Can Vicente Fox Save Mexico?

His swashbuckling style won the hearts of voters. He forced his country's leaders to hold an honest presidential election. His victory ended seventy years of unbroken one-party rule. Now comes the hard part.

At eleven in the evening on July 2, as radio and television commentators were announcing that the candidate of the Partido Acción Nacional ( PAN), Vicente Fox Quesada, was leading in the race for president of Mexico, the chairman of the Federal Electoral Institute, a newly depoliticized body, issued a statement affirming that Fox was the election’s apparent winner. The institute’s announcement was based not on vote counts but on exit polls. Nevertheless, it was sufficient to trigger the next surprising moment in Mexico’s political history. Within three minutes, before Francisco Labastida, the candidate of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional ( PRI), could concede, President Ernesto Zedillo appeared on TV. Speaking from the Calles Room of Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, with a portrait of nineteenth-century hero Benito Juárez in the background, he announced, “The next president of the republic will be el licenciado Vicente Fox.” Those were the last words of Mexican “presidencialismo,” the rule of almost everybody and everything by what amounts to presidential fiat. Zedillo’s words constituted not merely a statement but a final command. El presidente was telling the PRI’s millions of minions that there was to be no alteration of tally sheets, no kidnapping of ballots, no “failure of the computer system,” no polling-place seizures or gun battles in the streets, no more force, no more fraud. He was ordering a party born of revolution to lay down its modern-day arms, to surrender to what, by then, most Mexicans regarded as inevitable—though what form the inevitable might take when the 58-year-old Fox assumes office on December 1, no one knew. In a country where practically everybody despises politicians and even government, practically everybody was celebrating because of politics. As early as eight on election night, a throng of 5,000 clase medianera, or middle-class supporters, many of them English-speaking, had gathered outside the PAN’s national headquarters in Mexico City, chanting for the candidate, who, shielded by dozens of security guards, was holed up inside with close aides. Following the announcement by Zedillo, Fox and the crowd from PAN’s headquarters converged with more than 100,000 hysterical supporters from across la capital at the monument called the Angel on Paseo de la Reforma. The multitude stomped and chanted, “Fox! Fox! Fox! Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!” The earth literally shook beneath their feet but perhaps only because Mexico City is built on dried lake beds. In Monterrey too, the shouts of “Fox! Fox! Fox! Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!” rose into the night from more than 50,000 people crowded into the Macroplaza. The city hadn’t seen such jubilation since the pope’s visit nearly ten years ago. About half of those in the Macroplaza, PAN governor Fernando Canales Clariond would observe later, “were there to celebrate the election of Fox. The other half were there to celebrate the fall of the PRI.” So widespread was the exhilaration that even Monterrey’s tiny Maoist faction was mollified. Though they would later decry Fox’s victory as “the perfection of bourgeois democracy,” their leader, Ignacio Staines Orozco, a physician who founded the Tierra y Libertad squatter camp in 1973, allowed that Fox’s election was “a bit of a reform because these PANistas are less corrupt.”

The American press was nearly as giddy. “In one night of triumph,” the New York Times reported the following morning, “Mr. Fox converted Mexico from a waning one-party state into a self-confident democracy.” The Dallas Morning News enthused, “Political globalization has crossed the Rio Grande.” But “democracy” is a big term with a dozen meanings, and it is far from clear that the American version has taken root in Mexico. In the heady aftermath of the election, only two things were certain. One was that an honest vote count had been the order of the day. The other was that, from Juchitán to Juárez, Mexicans believed that change was really at hand, that a Fox presidency would resolve whatever problems they had. Vicente Fox was, for the night anyway, the embodiment of generations of stifled hope. Beyond that, whether Fox—or anyone—can live up to the suddenly rising expectations of the Mexican people and run the country in a way that produces honest government, economic progress, and social reform remains to be seen.

The man behind Mexico’s happiness is, by the standards that were presumed to operate before July 2, unsuited for the presidency. His origins, his physical stature, his speaking style, his academic background, his occupation, his party affiliation, even his surname (from a grandfather who emigrated from Ohio to Mexico) don’t fit. But for the first time in Mexico, personal qualities became more important than party affiliation in electing a president. Not coincidentally, for the first time, most of the campaign was fought out on television. The television image that distinguished Fox as a candidate shattered the Mexican mold. Unlike his rivals and all of Mexico’s previous presidents, Fox was not a Moses on the mountain, reading to the unlettered from tablets written by God. Instead, he styled himself as the guy in the next seat on a city bus during rush hour, hollering at the driver to blow his horn. Even his physique qualified him as the people’s champion. At six feet six inches tall, Fox towers over all of his predecessors and 99 percent of the electorate as well. As if to emphasize his physical dominance, Fox took pigsticking, ass-kicking, pointy-toed cowboy boots as a sartorial trademark. The symbolism was self-serving in more ways than one: Fox and his brothers own a footwear manufacturing firm named Botas Fox.

More imposing than his stature and attire were his words. Fox spoke and even wrote what might, with apologies to the American president, be called Harry Truman Spanish, a truly lumpen lexicon previously unheard in civic affairs. In A Los Pinos, his campaign autobiography, Fox asks, “What do I offer the country? Honesty, to work un chingo, and to be poco pendejo.” Though his slangy pledge is hardly translatable to English, it roughly says, “Honesty,


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