The Miami Herald
December 2, 2001

Fox's first year is marred by a political identity crisis

 MEXICO CITY -- A joke spread by critics of President Vicente Fox says the Mexican leader went to church on the first anniversary of his inauguration this weekend and asked God to pardon him for whatever bad deeds he may have done. The Lord, surprised, responded: ``What is there to forgive? There weren't any deeds!''

 It's a good joke, perhaps, but somewhat unfair. A year after taking office as the first opposition leader to win Mexico's presidency in more than 70 years, Fox has clearly not met the expectations he generated with his overblown campaign promises, but he hasn't been a total failure either.

 While he is the target of harsh criticism in the media, public opinion polls show that 60 percent of Mexicans still consider his administration to be good or very good. His approval rating has dropped from 71 percent in March, but it would be the envy of many of his Latin American counterparts.

 Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, who took office in July, has seen his ratings plummet to 32 percent during the past four months. Colombian President Andrés
 Pastrana is at 39 percent, and Argentine leader Fernando de La Rúa at 9 percent.


 Compared with former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo's first year in power in 1995, Fox's start has been relatively smooth. Zedillo presided over an unprecedented collapse in the Mexican economy and had to fire nearly half a dozen Cabinet members amid a series of economic and political scandals that year.

 Yet when I arrived in Mexico last week, I was surprised by the near-unanimous criticism of Fox in the media. Critics describe Fox as a loudmouth who promised annual economic growth rates of 7 percent, a reduction of Mexico's rampant street crime, an immediate solution of the Chiapas guerrilla conflict and a major offensive against corruption, yet has accomplished little -- if anything -- on any of these fronts.

 To be fair, there is little Fox could have done about the issues that concern Mexicans the most, the economy and street crime.

 Mexico's economy has been badly hit by the U.S. recession because Mexico depends on the United States for nearly 90 percent of its trade, and 80 percent of its foreign tourism.

 And the fight against street crime in Mexico City, the country's biggest city, is largely in the hands of Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist opposition leader who is one of Fox's most rabid critics.

 Furthermore, despite a weak reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States that will surely cost his government support in the U.S. Congress, Fox has scored
 significant successes in foreign policy.

 Departing from Mexico's traditionally inward-looking, sovereignty-obsessed diplomacy, he has inserted his country in a big way into the world arena, winning a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council and becoming a key voice in Latin American affairs.

 So what is Fox's problem? Judging from separate interviews with four of his closest aides and leading opposition leaders last week, Fox's main problem is political
 wavering. A year after taking office with a mandate for change, his government doesn't have a political personality.

 He is a president without a legislative majority, who apparently can't decide whether to make a clean break with the past, at the risk antagonizing opposition legislators, or to use his charisma to rally public opinion in order to press Congress to follow his policies.

 There have been two factions in Fox's Cabinet. His government minister Santiago Creel, a smooth-talking consensus builder, seems to have persuaded Fox not to
 antagonize the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, that was in power until last year. Creel hopes to win enough PRI votes to pass a crucial fiscal reform, which Fox deems essential to generate massive resources for Mexico's poor.

 On the other hand, Fox's foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda, and national security advisor Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, two brilliant former leftist intellectuals, have argued in closed-door Cabinet meetings that Fox's government was elected with a mandate for change and has to act accordingly on all fronts.


 My conclusion: We may soon see a definition. Fox will have to decide later this month, when the Congress tackles his fiscal reform, which way he will go.

 If the consensus-builders within his Cabinet shore up enough votes to pass the fiscal reform package, Fox will conclude that the PRI has decided to become a loyal
 opposition, and he will stay the course. If the PRI fails to support his fiscal package, or does it half-way, Fox may begin playing hardball and start to seriously investigate the rampant corruption during the seven-decade PRI rule.

 The worst thing that could happen to Fox -- and to Mexico -- is to continue hanging in the air, with neither the PRI votes in Congress to get things done nor the glory of becoming Mexico's first truly democratic reformer in recent history.

                                    © 2001