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Mexicans to vote on leader, nation's future today


MEXICO CITY -- When Mexican voters go to the polls today to pick their new president, they will be asked to choose between two radically different visions of the country Mexico has become after a decade of free-market economics.

Mexico City car salesman Alejandro Alcantar likes the new, American-style order and efficiency. Interest rates are relatively low. Last year, more Mexicans bought new cars than ever before. Salesmen are learning about customer service.

Corn farmer Antelmo Bahena feels as if his rural world is collapsing around him. He can barely make a living on the three acres he rents south of Mexico City. When he can't afford basic things such as medicine, he blames the Nebraska corn that's showing up in the local tortilla factories.

The divergent fortunes of the two men are mirrored in presidential campaigns led by politicians on opposite ends of a wide ideological, regional and cultural divide: conservative Felipe Calderon and leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Caught, as always, between the U.S. and the rest of Latin America, Mexico will choose between one candidate who is U.S.-educated and one who isn't. They will decide between a politician who embraces American-style media campaigning and one who leads a mass movement with roots in Latin American radicalism.

The candidates' economic proposals are as similar as those of Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt.

"We are in favor of modernization but built from the ground up and for everyone," Lopez Obrador told supporters at his final campaign rally last week. He proposed increases in public spending and government subsidies. "The government I lead will always be guided by the principle: 'For the good of everyone, first the poor.'"

Talking at his closing rally, Calderon promised to continue the policies of President Vicente V. Fox, who cannot run for re-election: "We will guarantee policies that attract investment, that will create businesses big and small which will create the jobs we Mexicans need."

Today's election will determine whether Mexico continues down a path for the developing world first laid down by conservative U.S. economists in the 1980s. Fox embraced the fundamentals of the neoliberal model: fiscal discipline, open markets and low taxes.

Fox's policies have brought unprecedented stability, enabling millions to secure home and car loans for the first time. But the same policies also produced anemic rates of growth: An estimated 4 million Mexicans have migrated to the U.S. in search of work during the six years of Fox's rule.

"You've always had a poor distribution of income in Mexico," said Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. "What's changed is that the growth levels of the economy have become so low. You can't pull people out of poverty without economic growth."

Frustrated by their battles to make a living, millions of poor people are backing Lopez Obrador.

"You go to the grain buyers to sell your product, and sometimes they don't even pay you right away," said Bahena, the corn farmer. He rents his land in the state of Morelos for $175 a year but barely makes enough to pay for fertilizer and other costs.

The poverty, which causes so many Morelos residents to migrate to the U.S., is also causing a breakdown of social mores, he said: "The fathers leave to work on the other side, and the mothers are left alone and can't control their sons and daughters."

When the leftist Democratic Revolution Party came to his town to pitch for Lopez Obrador, Bahena listened intently.

Congressional candidate Julian Vences told a story people repeat here again and again. He had seen yellow corn - unmistakably from the U.S., since the local variety is white corn - in a local grain deposit and tortilla factory.

"Thanks to the [North American] Free Trade Agreement, it's become a rare thing to go to a tortilleria that sells us tortillas made of white corn," Vences said.

First signed by the leaders of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico in 1994, the treaty created a mechanism that has gradually eliminated many trade barriers between the countries.

Most of the country's economic elite, along with a big chunk of its middle class, supports Calderon, in large measure because they can still remember the bad old days of high inflation and an unstable Mexican peso, a period that stretched, off and on, from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s.

"It was almost impossible to get credit," said car salesman Alcantar, 46. "You had to get a guarantor, who would assume the debt if you couldn't pay." Most people who bought cars did so with cash, having saved up for years to do so.

In the final days ahead of the vote, with polls showing Lopez Obrador in the lead, Calderon's campaign saturated the airwaves with commercials suggesting that Mexico's economic stability would disappear if the leftist were elected and increased public spending.

Like many recent Mexican presidents, Calderon has an advanced degree from a U.S. university - in his case, from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He is the affluent son of a founder of the National Action Party.

Calderon's supporters circulate PowerPoint presentations outlining how well Mexico's economy has performed under Fox. Many think he's simply smarter than Lopez Obrador. A few have circulated a rumor (denied by the Lopez Obrador campaign) that the leftist candidate doesn't have a visa to visit the U.S.: Such visas are seen as a status symbol here.

Lopez Obrador, the son of a humble merchant family, is a graduate of the publicly funded National Autonomous University of Mexico. He comes from the Gulf Coast state of Tabasco, a tropical region that has never produced a president.

Hector Tobar writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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