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A New Mexico--or still the old? When Vicente Fox won the Mexican presidency, he captivated the nation with his promises of sweeping change. Two years later, the reality of reform has been slow and less inspiring than many hoped. (International).

Sonia Weiss Pick remembers the moment she figured out that Mexico's democracy was a sham.

She was 10, and a candidate for President was speaking on the radio. "Listen," her mother said, "that's the person who's going to be your next President."

The election was still months away, her mother hadn't seen any opinion polls, and she certainly wasn't psychic. "I realized that this system wasn't really democratic," says Sonia, now an 18-year-old Mexico City high school senior. "It was just a facade."

For 71 years, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI, always won. And although Sonia didn't know it at the time, the PRI often resorted to fraud, repression, and bribery just to make sure.

So, like most Mexicans, she was stunned when Vicente Fox, a candidate of the conservative National Action Party, won the presidency in July 2000, breaking the PRI's stranglehold on power. "I was amazed," she says. "Mexico's dictatorship was finally broken."

Since then, however, the wave of optimism that accompanied Fox's election has receded. His promises to bolster the economy, stamp out crime and corruption, and improve education have gone nowhere. The economy has soured, throwing hundreds of thousands of Mexicans out of work; crime, rather than falling, has increased. Fox's approval rating, which had soared above 80 percent a year ago, has plunged as low as 48 percent. Today, many Mexicans wonder whether Fox, like democracy itself, really holds the answers to their problems.

"We are in the process of learning how to do things in a democratic system," says Reynaldo Ortega Ortiz, a historian at the Colegio de Mexico, in Mexico City. "The problem is that while we are learning, the costs to society are high."

U.S. FEELS THE EFFECTS

Mexicans aren't the only ones concerned about whether Fox succeeds. Increasingly, what happens in Mexico affects the United States, and vice versa. Mexico is America's second-largest trading partner. Mexico buys 73 percent of its imports from the U.S., and sells the U.S. a whopping 89 percent of its exports. (Check your jeans label.) Moreover, Mexico's economic problems ripple through American cities: Some 300,000 Mexicans cross the border every year in search of work, joining the 9 million Mexicans already living in the U.S. Mexican crime also takes a toll in the U.S.: An estimated two-thirds of the cocaine in the U.S. comes through Mexico, as do major shipments of ecstasy and heroin.

Fox's campaign promise of "a new Mexico" sparked widespread hope on both sides of the border. Fox even looked different from the old Mexico. Unlike the PRI politicians, who wore dark suits and spoke formally, Fox, a former rancher and Coca-Cola executive, sported blue jeans and cowboy boots, and peppered his speech with street slang. The mustached 6-foot-5 President became a media celebrity and was even named People magazine's sexiest world leader.

FOX'S MAGIC FADES

But as Fox's proposals, one by one, bit the dust, the sheen has worn off. Fox had promised a crackdown on human-rights abuses by the military and the police. But in several prominent cases Fox failed to act, or did so only when forced to by a court or international pressure.

Fox's promise to wipe out corruption has also gone unfulfilled. Corruption is so deeply ingrained in Mexican life that students sometimes bribe their teachers for better grades. (According to a report from one Mexico City high school, an A costs $10, an A-plus $20.) Bribery ranges from the everyday-$20 paid to a police officer to dodge a traffic fine--to the monumental: extensive payoffs to politicians to write favorable laws. Fox made news on this front last January when he announced that his government was investigating allegations that the PRI stole $120 million from the government-owned oil company to bankroll its 2000 presidential campaign. So far, however, no one has been charged in the case. Nor has Fox launched any comprehensive investigations into other known abuses.

When it came to getting his ideas passed into law, Fox has seemed politically clueless. In the days of one-party rule, Mexico's Congress merely rubber-stamped whatever the President proposed. But today, with the PRI still holding a majority, Congress is an adversary. Repeatedly, Fox has sent bills to Congress only to see them shot down or mutilated, because he had failed to lay the political groundwork--build coalitions, negotiate with the opposition, and sell his ideas.

"The problem was that he was much more concerned about having a good image than having a good policy," Ortega says.

But as a result of policy failures, his image took a beating. According to a popular joke, Fox went to church and asked God to pardon him for whatever bad deeds he may have done. "What is there to forgive?" God replied. "There weren't any deeds."

RECESSION WREAKS HAVOC

In fairness, not all of Fox's wounds have been self-inflicted. Fox had promised to create millions of new jobs and increase economic growth by 7 percent a year. But the recession that hit the U.S. last year caused American companies to lay off about 400,000 Mexican employees from factories along the border. Instead of gaining jobs during Fox's presidency, Mexico has lost more than half a million so far.

Fox's plan to improve conditions for Mexican workers in the U.S., who send money home and account for a major portion of Mexico's income, had bright prospects. He lobbied the U.S. to adopt a guest-worker program, which would allow Mexican workers to travel freely to the U.S., and to give legal status to some 4 million Mexicans now living in the U.S. illegally. He was counting on support from President George W. Bush, an old friend who had made improved relations with Mexico a top priority. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 slammed the brakes on any talk of immigration reform, convincing Americans of the need to tighten, not loosen, U.S. borders.

Fox has asked the Mexican people for patience, reminding them that "there are no miracle Presidents." He blames his country's economic plight on issues beyond his control, and even admits to possibly overselling himself. "There is no doubt, I recognize, that we are generating many expectations, perhaps too many," he says.

With a six-year term, Fox still has time to meet these expectations. In June, he signed Mexico's first freedom of information law, which gives citizens the right to see public records, a major step toward government accountability. And in the U.S., officials say Congress may reconsider immigration reform as early as November.

But even if Fox doesn't achieve his goals, his election has already made history. "One thing that's changed is the sense of inevitability of the PRI," says Eric Olson, a Mexico expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "There was a sense that the sky would fall if the PRI didn't win. That myth has been broken, so people can now see that any party could be in power."

For young Mexicans like Sonia, who will vote for the first time this year, that makes all the difference. "Mexico has become more democratic," she says. "And that's going to open doors for the people of my generation. It has given the vote a certain power, and the people a certain confidence. Unlike my mother, I don't have to live with a system where the candidate they pick is automatically going to be the next President. I know there's absolutely going to be an option in the future. I don't know how good, but I know there's going to be one."

Mexicans Still Await President Fox's Promised Reforms and Economic Rejuvenation

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

* What did you know about Mexico before reading this article?

* What did you learn from reading this article that most surprised you?

* Would you place the primary blame for Mexico's economic and social problems on President Vicente Fox?

* What would you tell Sonia Weiss Pick about democracy in America?

TEACHING OBJECTIVES

To help students understand some of the major social and economic problems facing Mexico.

CLASSROOM STRATEGIES

CRITICAL THINKING: Ask students to focus for a moment on the "wave of optimism" that accompanied Fox's campaign for Mexico's presidency. Note also that he admits that "we are generating many expectations, perhaps too many."

Ask students to contrast the skills needed to campaign for elected office with the skills needed to carry out the duties of office. What contributions do public speaking and physical presence make to the campaign? (Note Fox's picture on page 18 and the attention he received from People magazine.)

Contrast this with the political ineptness Fox has shown in the way he submits bills to Mexico's Congress. Direct attention to the section on page 20 that discusses coalition building, negotiating with the opposition, and selling ideas to the public. Explain that political success demands compromise and negotiation with one's political opponents.

Next, give students a point of comparison. Ask: Is President Fox unique in his inability to get his policies enacted? Tell students that President Bush routinely complains that the Democratically controlled U.S. Senate has put a hold on many of his policy initiatives. (Of course, Democrats would say this is simply democracy in action.)

Finally, consider corruption. Have students write "Corruption" at the top of a sheet of paper. Draw a line down the middle of the paper. On the left, write a few campaign promises about ending corruption that a candidate might make. On the right, identify two or more strategies for ending corruption (such as jailing those convicted of corruption). Ask: What does the article reveal about the pervasive nature of corruption in Mexico? How likely is it that a President could wipe out corruption without giving people something of value--higher salaries for police and teachers, for example--that would reduce their need to engage in corruption?
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Article Details
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Author:Buchsbaum, Herbert
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Sep 27, 2002
Words:1657
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