Mexico's Fox Finds Campaign Promises Hard to Keep
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
MEXICO CITY, June 22 -- Nearly two years after his historic election,
President Vicente Fox is presiding over a paralyzed and bickering administration
failed to deliver on a cascade of promises to make Mexico richer, safer, better educated and less corrupt.
The charismatic Fox ended the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary
Party, or PRI, on July 2, 2000, with a promise to overhaul a corrupt government
had lost the people's faith. But as Fox has proved unable to advance his goals, the euphoria of his election has dissipated. In its place is increasing concern that
history may remember Fox as the man who ended the PRI's reign but accomplished little as president.
"Fox is not captain of the ship. We are just floating," said historian Lorenzo Meyer. "I worry that the rest of his term is going to be characterized by just surviving."
Fox has scored victories: He has made government spending more transparent
and allowed international human rights observers into Mexico for the first
appointed a prosecutor to review disappearances of anti-government activists in the 1970s and '80s; in the past week he gave the public access to the government's
secret files on those cases. Several long-sought drug kingpins have been arrested during his tenure, and previously strained relations with U.S. law enforcement
agencies have improved markedly.
But almost 19 months since he took office, his reform agenda is frozen
by hostile relations with Congress and lack of coordination and unity in
his cabinet. He has
made little progress on pledges to modernize key parts of the economy: an outdated tax code that allows widespread cheating, energy problems that are leading to
California-style power outages and antiquated labor laws that hinder business investment.
Having lost the initial momentum of his celebrated victory, Fox now
faces at least another year of stalemate because of the increasingly bitter
political climate ahead of
congressional elections next summer. Many analysts here say Fox's agenda will remain bogged down in partisan feuding, including potentially damaging allegations by
his opponents that Fox's campaign accepted illegal foreign contributions.
Rodolfo Elizondo, Fox's chief spokesman, said: "President Fox is very
aware that the circumstances aren't allowing him to advance as quickly
as everyone wanted.
But he knows it's a marathon, not a sprint."
Even some of Fox's strongest allies, particularly business leaders, say such arguments are beginning to sound like excuses and that Fox's government is stuck.
"Yes, there is very strong inertia and resistance, but by now we had
hoped for at least some clear indications of where he is going," said Pedro
Javier Gonzalez of
Dialogo Mexico, an organization of business leaders that recently issued a report criticizing what it called Fox's lack of leadership.
Fox's relations with the United States were to be the crown jewel of
his administration. But they are stalled, largely because of Washington's
approach to border issues since Sept. 11. Rather than the European Union-style open border Fox initially envisioned, the U.S. border will likely be even more strictly
enforced under President Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security.
Following his election, Fox was the toast of the United States, mobbed
like a movie star in cities such as Chicago and Washington. He was a pro-democracy
champion, a down-home rancher with big boots who had toppled the world's longest-running political machine. The new face of Mexican democracy called on
Washington to grant more visas for Mexicans, establish more guest-worker programs and legalize many of the 3 million to 4 million undocumented Mexicans in the
None of that happened, and now Fox is being ridiculed at home for betting
so heavily on Washington. Critics say he has not fought hard enough on
because he is star-struck by his friendship with Bush.
"He's a great seller of ideas, but you don't see him fighting for them,"
said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, an international relations specialist
who helped design Fox's
immigration proposals. "I don't see devotion in Mr. Fox."
Fox distinguished himself as a tough political fighter in his campaign
against the PRI, but many analysts now say he is not governing with the
same tenacity. "One of
the biggest worries is that he doesn't seem to be learning on the job," Fernandez de Castro said.
Despite his problems, Fox's approval ratings remain relatively strong,
climbing from 47 percent in March to 57 percent in June, according to the
most recent poll by
the Reforma newspaper. Some analysts say that is likely a temporary bump up, resulting from Fox's handling of a recent spat with Cuba's Fidel Castro.
Luis Rubio, an economic and political analyst, said Mexicans understand
the difficulty of Fox's task. He said most Mexicans still believe in the
change represented by
Fox and are glad the PRI era has ended.
"I know very few people who say they would rather go back to where we were before," he said.
Two years is not long enough to wipe out poverty, illiteracy and a legacy
of official corruption, Fox's supporters say. After his near-mythical slaying
of the PRI
dragon, they explain, people had unrealistically high expectations. Now they say reality is setting in, hardened by a PRI-dominated Congress determined to see Fox
"No government in the world can give its people full satisfaction in
just two years," said Tarcisio Navarrete, a member of Congress from Fox's
National Action Party,
or PAN. "We have to keep the faith and not let our disappointment turn into total frustration. I am confident that at the end of Fox's six-year term we will see many
But Senate President Enrique Jackson, a leading member of the PRI, said
the country is not moving forward. "People want less poverty, better education,
more employment and income, and we haven't seen those things," he said.
For the first time, Congress is a force in Mexican politics, after decades
as a rubber stamp for PRI presidents. Congress has been testing its new
power like a
teenager with a Porsche, and Fox, to the dismay of political analysts, has done little to help steer. Fox and his cabinet have been remarkably quick to make enemies
in Congress and notably unable to make alliances.
"Relations are often tortured, difficult and painful," Navarrete said.
Political analysts have been buzzing for weeks about why Fox has not
jettisoned some of his under-performing cabinet ministers and about which
ones are not
speaking to each other. Cabinet ministers seem unable to coordinate their efforts on complicated matters such as enforcing environmental regulations. They often
contradict one another, so Fox's government communicates no unified message to the public, which hampers its ability to get results.
Earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Francisco Gil Diaz said Comptroller
General Francisco Barrio was either "a liar or has Alzheimer's" after Barrio
an investigation into graft at the state oil monopoly, Pemex. Fox brought the two together for a smiling photo opportunity, but the damage had been done.
On Thursday, Fox had to scramble to contradict Gil after he publicly
commented that Mexico could face an economic crisis similar to Argentina's
unless it boosted
federal revenue. By the time Fox got his administration's message back on track and calmed jittery financial markets, the peso had fallen to its lowest level in 18
"His cabinet does not fear him, but worse, they do not respect him," said Fernandez de Castro, who said Fox has little control over his cabinet.
Elizondo, Fox's spokesman, said the president understands the problems and "will be harder on his cabinet."
The downturn in the U.S. economy has hampered some of Fox's economic
goals and made it impossible for Fox to meet his pledge to create more
than a million new
jobs a year. But interest rates and inflation have remained low and the peso has been relatively stable despite the recession.
"He hasn't made any major mistakes in terms of economics," said Carlos Peyrelongue, an analyst with Merrill Lynch & Co. in Mexico City.
Still, many Mexicans blame Fox for their economic pain.
"Since Fox became president, I've been earning the same and my quality
of life is worse," said Hemila Pacheco, a maid in Mexico City. "Sometimes
I don't have
enough money for the bus." Enrique Perez Martinez, 45, has been unemployed since he lost his job as a construction worker six months ago. "Fox promised to
create jobs," Perez said, "but look at me."
Meyer, the historian, said he worries that such disappointment with
Fox will spread by the next presidential election, in 2006, allowing the
PRI to recapture the
country's most powerful office. He said dissatisfaction with Fox's paralysis could make voters forget about the PRI's corruption, mismanagement and vote fraud.
"My fear is that in the history books, Fox will go down as the guy who
helped the PRI to clean its slate," Meyer said. "In 2006, for the first
time, they could win in an