Mexico is a famously introspective place, much given to brooding over past glories and injustices. The best-known essay on the national psyche, by Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz, is titled The Labyrinth of Solitude. When Mexican leaders turn toward the outside world, they often seemed guarded, intransigent and risk-averse, intensely afraid of reviving ancient threats to territory and culture.
Could this begin to change under president-elect Vicente Fox Quesada? Will we see a more self-confident Mexico on the global stage? Will Mr. Fox be more willing than his predecessors to speak out against injustice, to welcome examination of the country's internal affairs -- and will that anger some of his constituents? Will he be more successful in wresting concessions from the United States?
There's some reason to think so. Mr. Fox differs from recent Mexican presidents in several respects. He has spent much of his adult life working for a U.S.-controlled company, immersed in a private-sector milieu. His job regularly took him outside Mexico. He shows a voracious appetite for information and ideas (aides call him a "sponge") and a penchant for pragmatism.
Unlike him, the other presidents received degrees from prestigious U.S. universities. But they then returned to the maze of Mexican public life, with its myths and rituals and complex rules of engagement and advancement. Mr. Fox, by contrast, went straight to the people, winning the July 2 election by delivering a direct message in plain language that left no doubt he stood for a clean break with the past.
He's already captured headlines with proposals for the free movement of workers across the U.S.-Mexican border and a North American common market. They may seem like the visions of a peyote popper. But Mr. Fox is likely to be well received in the United States, particularly if he can manage to convince key congressmen that he can be tough with drug traffickers and organized crime.
Between campaign stops last month, Mr. Fox told me he would scrap Mexico's traditional practice of invoking "respect for the sovereignty of peoples" as an excuse for remaining silent about flagrant violations of human rights. This will be music to a lot of ears in Washington. It also should start wheels turning in Canada -- in a government that has been too reluctant to speak out against abuses in Mexico, and among activists who might find Mr. Fox surprisingly receptive to their concerns.
What other waves could a newly assertive Mexico make? Well, for starters, think about Peru, and President Alberto Fujimori's tainted re-election to a third term in office. Relying on the sovereignty principle, Mexico helped minimize criticism of Mr. Fujimori at the Organization of American States annual meeting in Windsor last month. Under Mr. Fox, perhaps it will take a different view.
In fact, Mexico could become newly assertive throughout Latin America. Andres Rozental, a former senior diplomat who is a strong candidate to be Mr. Fox's foreign minister, told me he expects Mexico to be "much more proactive" in the hemisphere -- if only to broaden its commercial vision beyond the North American free-trade agreement. "This is our region," he said. "This is where we are. It's so much closer than other parts of the world, and we have to capitalize on that."
And then, of course, there's Cuba.
Fidel Castro wasn't among those who called to congratulate the president-elect on the day after his victory. ("I guess his telephone must be out of order," Mr. Fox joked.) He cannot be wild with joy about a former Coca-Cola executive taking over the reins in Mexico -- the country where he plotted in exile to overthrow Fulgencio Batista, and one of revolutionary Cuba's strongest allies against the United States.
But it may not be all that bad. Mr. Fox and Mr. Castro have things in common. Both are physically imposing; both possess a can-do kind of drive; both grew up in the countryside. One imagines them at dinner, the mustachioed Mexican in open-necked shirt and fancy tooled boots, the bearded Cuban clad in olive green. Perhaps they discuss cattle, and Cuba's efforts to improve dairy production (among other things, by importing Canadian bull semen). Perhaps they talk about education, and using computers to bring learning to the rural masses -- a favourite topic of Mr. Fox.
In his 1985 portrait of Mexico, Distant Neighbors, journalist Alan Riding wrote: "Mexico's foreign policy has traditionally been inward-looking, aimed at shielding the country from outside pressures rather than expanding its sphere of influence." Whatever else he does with Mexico, Mr. Fox might be the man to turn that statement on its head. E-mail: