Relaxing in a big leather chair on the family ranch where he was raised, Vicente Fox Quesada sees a new Mexico. When he was born here 58 years ago in this central Mexican farming village that surrounds a little peach-colored Catholic church, Mexico's political dynasty, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), was already firmly in control of the country. As a youth, Fox played around the family boot factory and drove 500 miles with his brothers to the Texas border to sell broccoli and brussels sprouts, and later when he became the chief executive for Coca-Cola in Mexico, the PRI was always there; it was Mexico's stage, scenery, lights, and director. It seemed as much a part of Mexico as the mighty Sierras and the magnificent sea.
But last July, Fox stole the show. He routed PRI candidate Francisco Labastida, a decent but colorless bureaucrat who recited party dogma to a nation that had heard it all too many times before. Fox was different. At six feet four inches tall-six feet six and a half in his signature monogrammed cowboy boots-he is Mexico's tallest leader ever, and he used that height like a tower from which to lob bombs at the PRI. He called Labastida "Shorty" and played off Labastida's name to call him la vestida, or transvestite. He used farm-hand language and an almost childish impatience to conduct politics in a way Mexicans had never seen. He shocked people-and took a temporary hit in opinion polls-- when he petulantly shouted "Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!" at Labastida and a third candidate, former Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, in a live joint television appearance, demanding that the three hold a formal debate "Today! Today! Today!" People were turned off at this new spectacle, but only for a while. By election day, "Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!" was the delirious chant of Fox supporters who turned downtown Mexico City into a fiesta of strangers hugging strangers and believing that the big, rough man who was tough enough to take down the PRI was going to bring something different, something better, to Mexico.
Not long after his election, Fox returned to the quiet of his family ranch, surrounded by an army of siblings-he is one of nine childrenand his 81-year-old mother Mercedes to sit for an interview. He was talkative and relaxed but tired from a week of meetings with heads-- of-state on a South American tour.
"My vision is a Mexico modernized," Fox said, in a sonorous baritone carrying his fluent English across the grassy inner courtyard of the Spanish-style hacienda. He said he saw a country "with no poor, with human capital, people educated all over Mexico.
"And I see a competitive Mexico worldwide, a Mexico that has inserted itself very positively in globalization," Fox said. "I see Mexico as a growing partner of the United States, a needed, highly needed, partner for the United States.
"That's what I see out of Mexico," Fox said, leaning forward, pushing the point. "I want to make this country a big nation."
There is little about Mexico that Fox does not want to change or improve to create his new Mexico. He sees himself as the leader of a new Mexican revolution. In fact, expectations for change are so high that they have become an obstacle Fox will have to overcome. He has promised big improvements on every front: he wants to open borders with the United States, help the poor, overhaul taxes, double foreign investment, improve education and the environment, reformulate the current law enforcement structure to make Mexico tougher for drug traffickers and safer for citizens. And that's only the beginning.
But Fox has two main problems: little time and a strong-willed, uncontrollable Congress. Mexican presidents are limited to a single sixyear term, and many of the problems Fox is trying to tackle have existed for generations; it will not be easy, for instance, to lift 40 million people out of poverty when malnutrition and a lack of decent schools and jobs have worked against so many Mexicans for so long.
Making the task tougher is Congress. For the past seven decades, the presidency and Congress were controlled by the same party; when the president wanted something done, he picked up the phone and demanded a new law as easily as he might order a chicken sandwich. But now no party holds a majority in Congress. The PRI, still smarting from losing the presidency for the first time in 71 years, is not likely to make it easy for Fox to advance his agenda. Since many of Fox's reforms require constitutional amendments and approval from two-thirds of Congress, Fox will be forced to spend much of his limited time horse-trading with the legislature.
"If he thinks he's going to ram all this through the Congress, he's wrong," said Eddie Varon Levy, a newly elected PRI member of Congress, who said Fox was promising too much, acting "like a kid with a new toy; he wants to do everything, to change the world in one day."
However, as long as Fox keeps the public on his side, he will have leverage with Congress. His vision of ambitious change is appealing to the Mexican people. He was elected by people sick of the current system, and he sees it as his mandate to propose fundamental reforms--even if those changes are not all immediately possible, and even if the forces of the old system try to stop him.
"This is the time for dreaming; let's shoot for big things," said Juan Hernandez, the Coordinator of the Presidential Office for Mexicans Abroad. "Maybe we will fall short, but people said we couldn't win on July 2, and now it seems it wasn't that hard. It gives me incredible faith that we can do a lot."
An Open Path
Fox is a product of the optimistic half of Mexico, the northern part, where the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and commerce with the United States have created jobs and hope. The southern half, however, remains a land of poverty and pessimism. More closely linked with Central America both culturally and economically, southern states such as Chiapas, Guerrero, and Oaxaca are home to the majority of Mexico's 40 million people living in poverty, many of them indigenous. There, life is a daily struggle to eat and live decently-- and in Chiapas, that struggle is sometimes conducted with guns.
Northern Mexico is a land of prosperous cities like Monterrey, places where export factories are growing rapidly and there is little unemployment. Here people work on a US-style clock where the three-hour comida lunch just does not fit into the business day. In this environment, Chicago is more relevant than Chiapas, and a president who cut his teeth marketing Coca-Cola and who uses words like "synergy" and "long-term strategic planning" fits right in.
Fox has crafted a style that mixes his roots-rancher and marketing executive-into a political approach that could be called boardroom populism. "I'm going to be a very promotional president," Fox said in the long interview at his ranch. "I want to inspire people, I want to motivate people, I want to be side-by-side with people in Mexico. I'm not going to be an office president, I'm going to be out in the fields."
That kind of populist rhetoric is unusual for a man in Fox's position. But there is little about Fox that is orthodox for a Mexican president, including his lifestyle. Rather than draping himself in the fine European suits favored by the elite here, many days Fox looks like he just stepped off the farm, wearing Texas-- sized cowboy boots with "Vicente Fox Quesada" stitched across the front. He often wears, as he did during the interview, a garish silver belt buckle that proclaims, not humbly, "FOX."
In another departure from the past, Fox has no fancy foreign university degree-a prized credential among elites here. Rather, only a year before he became president, Fox formally received his bachelor's degree in business administration from the Jesuit-run Iberoamericana University in Mexico City.
Fox was elected as a divorced man with four adopted children-- something very new on the resume of a successful presidential candidate. But this did not matter to the young and the educated who turned out in massive numbers to support Fox. They seemed to like Fox's challenging of the old order in every conceivable sense. Those voters, many of them middle-class Mexicans tired of Mexico's almost medieval disease of dirty politicians enriching themselves at public expense, voted for Fox as a symbol of change and of higher expectations for their country.
It was actually Fox's two immediate PRI predecessors-Carlos Salinas de Gortari, president from 1988 to 1994, and Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, who turned over the reins to Fox on December 1, 2000-who opened the door for Fox's victory.
Salinas, who earned a PhD in political economy and government from Harvard University, and Zedillo, a PhD economist from Yale University, were so-called "technocrat" reformers who pushed Mexico hard into the era of globalization, although Salinas's achievements have been tarnished by the fact that he presided over a government whose corruption was astounding, even by Mexican standards. But the path to economic modernization, it turned out, was also the path to the end of the socalled "perfect dictatorship," the one-party PRI rule that was disguised as democracy but that in fact operated more as an authoritarian regime.
David Najera, a long-time foreign-service officer in Mexico who was also a presidential spokesman for Zedillo, said fundamental economic and societal shifts in Mexico opened the way for Fox and the end of the PRI's dominance.
The opening of the economy to world competition and standards, accompanied by a growing knowledge of the world brought by the Internet and by growing Mexican press freedom, made more Mexicans open to change. "In addition to the external forces there were internal forces-a more and more urban population and a more and more educated population-- that made Mexicans less fearful of change," Najera said, noting that while the PRI had its base in the rural countryside, Fox dominated among the young, educated, and middle class in Mexico's fast-growing cities.
Salinas also did Fox another favor that turned out to have historic implications. Fox had made it clear for at least a decade that he wanted to be president some day. He entered politics as a national congressman in 1988 and ran for governor of his home state of Guanajuato in 1991. He lost his gubernatorial campaign in a race that many people believe was stolen from him by PRI fraud. But when he ran again in 1995, he won, and he immediately began using the governor's office as a springboard to the presidency.
He had one large problem. The constitution declared that the parents of any candidate for president must have been born in Mexico. Fox's mother emigrated from Spain. Fox waged a campaign to change the law, drawing in diverse support from intellectuals and politicians who thought the law was outdated. Then-president Salinas eventually relented and ordered Congress to amend the constitution, effective in 2000.
The minute Fox was eligible, he ran and won.
Return of the Church?
Although Fox likes to say that he is a strong believer in a "culture of institutions and organizations," he ran for president essentially as an individual. Fox is not a standard bearer for an opposition party wanting to take down the PRI; he is a man who wanted to take down the PRI and who only happened to belong to an opposition party.
Fox took his center-right, probusiness PAN (National Action Party) by surprise when he announced that he was running for president. His public announcement pre-empted and effectively locked out his party colleagues who may have wanted to run. It was a classic Fox approach: if tradition came in the way of winning, then tradition needed to be changed.
Fox has broken with his party on many issues, and the PAN has made it clear that it has no intention of blindly supporting Fox. Still, Fox's PAN affiliation unsettles many mainstream Mexicans. Because the PAN is closely aligned with conservative elements in the Roman Catholic Church, there is concern that the Church, through Fox, will take a greater role in influencing public policy in Mexico. Critics worry that a Fox-PAN government may reverse growing tolerance of homosexuals, abortion rights, and sex education in public schools.
The PAN has a long history of conservative positions. Local legislatures controlled by the PAN have passed laws banning abortion rights for rape victims, outlawing miniskirts, criticizing homosexuals, closing strip clubs, and outlawing nudity in theaters.
"My own party has some labels that are negative," Fox acknowledged, but he vowed not to impose his personal beliefs on the public. "I will sustain my word .... I hope that in one, two, three years from now people will believe me, totally believe me."
Like 90 percent of Mexicans, Fox is Catholic. But he is also the first president to openly display his religious beliefs in a country that over the last century has enforced some of the world's strictest laws separating church and state. The Church, because of its legacy of deep involvement in Mexican political affairs that led to two bloody wars, was relegated to the sidelines by the secular government over the past century and a half. Although the Church never went away, it was officially invisible. Priests and nuns were prohibited from wearing their clerical garb in public, from holding religious services outdoors, from speaking out on political subjects-restrictions that were in place until they were lifted by a constitutional amendment in 1992.
As a result, Mexican presidents have typically hidden their religious practice. But at a campaign rally last year, Fox waved a banner featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, which cost him a fine of about US$1,800 for violating statutes prohibiting the mix of religion and politics. Two weeks after his election, Fox went home to San Cristobal to attend Mass with his mother-and a flock of news cameras, which captured him taking communion. The photos ran on front pages the next day, with screaming headlines proclaiming it a "Broken Tradition."
Fox's supporters say it is a healthy change; they say Fox is trying to make Mexico more like other modern democracies in which the church is separate from the state, but leaders are permitted to have personal religious beliefs.
"It is a very big deal," said church historian and author Marta Elena Negrete. "I think Mexicans are very grateful that you can talk publicly about religion now."
But others are worried. Just ofter his election, the PAN-controlled legislature in Fox's home state of Guanajuato extended the local ban on abortion to include rape victims-the toughest anti-abortion law in a land where abortion is already illegal in almost every circumstance. The law was later withdrawn in the face of strong protest from human-rights groups, but the damage was done. This incident conjured up another occurrence a year earlier in the state of Baja California in which local PAN government officials brought enormous pressure to dissuade a 14-year-old rape victim from having an abortion. When the girl and her mother complained to the state attorney general, he responded by taking them to a Catholic priest, who counseled her against the abortion. Still, Fox has repeatedly said he will not allow his personal views to affect public policy. On abortion, for example, he said he believes "life begins at the moment of conception," but he vowed never to "impose that on anybody."
A Closer Partnership
Perhaps no idea has defined Fox as clearly as his vision of a united North America. His supporters say the idea shows long-range vision and ambition; his critics say that it shows that Fox has his head in the clouds, oblivious to political realities.
Fox envisions an EU-style partnership in North America. He points to the fact that Portugal, Greece, and Ireland have been brought closer to economic parity with England, France, and Germany over the past 25 years through cooperation in a common European market. Fox said that in the same way, over the next two to four decades, with the help of Canada and the United States, Mexico could one day become a more equal economic partner.
Fox said he would like to see the creation of a development fund through NAFTA that would help create jobs and increase income in Mexico. He says a more prosperous Mexico would result in fewer Mexicans wanting to emigrate legally or illegally to the United States. More broadly, he said, it is in the United States' own economic interest to create more wealth and jobs inside Mexico.
"It is just a matter of determination and will," Fox said. "Every time that Mexico has problems on the border, US cities in US border states have problems. If we have an economic crisis then the economy of US border states has problems.
"We must be better friends, we must be better neighbors, we must be better partners.... By building up walls, by putting up arms, by dedicating billions of dollars like every border state is doing to avoid migration is not the way to go," Fox said. "It has not been the way to go in the whole 20th century. Instead of solving the problem it grew.
"The United States knows very well that you need people to grow," Fox said, elaborating on his signature topic. "The US economy cannot grow at rates of five percent or more if you do not have Mexicans there. In a country that was built up by immigrants, I don't know why anyone should be rejected.
"What I propose here is that we build up a plan, an intelligent, creative, innovative plan, whereby we look for economic convergence... to start narrowing gaps on all fronts, in inflation, in interest rates, in income," Fox added. "We will never be that good neighbor, that good friend, that good partner, as long as Mexico is lagging way, way behind on development."
The first step he proposes is to reduce the gigantic economic gap between the United States and Mexico: "It's not possible to have a harmonious, stable border, it's not possible to solve the migration problem as it has been up until today, if we don't solve that gap problem where a worker in Mexico earns [US]$5 a day and a worker in the United States earns [US]$60 a day."
Mexico has already made some progress on increasing wages thanks to NAFTA, which has created more than US$200 billion in annual bilateral trade between Mexico and the United States. Workers in the export sector now earn about 30 percent higher wages than in the rest of the manufacturing sector, but millions of Mexicans still earn in an entire day what a Texan doing the same work earns in an hour.
Still, new patterns of internal migration are promising. More and more people from the poorer parts of Mexico are moving not to the United States but to cities in Mexico, usually in the north, where export-- sector jobs are abundant.
US Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow said in an interview that he agreed with Fox's assessment that if the economic differences were narrowed, Americans would be more inclined to view Mexico as a partner. "There are opportunities for a new dynamism in North America," Davidow said in his embassy office in the heart of Mexico City. "If Mexico over the next 2 5 years can improve its education system and improve its institutions-keys to improving its economy-and if vast pockets of truly abject poverty could be eliminated, more Americans could accept Mexico as a true partner."
Fox's ideas about an integrated North America were welcomed by many academics but met with polite skepticism in Washington and Ottawa. When Fox toured Canada and the United States after his election victory, President Clinton and presidential candidates Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W Bush listened to Fox's grand schemes and said little more than that they appreciated the Mexican's long-term vision.
But Fox seemed unfazed. Since his days hawking vegetables to border-town Americans, he has been accustomed to the inertia that so often defines US-Mexican relations. He said all that mattered, really, was that no one had said no to his plans.
"It's a difficult relationship," he said of US-Mexican interaction. "Sometimes we declare love to each other, but it's like a bear's hug: too tight an embrace and somebody gets hurt."