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.
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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, to work a shitload, and not to be as stupid as a pubic hair.”
Fox’s dips into gutter speech, while assuredly a part of the man, were not lapses. In his speeches and writings he regularly uses such slangy expressions as bajarse los chones (drop one’s johns) and dar el pitazo (blow the whistle); he inveighs against cochupos (betrayals, as in stealing votes), coyones (yellowbellies) and mamilas (tit-sucking moochers); he vows he will ponerse bronco (get Western, or physically aggressive). Profanity fits into a strategy to attract the attention of smog-eyed and sweaty José Six-Pack, a strategy that had carried Fox to the governorship of Guanajuato in 1995. Publicly assailed for salty language in those days, he once opened an address by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, cover the ears of any children who may be in the room. The governor of Guanajuato is about to speak.”
The Mexican masses noted Fox’s pigstickers and rodeo-style belt buckles when they saw him on TV, and they chuckled when they heard him give voice to words from their own blue vernacular. The few of them who read newspapers or tuned in to pundits found nothing in the rest of him but confirmation of what those symbols plainly said: that Vicente Fox would be a president who would speak from the heart of the common man. Against this message, the PRI was nearly powerless.
Fox also represented a break from Mexico’s recent past in ways that were important to history buffs and news junkies. For thirty years Mexico’s presidents, whatever regional roots they may have claimed on the hustings, have really been chilangos, or denizens of the capital. Other Mexicans regard chilangos pretty much as Texans regard Manhattanites—as (need it be said?) conceited, pushy, and out of touch with the lives of people beyond the great metropolis. But Fox is an authentic son of central Mexico’s Guanajuato—”in the provinces,” as chilangos say—a place known mainly for producing grimy goods: vegetables, leather, and mojados, or illegal immigrants to the U.S.
Since the birth of the PRI, in 1929, Mexican presidents have been generals or lawyers or economists. The last three have been high-powered intellectuals, with graduate degrees from Harvard or Yale. But Fox is merely a businessman, the product of a Jesuit secondary school in Guanajuato and of the capital’s Jesuit redoubt, Universidad Iberoamericana. Much in the style of George W. Bush, Fox confessed to having been a lackadaisical student who even tried to cheat on exams.
“I distinguished myself,” he says in his autobiography, “only because I was the only one who wore denims, while the great majority wore suits. . . . I sat in the back of the classroom with my body slouched back and my feet stretched out.”
Nor did he graduate until 1999, thus earning, however belatedly, the title licenciado (one with a college degree) that Zedillo graciously bestowed on him. Instead, in 1964, during what would have been his final semester, Fox quit school to become a route salesman on an executive track with Coca-Cola, Mexico’s most maligned multinational corporation as the symbol of yanqui culture. (Leftists still refer to the company’s product as aguas negras del imperialismo, the sewer waters of imperialism.) During fifteen years with the company, he rose to become its marketing director and, from 1975 to 1979, its Mexican CEO. After scaling Coke’s Mexican pyramid, Fox says, he was offered a posting in Miami as its Latin American honcho. Deciding that he could not distance himself from México lindo, he instead resigned and went back to the Guanajuato family farm.“WHAT VICENTE FOX REPRESENTS remains a mystery,” writes Alma Guillermoprieto of the New Yorker, perhaps Mexico’s sharpest observer in the American press. “[H]e is capable of offering contradictory views on a given subject in the course of a single interview.” The truth is worse than that: Fox offers contradictory views in the course of single sentences, as in, “Today we depend too much on our commerce with the United States, which isn’t bad.”One might presume that Fox represents his party’s position on the political spectrum, which, for the PAN, has always been the right, or more precisely, center-right. But the traditional left-right division of politics in Mexico is complicated by issues involving the Catholic church, nationalism, and the country’s turbulent recent history. The only way to place Fox in context is to juxtapose the political evolution of his country with his own development as a politician.
When the Coca-Cola executive withdrew to cattle, cauliflower, and broccoli, Mexico was at the tail end of its “revolutionary nationalist” epoch. The PRI, which had come to power after a treaty among the leaders who had survived the 1910 revolution, had, during the post-war years, worked what economists and historians had called “the Mexican miracle.” Pursuing a policy of national economic self-sufficiency, its governments had owned and managed the grandest of enterprises—oil, electricity, airlines, railroads, telephones, mining, and steel—and through its holdings and high tariffs, had subsidized the development of Mexican-owned industries and commerce. It also limited foreigners to minority ownership in Mexican firms. Calling itself “the regent of the economy,” the PRI-government had produced from 1943 to 1973 growth rates of 5 to 8 percent. The wealth that it created was shared with the economy’s more humble participants through subsidies for food, building supplies, education, and medical care. Each sexenio, or six-year presidential term, brought modest increases in the standard of living of Mexico’s urban middle class.
But corruption, vanity, mismanagement, and plain old ignorance were rife, and when oil—on which Mexico, a producing country, had bet its future—began to get cheaper by the day, the revolutionary nationalist game was up. On Friday 13 in August 1982, Mexico’s finance minister announced that the country could no longer make payments on its dollar debts. A series of conferences with lenders in New York and Washington ensued, followed by devaluations, tariff-reduction agreements, and as the decade wore on, the wholesale privatization of state-owned industries.
What Mexicans called la crisis had begun. Within a decade, the number of government-owned companies was pared from 1,155 to 209. The number of employees at Pemex, the state oil monopoly, was cut from 212,000 to 150,000. Real wages declined by about 50 percent. The political consequence was the vitiation of the PRI’s benign and paternal image. Its staunchest supporters had always been unionized workers in state-owned firms, and many of them were being laid off by closures and privatizations.
One who saw the debacle coming was Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a former governor of Michoacán, a onetime chieftain of the PRI, and also the son of its most beloved and most populist president. In 1987 Cárdenas denounced the party’s abandonment of revolutionary nationalism and struck out on his own. His 1988 bid for the presidency—it is now almost universally conceded—was a success. But PRIista election officials claimed that “atmospheric conditions” had produced a “failure of the computer system” and shut down the vote count. Three days later they handed the election to Carlos Salinas de Gortari. (Cárdenas remains the symbol of Mexico’s long-suffering left opposition, the Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or PRD. Now the head of the Federal District—the equivalent of mayor of Mexico City—he ran for president again last July but finished behind not only Fox but also Labastida of the PRI. He was one of the few discordant voices after Fox’s victory, refusing to telephone congratulations to the new president “because what is happening is a disgrace for this country.”)
Shelving the PRI’s revolutionary and nationalist rhetoric, Salinas welcomed foreign bankers and foreign investors to Mexico; their maquiladoras, he said, would give Mexico an Asian tiger’s stripes. He dismantled Mexico’s ancient ejido, or collective farm structure, opening family farms to international competition. His predecessor, Miguel de la Madrid, had silently pursued much the same course, but Salinas became the first Mexican leader to proclaim openly what most of Latin America calls neoliberalism.
“Neoliberal” is not a common term in American political speech, and it is confusing to us because the “liberals” who are its referents were the advocates of laissez-faire in the late nineteenth century, not the big-government liberals of the New Deal and their progeny. Sometimes it is called Thatcherism or Reaganism, and it stands for a litany of buzzwords: free trade, privatization, deregulation, globalization, the market, hard money, austerity programs.
As the PRI was turning rightward to neoliberalism, Fox was drafted into the PAN in 1987 by a mentor, Manuel “Maquío” Clouthier, an agribusinessman who was recruiting men of his kind for congressional races to support his own candidacy for the presidential seat. The late Clouthier, like most of the businessmen who came into the PAN after la crisis began, was an enthusiastic neoliberal: During his 1988 campaign against the PRI’s Salinas, he famously boasted, “Salinas lifted his economic program from me.” The PAN and the PRI didn’t differ much on economic issues. Where the parties parted ways was that the PAN wanted clean elections and an unbribed administration, and it wanted the church to be freed from the strictures that Mexico has imposed upon it since the days of Benito Juárez.
Fox in his youth was apparently enamored of the Cristeros, those who supported the church in the virtual civil war that raged from 1926 to 1929 between forces led by the church and those led by the state. Guanajuato had been one of the key states in the Cristero Revolt. Today Fox collects books about the Cristeros, and on the campaign trail he sometimes leads his followers in a Cristero war cry: “If I advance, follow me! If I stop, push me! If I retreat, kill me!” He also promised to lift Mexico’s legal ban on church ownership of radio and television stations.
Even some of Fox’s own supporters were afraid that he would go too far in his support of the church, perhaps calling for an end to abortion in cases of rape and incest. But Fox’s reverence for the Cristeros was no more potent than the respect some white Southerners still have for Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson: They identify with the tradition and culture of the South, but only as long as it is benign. Fox is divorced, in violation of church doctrine, and late this summer, when Guanajuato’s PANista legislature passed a measure forbidding abortion even in cases of rape, Fox maneuvered his successor as governor into vetoing it, backing away from a campaign pledge to defend “the right to life from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death.”
From Clouthier and the PAN, Fox learned the neoliberal routine, such as deference but not obedience to the bishops and the courage to take a stand against PRIista regimes. In 1988 the PAN elected him to the Chamber of Deputies, Mexico’s congressional body, where his apprenticeship in national politics began. Before his three-year term was over, he established himself as a power within the PAN—and as a rebel as well.
Meanwhile, neoliberalism was becoming disreputable almost as fast as it was being implemented. During the Salinas sexenio, Mexico’s economy headed back toward high-rates growth, but its distribution of wealth was skewed even more, in part because Salinas eliminated food and housing subsidies. “Economic differences grew more profound,” Fox has written, “and the businessmen who were [Salinas’] friends were made immensely rich, at the same time that 40 million Mexicans saw their status in life plummet.”
Much of the apparent economic improvement that Salinas wrought was owed to an overvalued peso. He left his successor, neoliberal economist Zedillo, the thankless chore of devaluation. The result was that 1995 was the blackest year for the Mexican economy since the Great Depression. Some 17,000 Mexican companies collapsed under the twin burdens of debt and competition brought on by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and Mexican agricultural production fell 50 percent.
The country’s pride of sovereignty suffered too. “The debt crisis,” says Canadian political scientist James Rochlin, “and the imposition of the neoliberal model that followed essentially took economic and political power out of the hands of Mexicans. It implied the evaporation of revolutionary nationalism, which, in many ways, had served as the ideological magnet of national identity.” Though Zedillo’s administration in time revived macroeconomic performance—in August Mexico paid off its debt to the International Monetary Fund, for example—labor statisticians calculate that purchasing power for working-class Mexicans declined by nearly 75 percent during the Salinas-Zedillo decade, despite a 14 percent increase in productivity. By the time Vicente Fox had completed his Congressional term, la crisis had become a seemingly permanent feature of the economy.
During the political crisis of 1994, a circle of Mexico City intellectuals held about a dozen salons in the prosperous suburb of San Angel, exploring new approaches to politics. The San Angel Group, as the strange-bedfellows salon came to be known, was convened by Jorge Castañeda, a leftish professor and journalist and the son of a former Mexican secretary of foreign relations. His circle included novelist Carlos Fuentes and others who, like him, were newly disillusioned with Cárdenas and the PRD, but it also drew upstarts from the PRI and the PAN. Fox took a seat in the circle. He not only attended the meetings of the San Angel Group but also several international gatherings of Latin American regional leaders, called by Castañeda and Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a Brazilian law professor at Harvard. The Unger meetings culminated in a long statement called “A Latin American Alternative,” whose gist was the criticism that neoliberals had elevated the market from an instrument to “the status of a religion.” Fox signed the manifesto despite disapproval from his sponsors in the PAN.
The influence of Unger and the San Angel Group on Fox’s thinking is evident in a 1995 book that Castañeda wrote summarizing the San Angel experience. The Mexican Shock calls for a “transition regime,” with a plural, or multiparty cabinet, aimed at reseeding elective and appointive offices with personnel from outside the PRI. It prescribes a remedy for neoliberalism’s effects but does not call for the strategy’s repudiation. Castañeda’s blueprint also notes, “The transition government would also have to take a firmer stance with the United States regarding migration.”
Lines from The Mexican Shock are now standard speech fare for Fox. “I will head a plural government of transition,” he pledged during the campaign. “Neoliberalism is roundly failing in all of Latin America,” he also declared, as if the Unger meetings were still in session. “It is not possible to solve the migration problem,” he warned Americans during an August trip to New York, Washington, and Dallas, “if we don’t solve the gap where a worker in Mexico earns $5 a day and a worker in the United States makes $60 a day.”
Fox’s oblique criticisms of the free market sometimes jar the right-of-center supporters of the PAN. His responses to such criticism disquiet them even more. “The one who governs is Vicente Fox, not the PAN! The one who screws up or makes mistakes is Vicente Fox, not the PAN!” he declared shortly after his July 2 win. His record is no great comfort to them either: As a federal deputy, Fox voted the party line only half of the time. But that is because he wants to wear a populist instead of a plutocratic face.
Last summer, during a tour of South America, the president-elect tried to explain his ideology: “If the left is for distributing wealth and attending to poverty, marginalization, and human development, and if the right is for generating wealth, I define myself as the sum of the two.” It was a comment worthy of Luis Echeverría, Mexico’s president from 1970 to 1976, who once blurted, “My government is neither capitalist nor socialist but just the opposite.” Unlike Echeverría, Fox did the math behind his “sum.” “If zero is the extreme left and ten is the extreme right,” he continued, “I would be a four and a half, which is the center-left.” Principled PANistas flinched and gasped, but Fox’s closest allies in the party were unfazed. The president-elect may have spoken unorthodoxy, they reasoned, but on matters of economic principle, he wasn’t retreating from the neoliberal point of view. Vicente Fox wants to lower tariffs, not raise them. He hasn’t, and won’t, declare any moratoriums on debt. Far from assailing bankers and investors in the United States, he has scolded the smart alecks who hold norteamericanos in doubt. “Look, nobody becomes president of Mexico without the goodwill and support of the president of the United States,” he told reporters in August. “That is just the way it is.”
Where Fox does depart from neoliberalism is on free trade. He has called for the adjustment of trade agreements, including NAFTA. “If we keep on going as we are now,” he has written, “the destiny of Mexico in the NAFTA treaty will be to live with the a permanent depression of salaries so that we can export or attract investments.” But he’s also promised to restructure Mexican regulations “to make foreign commerce the motor of the economy.” He has pledged to open to foreign investment the two biggest industries that remain in the government’s hands, oil and electricity.
Under the influence of the San Angel Group, perhaps, he has vowed to revive parts of the government’s withered social budget, but he is considering raising funds for these measures by applying Mexico’s 15 percent sales tax to food and pharmacy items, not by tariffs or taxes on luxury goods—a regressive measure if there ever was one. And however much he may jawbone or sweet-talk the United States about raising maquiladora wages, he hasn’t threatened to invoke a remedy within his reach: increasing the Mexican minimum wage, which neoliberals would find to be an unwarranted government interference in the market.
Despite his apprenticeships on the left and the right, and the winning formula that he concocted from mixing the two, ideology remains a sideline with Fox. Theoretical preoccupations are not in his nature. He has the small-businessman’s view that politics and ideology are at best necessary evils of democracy—that a non-ideological or pragmatic solution exists for everything. Fox “thinks that what he provides is, more than anything, administrative skills,” says Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a member of the San Angel Group who is now a Fox aide. In choosing his cabinet, Fox has called upon the Korn/Ferry International head-hunting firm of Los Angeles, Aguilar notes, “as if he was recruiting a CEO of Ford.” During Fox’s visits with world leaders, Aguilar reports, “the first thing he asks is, ‘How do you handle taxes?’ He very seldom asks about politics.”
Carlos Salinas, self-exiled in Ireland, is the most hated man in Mexico today, a veritable candidate for lynching. He and all of his allies are reviled not because he was regarded as a saint by the gringos or because he stole an election but because he and his henchmen got rich while Mexico’s masses grew poorer. Fox understands that the first thing he has to do is promise to improve the citizenry’s standard of living.
Dallas public relations consultant Rob Allyn, whose firm counts among its clients Phil Gramm, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Ron Kirk, counseled Fox during the campaign and came away calling him “the most market-savvy candidate I ever met in my life.” Fox’s genius lay in repackaging an unpopular economic program for an audience that was cynical, saturated, and confused. He concocted a light, clean, effervescent, and relatively inexpensive candidacy, and then sold it on television, just as he once had sold Coke. Pepsi was outselling Coke by two to one when he came into the company; by the time he left, the proportion was just the reverse. Now he will attempt to work the same miracle with neoliberal programs.
Two dangers face Vicente Fox as he assumes the presidency, either of which could deliver Mexico to further decline and even to chaos. The first is the specter of assassination, a possibility so real that it’s hardly speakable in Mexico today. Mexico’s constitution provides for no vice president. If Fox were felled, his immediate successor would be chosen by a committee of the badly divided Mexican Congress—and that’s the second danger to his regime. All Mexican presidents since 1929 have essentially ruled by decree: They proposed laws to Congress, which almost always passed them. When a law was challenged, Mexican courts rubber-stamped presidencialismo in much the same way. Mexican presidents had almost no opposition worthy of the name. But that will not be true for Fox. Even now, PRIistas hold more gubernatorial offices than any other party, and the party showed new life in September’s municipal elections in Veracruz state, winning back the local dominance that it had lost to the PRD. Nor does Fox have a congressional majority; instead, he will have to practice coalition politics. He won the presidency by a plurality, with 43 percent of the vote. Carryover seats left the biggest bloc of votes in Congress in the hands of the PRI—59 of 128 Senate seats, 211 of 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. To get his programs passed, Fox will have to play a game of bipartisan, maybe even multipartisan, politics, with a PRD that is hostile to his program and a PRI whose stance is, at this point, simply unpredictable. Fox himself has forecast, “We will pass from exacerbated presidentialism to parliamentarianism.” Democracy can be very messy.
To expect that the PRI will simply disappear as a force in Mexican politics is to overlook its historic role. “The PRI, for all its faults,” freelance journalist Sam Quiñones has noted in the Houston Chronicle, “was not created out of whole cloth and imposed upon Mexico. Rather, it grew naturally from Mexican culture and society. The PRI is the modern expression of the ossified, top-down, hierarchical tradition left the country by the Aztecs, the Spanish, the Roman Catholic Church, and the dictator, Porfirio Díaz.” It is, in other words, damned near a part of the Mexican national character, something like American Puritanism. It won’t quietly fade away.
Shortly after his election, the guanajuatense, as Fox is often called in the Mexican press, met with Ernesto Zedillo to work out an amicable transfer of power, and thus far both parties have stuck to its script. Leaders of the two parties jointly drafted a federal budget proposal for 2001 and are jointly negotiating government reforms. In a way, the PRI-PAN alliance is nothing new. Three years ago the PRI lost its traditional majority in the Congress, yet Zedillo was able to pass his economic initiatives, thanks to the PAN. Zedillo has repaid the favor in part by ordering the Mexican treasury to place 15 executives and 170 lesser-ranked employees of the Fox transition team on the federal payroll. Nor are negotiations with the PRI new to Fox, who faced a PRIista majority in the Guanajuato legislature. But to know the PRI isn’t necessarily to love it. The party has always been treacherous, inside and out, as Fox knows. “The struggle inside of the PRI is not between good guys and bad guys but between bad guys and bad guys, and we cannot trust any of them,” he said before the presidential vote.
Nobody is openly saying so, but everybody in Mexico knows what the PRI is getting in exchange for its apparent hospitality: amnesties, indulgences, and pardons. If Fox were to systematically prosecute predecessor administrations for malfeasance, Mexico’s governments would grind to a halt. But the president-elect has already promised that he “will not dedicate time to pursuing the past with nostalgia.”
This pledge, however, is not binding on PRD firebrands in Congress, who will doubtless demand a pound of flesh from PRIista embezzlers and cops who engaged in torture. Fox may sidestep their zeal by creating a Transparency Commission, modeled on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its goal would be to expose wrongdoers, not prosecute them, and like most things in Mexico, the panel will probably operate on a mañana timetable. Fox has pledged to reform and “reinvent” government, the employer of 3.5 million Mexicans, including a lot of PRIista deadwood. But he has also promised bureaucrats that “nobody is going to be left without a job.”
Because a comprehensive break with Mexico’s PRIista past would be costly in a dozen ways, Mexico is not going to change as quickly as its radicals would like—or as quickly as Americans hope. Nor has Mexico been greatly transformed in the places where PANista rule has been established for years. Monterrey, for example, elected its third PANista mayor this summer, but cops and municipal officials are still on the take. Their mien may be more humble, but they have not discounted bribes: $2 to $5 is still the going rate for a traffic ticket, $500 to $2,000 for the disposition of an ordinary court case. What is gone is the arrogance with which bribes are demanded and the fear with which they are paid.
Two big issues that Fox will face after taking office are the strength of the peso and immigration to the United States. There is talk that the peso is overvalued again, and speculation centers on a shift from today’s rates of about 9.5 pesos to the dollar to a rate more like 10.5 or 11, if it can be stopped there. PRIista officials have been unwilling to shoulder the responsibility because, as former president José López Portillo once said, “The president who devalues [the peso] is himself devalued.” If Zedillo can’t be persuaded to act before leaving office, Fox could find himself wearing the shoes that pinched Zedillo in 1995. Regarding immigration, Fox hopes to persuade the U.S. Congress to rework immigration laws to create, in effect, an industrial bracero program by granting six-month contract visas to Mexican workers and returning them home when their contracts expire. Under current practice, Mexico pays for the birth, rearing, and training of workers, but if they move north of the Rio Grande and wire money home, a portion of each paycheck is lost to Western Union. Fox’s objective is to make sure their earnings are channeled to Mexico.
The immediate question for Vicente Fox and the PAN is what will happen on December 1. Some members of Fox’s team fear that they will find their offices and agencies without archives, assets, or funds. As fragile as the alliance between the PAN and the PRI is, however, the only thing worse is no alliance. The danger is that the PRI could split into warring nationalist and neoliber factions. Anti-neoliberal stirrings in the PRI became apparent on September 1, when Zedillo delivered his final Informe, or State of the Union speech. Only congressmen from the PAN applauded the president. His PRIista allies sat with arms folded and mouths shut.
Fox and other PANistas have no choice but to wish their old rival a long life, because if the coalition fails, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and the PRD will become the most likely beneficiaries of Vicente Fox’s triumph. If the PRI cannot hold fast to policies and outlooks that are compatible with Fox’s—if it steps backward in time and advocacy to re-embrace revolutionary nationalism, or if it splinters into warring factions whose only unifying strategy is to stand in the president’s way—the election of Fox could become a meaningless event. Even under the leadership of a politician almost all Mexicans adore, Mexico is still far from redemption.