The Dallas Morning News
Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Fox touts economic gains after leadership criticism

Greeted by angry protesters, president says jobs, wages better

By RICARDO SANDOVAL / The Dallas Morning News

MEXICO CITY– Amid criticism that Mexico is no better off after four years of his leadership, President Vicente Fox on Wednesday rattled off statistics that he said prove the country's newfound democracy has led to economic gains.

Thousands of angry Mexicans protesting everything from government salaries to farm supports greeted Mr. Fox on Wednesday as he made his way into San Lazaro, the headquarters of Mexico's Congress, to deliver his fourth state of the union address.

For months, marches through the Mexican capital have underscored the public's dissatisfaction with Mr. Fox's record on fighting crime, creating jobs and bolstering wages.

But Mr. Fox said the democratic process has advanced under his watch and that has led to improved health and more jobs for Mexicans, in a safer environment.

"Political change gave birth to democracy and our energies have been aimed at that most essential of things: freedom," Mr. Fox told a packed auditorium of federal deputies, senators and cabinet members. "We Mexicans are proving that freedom and democracy mutually strengthen and enrich each other."

Mr. Fox said that many of his proposed reforms are now in Congress' hands, and he promised to keep addressing energy and tax-system overhauls.

He focused attention on his fight against crime – an effort that in 2004 has put more than 5,000 alleged drug traffickers in jail, broken up 51 gangs of kidnappers, and freed 458 kidnap victims.

Mr. Fox also played up Mexico's modest economic turnaround in 2004, after three years of recession. He pointed to:

•The elimination of 165,000 federal jobs and a federal spending cut of more than $5 billion.

•The estimated creation of 281,000 new jobs in the first seven months of this year.

•Expanded benefits for retirees, students and farmers.

•More federally subsidized housing.

•Greater exploration by Petróleos Mexicanos, the national oil company, which this week said it is on the verge of finding new pools that may someday increase Mexican production to around 7 million barrels a day.

But that last point was evidence to some analysts that Mr. Fox's team tends to jump the gun on suspected good news.

"Pemex has seismic studies that show that there could be oil-bearing structures," said David Shields, a Mexico-based oil industry analyst. "That does not mean they have proven that there is oil there."

A growing chorus also disagrees with Mr. Fox over just how much better off Mexico is since he took the nation's helm.

"I was probably one of the most optimistic people around at [Mr. Fox's] midway point, but today I'm very pessimistic," said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a political scientist and professor at Mexico's Autonomous Technical Institute. "Frankly, the nation is in a deteriorated condition. .... The president's many promises at the start of his term are unkept."

Analysts noted that this was likely Mr. Fox's last substantive state of the union address. Within four months, the political season starts. And a number of candidates are lining up for the presidential race – led by Mexico City mayor Andres Manujel López Obrador, who for a year has consistently led in nationwide popularity polls despite a series of corruption scandals in Mexico City.

The net impact of all this early presidential posturing, Mr. Fernandez de Castro said, is a hesitancy by opposition parties – which control Congress – to side with Mr. Fox as he tries to win reforms.

Mr. Fox devoted many passages in his address to Mexico's emerging democracy, which got a boost from his victory in 2000 – a change that ended seven decades of single-party rule. And the beleaguered president called on his political opponents to negotiate with his administration for economic, energy and tax reforms.

"Let us move from debate to results," he said. "Society demands agreements. Let us hear its voice."