Fri, Dec 08, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Felipe Calderon promises to assist Mexico's poorest

AGENCIES , MEXICO CITY

New Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced a program to help the country's 100 poorest communities on Wednesday, responding to leftist critics who accuse the conservative leader of wanting to help only the rich.

Calderon, who took office on Friday after beating leftist rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in a wafer-thin July election, promised to put US$5 million into drainage, housing and agricultural projects in Mexico's most impoverished areas.

Calderon beat Lopez Obrador with business-friendly promises of economic stability, but has sought to heal a polarized nation since taking office by promising to help the millions of Mexicans who live in poverty.

He launched the anti-poverty program in Tlacoachistlahuaca, an indigenous village in the arid hotlands of the western state of Guerrero, close to the place where Lopez Obrador symbolically began his presidential campaign.

`Enormous debt'

"I recognize the enormous debt Mexico has with the poor," Calderon said in the village of about 15,000 inhabitants, which has high rates of maternal mortality and child malnutrition. "We must pay this debt with deeds and government action."

"Beyond the colors of political parties there is only one Mexico, a Mexico drowned in poverty and marginalization, and a Mexico that wants politicians to get to work," Calderon told families in the town square.

The election laid bare Mexico's deep rich-poor divide, highlighting differences between the more industrial north of the country and poverty-stricken southern states like Guerrero, many of which have large indigenous populations.

Calderon proposed a balanced budget in a bill sent to Congress on Tuesday but also asked lawmakers to approve hikes in social spending as part of the package.

Calderon's leftist rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had promised handouts and inexpensive goods to aid the poor and kicked off his election campaign in another poor Guerrero state town. Lopez Obrador has portrayed Calderon as a puppet of Mexico's rich business elite.

Cooperation

But the leftist Guerrero governor from Lopez Obrador's party attended Calderon's ceremony in Tlacoachistlahuaca, a sign that partisan solidarity with Lopez Obrador may be trumped by the need to cooperate with aid-bearing federal officials.

Calderon urged Mexicans to bury their differences over the election and focus on the nation's problems.

``When the differences only translate to fights, nobody wins. Fights between politicians only hurt people, especially the poor,'' he said.

Calderon said his anti-poverty program will draw money from several federal agencies and will be repeated in 100 deeply poor towns where people suffer malnutrition and disease and lack roads and clean water.

He has also pledged to cut his salary by 10 percent, answering the leftist demand that the nation's leading public servants be paid less. Mexico's politicians are among the best-paid in the world.

On Tuesday, Calderon submitted a budget proposal for next year that suggests raising tobacco taxes to discourage smoking and to raise about 6.8 billion pesos (US$620 million) to treat those afflicted with smoking-related illnesses.

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