MEXICO CITY — President Vicente Fox took office Friday pledging to transform a country ruled by a virtual one-party system for seven decades, as Mexico joyously celebrated its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power to the opposition.
In a day of nonstop festivities--from a tamale breakfast with street children to a mariachi-serenaded event that packed Mexico City's giant Zocalo plaza--Fox promised to eradicate the vestiges of Mexico's authoritarian government and bring new energy to fighting the nation's pressing problems, from poverty to drug trafficking.
"We Mexicans had a date with history. We met our commitment," Fox exulted in a message to the nation, referring to the July 2 election in which he broke the 71-year hold on power by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. "Welcome, democracy!"
It was an inauguration the likes of which Mexicans had never seen.
A magnitude 5.5 earthquake and a burst of smoke from the nearby Popocatepetl volcano in the morning underscored the seismic shift in Mexican political life--and in its style.
Shattering the tradition of a near-imperial Mexican presidency, the former rancher and businessman began the day's activities in jeans and cowboy boots, and used jocular slang even in his inaugural address. Fox, 58, broke a political taboo by repeatedly emphasizing his Roman Catholic faith, starting with a morning visit to the Basilica of Guadalupe--an unprecedented act in a country whose officially secular government generally has been hostile toward the influential Catholic Church.
"Fortunately for us, today a new era began. I see people have reacted to this change with great optimism," said Carlos Gelista, a Mexican auto executive who was in the crowd listening to Fox's afternoon address to the nation. "I see he has raised many expectations."
In a solemn ceremony before a joint session of Congress, Fox took the red, white and green presidential sash from Ernesto Zedillo, the 13th consecutive PRI president, who won international praise for overseeing Mexico's fairest presidential elections. Past votes had been marred by violence, fraud and other irregularities.
Scores of dignitaries, from Cuban leader Fidel Castro to California Gov. Gray Davis, looked on as Fox pledged in an hourlong speech to build a new political culture.
"The traditional presidency imposed its monologue for many years. Now, more than ever, governing means dialogue," said the towering, gray-suited Fox, standing before a wall emblazoned with the gilt inscriptions of names of Mexican heroes. "The strength of the nation can't come any more from just one point of view, just one party or just one philosophy."
Fox, of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, pledged to guarantee freedom of the press and respect for human rights, and end political repression. He also held out an olive branch to the Zapatista rebels, who launched a brief uprising in southern Chiapas state in 1994, saying his first proposal to Congress on Tuesday will be to try to revive stalled peace talks. And Mexican troops began pulling back from jungle and mountain conflict zones.
Signaling his eagerness to make changes, Fox pledged in his inaugural speech and the subsequent national address to immediately launch a host of reforms, ranging from a higher-profile office for indigenous affairs to "Project E-Mexico," which would expand Internet access throughout the country.
"The citizens' vote on July 2 was, above all, a plebiscite in favor of change," Fox said.
Many Mexicans seemed thrilled at the possibilities of rapid change.
"I was at home this morning, but I said: 'No, I want to see this guy. I want to applaud him,' " said Reyna Gutierrez, 45, a masseuse who joined a crowd of about 200 hoping to glimpse Fox as he emerged from the capital's National Auditorium, where he presented a message to the nation at midday.
"Everything is different," she said. "He's going to be better for the country."
Some, however, worried that Fox had raised expectations to unrealistic levels, virtually guaranteeing eventual disillusionment.
"My biggest concern is exaggerated expectations, that this one person is going to be able to transform Mexico overnight. That's clearly going to be impossible," said Peter H. Smith, director of Latin American studies at UC San Diego.
"It also entails a contradiction," he said. "Those who think he can do so also implicitly assume he will have an imperial presidency that he is dedicated to dismantling. And you can't have it both ways."
It was immediately clear that Fox won't face a smooth road governing. Members of the PRI, who make up a plurality in Congress, heckled the new president throughout his inaugural speech. They indicated that they saw Fox not just as an opposition politician but also as someone who could betray a defining element of Mexican political culture: the separation of church and state, established in 1857 under liberal hero Benito Juarez.