MEXICO MAKES NICE WITH US OVER OIL POLICY

Following weekend parleys focusing on $30-plus per barrel international oil charges, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson left his Mexican counterpart, Luis Tellez Kuezler, in an enviable win-win position.

By reiterating his support for 2 million to 2.5 million barrels of additional global output, Tellez demonstrated good neighborliness toward his country's major trading partner, the United States.At the same time, the 42-year-old energy official, who holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, brandished his credentials as Mexico's energy czar - with the likelihood of gaining a top Cabinet spot should his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) capture the mid-2000 presidential election as projected.

In light of the fact that oil revenue generates one-third of his country's federal budget, why had Tellez begun talking down world prices even before Richardson reached Mexico's smog-infested capital?

After all, firebrands like Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, presidential nominee of the leftist-nationalist Democratic Revolutionary Party, told 10,000 supporters at a mid-February rally in Monterrey that: ''It seems absurd, idiotic and contrary to our national interest that there could be more revenues and that the government says they don't want them.''

Several factors explain Tellez's moderate, responsible stance.

First, he wants to prevent an economic downturn in the United States, to which his nation is joined at the hip via the North American Free Trade Agreement, and whose sustained growth nourished a 3.7 percent upswing in Mexico's gross domestic product last year - with a 4 percent rise anticipated in 2000.

Second, Tellez seeks to stabilize world oil prices, lest further run-ups spark cheating by highly populated, cash-starved members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cartel such as Algeria, Indonesia and Nigeria.

Third, he's eager to keep non-OPEC producers from lifting more oil to take advantage of prices that have more than doubled during the past year.

Finally, he hopes to pre-empt the roller-coaster effects that sales by Tokyo or Washington from their strategic petroleum reserves would have on the global oil market.

Energy statesmanship will also boost Tellez's standing in domestic politics. PRI mossbacks rejoice in lambasting foreign-educated ''technocrats'' as out of touch with Mexico's explosive internal social problems. Although the next PRI administration would doubtless expand outlays on education, health and housing, it will adhere to the general neo-liberal line charted by its chief executives since 1985.

Thus, the party's presidential nominee - Francisco Labastida - will need an intellectual heavyweight to manage economic affairs should he capture the brass ring on July 2.

The bright-as-a-pin Tellez, who formerly served as the president's chief of staff and deputy agriculture secretary, has begun positioning himself for such a post.

In 1999, he procured the resignation of directors-general of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) and Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the country's sprawling electricity and petroleum monopolies.

Tellez quietly passed the word that the outgoing executives - while good administrators - favored too large a state role in energy affairs. By appointing relative neophytes to head CFE and Pemex, Tellez has strengthened the role of the Energy Ministry vis-a-vis these behemoths.

Now Tellez will attempt to complement the consolidation of his domestic energy clout by persuading the governments in Riyadh and Caracas to endorse higher output when the production cuts formally end on March 31.

Indeed, Mexico catalyzed meetings between Saudi Arabia and Venezuela in early 1998, which slowed international sales and impelled higher prices.

Should Tellez now prove successful in reversing this process - at least to the point of lowering prices to $26 per barrel - he will have struck a blow for global economic progress, while lofting his own already sparkling political star.

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