Fox Struggles For Relevance As Americas Summit Opens
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
MONTERREY, Mexico, Jan. 11 -- In February 2001, George W. Bush, a just-elected U.S. president with few foreign policy credentials, came to Mexico to rub shoulders with Latin America's hottest political star: President Vicente Fox. Bush hung out in shirtsleeves on Fox's ranch and showed skeptics that he had experience and a respected friend outside the United States.
Three years later the roles have reversed. Bush comes to Mexico this week as the most dominant political leader in the world, while Fox is struggling for relevance halfway through a lackluster presidency. Instead of warming himself on Fox's glow, Bush arrives this time bearing an immigration reform proposal that Fox desperately needs approved to bolster his sagging fortunes.
"Bush needed Fox, but right now Fox is not really relevant," said Jose Luis Garcia Aguilar, head of the international relations department at the University of the Americas in Puebla. "Quite frankly, Fox is not even a leader in Latin America. His stature is very low, and he needs Bush."
Fox, Bush and more than 30 other democratically elected heads of state
from the Americas are scheduled to meet at the Summit of the Americas on
Monday and Tuesday in Monterrey, Mexico. Bush's national security adviser,
Condoleezza Rice, said the leaders planned to discuss ways to improve the
region's economic growth and "the benefit of free and open markets," as
well as poverty, education and
Fox and Bush will meet privately Monday; Rice said their discussions would focus on immigration, border security and economic issues.
Many Latin American leaders attending the summit are deeply disillusioned with Bush and say he has not kept his early promises to focus on hemispheric issues. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in particular have recognized and played on popular discontent with Washington's prescription of free trade and open markets. The leaders are strongly opposed to one of Bush's top priorities in the region, a free-trade zone encompassing all of the Americas.
As Bush and Fox prepare to meet here, the new dynamic between them illustrates how far the Mexican president has fallen from the electrifying days of July 2000, when he made history by dethroning the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had controlled the Mexican presidency for 71 years.
Fox's popularity remains high, and he is widely credited with changing
the character of Mexican government -- making it more transparent, honest,
accountable to its people.
But he has accomplished few of his major goals and has failed to win
passage of fiscal, energy and labor reforms that are widely seen as key
to Mexico's economic
progress. His relations with an opposition-controlled Congress are abysmal, and analysts said he had few prospects for achieving major breakthroughs in the last
three years of his six-year term. Many analysts said he was in danger of becoming little more than a caretaker until presidential elections in 2006. Fox is prohibited
by law from running for reelection.
"He's in limbo; we are looking at the long end of a presidential term,"
said Lorenzo Meyer, a historian and political analyst in Mexico City. "Fox
is a good human
being. I like him as a person. But we are not in a contest for who is the nicest person. We are looking for a strong leader in very complex times."
With rivals perceiving Fox as a lame duck, the Mexican political scene
is already consumed by jockeying for elections. Many commentators are starting
Fox's legacy, wondering whether he will be remembered for anything more than ending the PRI's long reign.
Analysts frequently liken him to former president Ronald Reagan: a personable
man more comfortable with themes than details. But they say that while
surrounded himself with tough-minded aides who got results, Fox has saddled himself with a weak cabinet and advisers lacking political savvy.
"With his charisma, he could inspire Mexicans, but he has not," said
Luis de la Calle, a former top government economic official who is now
in private business.
"Where is the vision for Mexico?"
"My sense is that he's alone, with no idea how to finish, and he's just floating," Garcia Aguilar said. "I think he just wants to go back to his ranch and forget all this."
Fox's luck could improve with a few key breaks, particularly passage
of Bush's immigration plan, which would give temporary legal status to
millions of Mexicans
who hold jobs in the United States. Approval of that plan could give Fox new momentum and something to show for his aggressive efforts to push the United States
But as Bush arrives, there is broad suspicion among Mexicans that the
plan is just a hollow election-year maneuver to woo Hispanic voters. Few
he will fight hard enough in Congress to win passage of the immigration plan, and many say he is interested in little beyond the fight against terrorism and his own
"It's just election-year politics," said PRI legislator Jose Alberto
Aguilar. "For Mexico, the United States is 80 percent important, and for
the United States, Mexico
is 20 percent important."
The high-profile meeting between Fox and Bush brings into focus what
has happened since they took office within weeks of each other three years
ago. While Bush
was struggling to get his footing after a controversial election, Fox blew into Mexican politics like a hurricane. At 6 feet 4 -- almost 6-61/2 in his trademark cowboy
boots -- he spoke in salty, irreverent language that Mexicans had never heard in decades of presidential elections.
He energized young people, women and Mexico's frustrated middle class.
He never stopped talking and promising: a million new jobs, 7 percent annual
growth, a revolution in education, safer streets, less poverty and an honest government that would end the decades of corruption that had held the country back.
But the PRI still controlled Congress, and members of the party swarmed
around Fox like hornets from a kicked nest. The petulant, PRI-dominated
folded its arms across its chest and said no to every major proposal Fox made, delighting in its power to damage him. Despite his gifts as a campaigner, Fox has
been inept at the horse-trading necessary to win results from a hostile Congress.
Fox's failure to deliver has caused deep frustration here. That frustration
was compounded by harsh criticism from his opponents that he had spent
too much time
cozying up to Bush and had little to show for it. In midterm elections last July, which were largely viewed as a referendum on Fox, his National Action Party, or
PAN, was crushed by the PRI and lost a quarter of its seats in the lower house of Congress.
In response, Fox tried to forge an alliance with a wing of the PRI controlled
by Elba Esther Gordillo, the powerful boss of Mexico's teachers union.
But last month
when Gordillo sided with Fox on a critical tax-reform proposal, she was immediately dumped as the PRI's legislative leader and Fox's reform proposal died.
Fox has gotten results when he hasn't needed congressional approval.
He is credited with reducing extreme poverty by expanding a program regarded
as among the
best in the world. He has kept interest rates and inflation low and avoided the dramatic swings and crashes that have bedeviled Mexico every few years.
Few disagree with Fox's assessment that the country is better off today
than it would have been if the PRI candidate had been elected in 2000.
And many said it
would have been improbable for Fox to achieve more, given the upheavals of the historic transition underway in Mexican politics.
"My view is that Fox has probably done about as well as could have been
expected, given the political situation he inherited," said Jeffrey Davidow,
who was U.S.
ambassador to Mexico from 1997 to 2002 and is now president of the Institute of the Americas, a nonprofit group in San Diego.
Many of Fox's problems were caused by events beyond his control, including
the downturn in the U.S. economy, the rise of China as an economic competitor
the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, which turned Bush's focus away from Mexico and toward Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fox was then forced into the awkward position of opposing Bush's request
for Mexico to use its U.N. Security Council vote to back the use of force
Mexican public opinion was overwhelming against war in Iraq and Fox would have lost his major asset -- his personal popularity -- by voting with Bush.
"The relationship between Bush and Fox began on an incredibly euphoric
and high note, but a lot of water has gone under the bridge," Davidow said.
"I do think,
however, there is a new desire in Washington to get the relationship back on an even keel."