05 December 2006

Adios, President

Adios, Presidente

A look back at six unremarkable years of Vicente Fox

David Agren December 4, 2006

Cantina owner Ramon Garcia once held high hopes for Mexican President Vicente Fox. He supported Fox not once but three times, as Fox previously ran for governor in Garcia's home state of Guanajuato before successfully deposing the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000. But with time, Garcia, like many Mexicans, grew disillusioned as Fox repeatedly stumbled and failed to implement much of the change promised during the heady days of his presidential campaign.

"He wasn't born dumb," Garcia commented, before adding, "Fox just never knew how to be president."

Garcia pointed to his ailing San Miguel de Allende bar business as proof of Fox's unfulfilled promises of creating prosperity. He said his clientele, mostly working-class folk from nearby barrios and surrounding ranchos, lacks the purchasing power of past years. Good jobs are still scarce.

Fox left office on Friday after six stable but unremarkable years of governance – if you don't account the early accomplishment of outsting the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and improving the macroeconomic climate. Despite running on an agenda of change, much of the old Mexico he promised to banish stubbornly persists, perhaps nowhere more visibly than in Oaxaca, where a teachers' strike descended into a battle between disgruntled leftists and the state's corrupt PRI governor. Inaction, a failure to broker deals with a divided Congress and a tendency to avoid conflict will no doubt go down as some of his biggest shortcomings. But many of Fox's problems stemmed from the high expectations created by his presidential campaign.

"He was an imprudent president incapable of biting his tongue,” said Marco Antonio Cortes, director of the political science department at the University of Guadalajara.

A gifted campaigner and lousy politician, the former Coca-Cola executive effectively turned the 2000 presidential race into a referendum on 71 years of PRI rule, coining the slogan, “¡Ya!” (loosely translated: now, or enough). He also was all things to all people and in the euphoria of seeing the PRI unseated – a feat compared to landing a man on the moon – pretty much anything he said seemed possible. Governing, however, proved more difficult than winning office.

"Fox never had a serious plan for governing,” said Dan Lund, president of Mund Americas, a Mexico City market research firm. Almost from the start, “There was a sense of drift that began to set in.”

Opposition lawmakers immediately seized on the president's poor political instincts and unwillingness to wield power like his predecessors. Much of Fox's agenda got bogged down in legislative gridlock. He quickly became a lame duck president.

His unwillingness to act decisively extended beyond partisan politics as he repeatedly backed down from confrontations. In 2002, he abandoned plans for a new Mexico City airport after machete-wielding campesinos refused to cooperate. Left-leaning presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador shut down central Mexico City for six weeks over the summer to protest alleged election fraud. Fox later fled the capital during the fiestas patrias (national holidays) rather than confront Lopez Obrador supporters camped outside of the traditional spot the president delivers the grito (the annual reenactment of Miguel Hidalgo's 1810 shout for independence). The Oaxaca conflict simmered for months, but Fox refused to send in the federal police until an American activist/journalist was shot dead in late October.

Perhaps most infamously, Fox said he'd resolve the Chiapas crisis in 15 minutes. Six years later it's still unresolved, although jungle-dwelling rebel subcomandante Marcos is now a peripheral figure, better loved by foreign lefties than Mexicans outside of Chiapas.Economically the country stagnated, although 2006 has been promising in terms of job creation. Growth averaged just 2.5 percent annually during the Fox years – a far cry from the seven percent promised. Migrants still decamp the campo (countryside) in large numbers. (The president promised to achieve an immigration deal with the United States, but 9/11 derailed those hopes.) Fox spoke of job creation, but the informal economy is as robust as ever. Monopolies and duopolies – most notably in telecommunications, broadcasting and brewing – still gouge Mexican consumers. Pemex, the state-owned oil company, is sorely lacking investment. Unions wield as much power as ever.

"We've got more macroeconomic stability, but that's all we've got,” Lund said. "Monopolies and privileges are braking – if not absolutely impeding – economic growth.”

Still, some of the macroeconomic figures are impressive. Inflation dipped below three percent, banks now issue fixed-interest rate loans, the peso failed to crash and the stock market tripled. Fox also drove down the budget deficit.

"He deserves credit, but not all of the credit that's been attributed to him,” said Marco Antonio Cortes. "He's been lucky.”

High oil prices swelled profits at Pemex, the government's main cash cow. (The company remits more than 60 percent of its gross income to the Mexican government, leaving little cash for exploration or maintenance.) Remittances from Mexicans abroad also accelerated, going from less than $10 billion in 2002 to a projected $24 billion in 2006.

Stability aside, Cortes remarked, "(Fox) hasn't achieved any of his important projects."

But that didn't stop the president from returning to what he did best: campaigning. Los Pinos (the presidency) aired an endless stream of TV and radio commercials and erected signs along many of the Republic's major highways boasting of the “Gobierno de Cambio” (government of change). Many Mexicans didn't believe it, but Fox remained somewhat popular. The propaganda, though, confused the residents of one Veracruz hamlet, who changed their town's name to Licenciado Vicente Fox Quesada in a bid to avoid missing out on the supposed largess flowing from Los Pinos. (More importantly for one resident commenting in Mexico City newspaper El Universal: “Most of the town is illiterate and this is one of the few names everyone could remember.”)

Fox's successor, Felipe Calderon, also spoke of change and made numerous promises during the 2006 presidential race. Unlike Fox, many analysts, including Cortes, give Calderon a better chance of succeeding.

"(Calderon's) intelligent, an able negotiator (and) much more prudent," Cortes said. Perhaps more importantly, "He thinks a lot more prior to opening his mouth."

David Agren is a freelance journalist living in Guadalajara

This article appeared in Reason

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