertain an audience in order to get their message across. So Castaneda put on a show. Not that there wasn't substance in his banter with the journalists. Much of the discussion centered on U.S. immigration policy and President Fox's campaign pledge to modernize Mexico, economically and politically.

Fox is considered the first democratically elected president in Mexican history. So the pressure's on for him to prove that a post-totalitarian Mexico will bring a better standard of living for its 100 million-plus citizens.

Castaneda's job, meanwhile, is to serve not only as Fox's surrogate on the international stage, but to reinforce the idea that Mexico is ready to shed its image as an endemically corrupt, third world doormat to Latin America where Americans can always turn for a ready supply of cheap labor and potent narcotics.

Despite their personal political differences, Castaneda and Fox do have at least one thing in common. Both realize that building a nation requires the backing of its citizenry, as well as the cooperation and support of foreign partners. This is new thinking in Mexico.

On the domestic front, Mexicans have yearned for a free society, even if its past leaders -- tutored at feet of old world colonialism and Catholic patriarchy -- have repressed these democratic inclinations for centuries. Fox wants to tap those tendencies.

Internationally, Castaneda and Fox know the information age makes necessary not just cross-border agreements on trade and the environment, but an open channel of communication that allows even the poorest and most remote communities to press their concerns about government policy and, by extension, the fate of a nation.

Witness the militarily dormant Zapatista guerrilla movement in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The rebels haven't fired their weapons in more than six years. Yet the visage of Zapatista leader, Subcomandante Marcos, is as pervasive today as that of Che Guevara's in Cuba or Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. Marcos' image, deservedly or not, is a symbol of the irrepressible desire by a people to be heard and heeded.

While Castaneda and Fox seem determined to become democrats with a small "d," the challenges facing them are immense. Drug trafficking is Mexico's version of our dot-com industry, with one major exception: the intoxicating power of drugs is real. In addition, government corruption, only made worse by the drug trade's enormous profits, remains a crippling characteristic of everyday life in Mexico that will take years, if not decades, to eradicate.

His political conversion aside, Jorge Castaneda speaks of the openness and transparency of Mexico's government today. If someone in Fox's family bought a $400 set of bath towels, the Mexican people should know about it, he says. If the government believes it needs to raise the national sales tax, then the people should be allowed to debate that without fear of retribution.

This is not to say that Castaneda answered each of the reporters' questions as completely and forthrightly as some of us might have hoped. He is, after all, a politician.

But Castaneda's performance showed that Mexico now has at least one public servant, maybe even more, who believe that people power trumps totalitarianism every time -- even if sometimes takes nearly 500 years.

James Garcia is editor and publisher of politicomagazine.com. E-mail him at <Politico1@aol.com.

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