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Found in Translation

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox may be a conservative, but certainly not one recognizable in El Norte.

Given the increasingly horrific toll that intensifying drug violence has taken, primarily in Mexico but also in the U.S., it's not altogether surprising that former Mexican President Vicente Fox would define drug trafficking as a problem shared by his own nation and its northern neighbor, the world's largest consumer of illegal narcotics.

Although during a recent appearance in California he called his successor, Felipe Calderón, "courageous" for his crackdown on the drug cartels, Fox also declared, "It's time to debate legalizing drugs."

In the U.S., one might expect calls for drug legalization to come from a Libertarian or the fringe of the political left, but Fox is considered a conservative in Mexico. Many of the positions he expressed in his speech to an audience of 800 in Santa Barbara would be approved by most U.S. conservatives: support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, an emphasis on personal responsibility over governmental solutions, urging the U.S. to reduce its indebtedness and a call to open up Mexico's state monopoly on energy to private investment.

Indeed, in his autobiography, Revolution of Hope, Fox describes his National Action Party (PAN is its Spanish acronym) of the late 1980s in terms that bear uncanny similarities to the contemporary Republican Party: a party whose base lay in a region of the country whose residents were culturally conservative and deeply religious, and where many distrusted the federal government and supported free-market reform.

But Fox as a conservative is hardly a perfect analog to the U.S. variety, and that's not due simply to the Obama-esque title of his memoir. He opened his remarks by extending a greeting to "Pedro and María and Gilberto" — that is, to all his fellow Mexicans who had made their way, with or without documents, to the U.S. seeking economic opportunity.

"I want to tell them," Fox proclaimed, "that I'm with them all the way. I don't understand why this nation is building walls."

Although Republicans have hardly presented a unified front on the subject of immigration reform, one can imagine such comments setting teeth on edge among conservatives in the party. Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo based his 2008 presidential candidacy primarily on his advocacy of stringent new controls on immigration and border security (in his book, Fox describes Tancredo, fairly or not, as a "rabid Mexico hater").

Fox also diverges from his U.S. counterparts on foreign policy: He did not support the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and in his speech suggested that the U.S. should scale back its foreign military interventions and rely more heavily on the U.N. to promote peace and harmony in the world.

And Fox is consistent in condemning Latin American dictators, whether of the left- or right-wing variety — not just Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro, who are favorite targets of conservatives (and who sometimes get a pass from the American left), but also the late and not-so-great Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, who all had the backing of the U.S. government.

Is there a lesson for U.S. conservatives to learn from Fox?

Some might argue that he is a regional politician whose experience resists cultural and geographical transfer. But with the Republican National Committee having recently rejected an ideological purity test proposed by a conservative faction, and with newly elected Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts already fallen from favor among Tea Party movement members for his recent vote in favor of the jobs bill, mainstream Republicans may already be seeing the value of Fox's approach.

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