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When George Bush makes his first foreign visit on Feb. 16 to the hacienda of President Vicente Fox in Mexico, he will be calling on one of the most exciting politicians in the world.

Fox is 6 feet, 5 inches tall and outspoken. He wears cowboy boots and was once an executive for Coca-Cola. Last year, with a grass-roots campaign, he wrested the Mexican presidency away from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had maintained a virtual dictatorship since 1929. But what fascinates about him goes beyond internal politics.

Vicente Fox has been bold enough to propose a whole new relationship between Mexico and the United States, and a much larger role for Mexico in the world. His goal is to broaden the focus beyond the perennial issues of drugs and illegal immigration.

The Mexican leader wants to figure out how the two countries, plus Canada, could expand the North American Free Trade Agreement into a "NAFTA plus" that looks more like the wide-open borders of the European Union. He knows this idea won't work if it means that tens of millions more unemployed Mexicans will flee illegally northward.

"Convergence means to narrow the gap of income between our societies," he told a group of journalists at this year's Davos World Economic Forum. "Right now, Americans earn $60 per day versus $5 for Mexicans. As long as we have that gap, people will cross" the border. And so will drug traffickers.

To narrow the gap, Fox proposed last fall the creation of a North American development fund, with billions of U.S. and Canadian dollars that would permit Mexico to build desperately needed infrastructure for transportation and develop new energy sources. His model was the European Union, where the richer European countries subsidize the poorer ones.

The unspoken premise: If the U.S. invests in Mexico, fewer illegal workers will swim across the Rio Grande, even as the money helps Mexico develop into a richer market for U.S. goods.

Not surprisingly, his development aid plan aroused little interest from then-presidential candidates Gore or Bush. But that hasn't left Fox daunted.

"NAFTA-plus is a vision that challenges where the direction will go. It can only be constructed year by year, step by step."

At Davos, Fox spelled out some of those steps. First is a new Mexican-U.S. approach to the drug problem, which looks not just at Mexico's responsibility, but rather at what both sides have to do. "The United States has to reduce consumption," Fox said. "Otherwise, it corrupts our police and public functionaries." Amen.

Fox is genuinely trying to combat the legendary corruption in Mexico's government, and he is ready to extradite drug suspects north of the border, while Congress is poised to suspend the annual, humiliating rite of White House certification that Mexico is doing enough to fight drugs.

Second, Fox wants a continent-wide approach to energy. Mexico has huge reserves of dry gas, while California has energy shortages. Fox is pressing to remove legal obstacles to foreign investment, but he needs billions to develop energy projects.

Third, Fox wants a new approach to immigration that recognizes America's need for Mexican workers. He wants to legalize workers who are here illegally and push for contracts for short-term workers, even as Mexico builds up a bigger job base.

"The young don't go up there to work for the hot dogs. Tacos are better," he insisted. "They want to stay home."

Last, but far from least, Fox wants Mexico to play a more active role as world leader. A Latin who avoids the anti-Yanqui game and looks North, who endorses globalization -- as long as it helps the poor -- he was the only leader to generate excitement at Davos.

If the Bush administration plays its cards right, it could have a key ally to the south who could help solve the mess in Colombia or provide a bridge to Cuba.

But these things will happen only if the new administration recognizes that relations with Mexico must cut both ways.

Given the boldness of his vision, Fox will need plenty of help. So when the two guys with cowboy boots meet, George W. would do well to listen to what his new friend Vicente is saying. U.S. investment in Mexico now could pay off big in 20 years.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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