The Mexican people voted last July for radical change, and they'll get it starting Friday with the presidential inauguration of Vicente Fox, the man who ended 71 years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The list of challenges facing Fox is long and urgent, and the president-elect and his National Action Party will travel a hard road in seeking to change the face of Mexican politics and the prospects of the people.
The key goal for Fox, who comes to leadership from the business sector instead of through the political course of his predecessors, will be to narrow the economic gap between Mexico and its partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States and Canada.
He starts out with an already impressive pace of national development, fostered by outgoing President Ernesto Zedillo. The mission for Fox is to sustain that growth rate, an effort that will require an overhaul of the country's educational system to make the work force competitive in the global economy.
Fox has moved to establish a Cabinet capable of prompt action, a diverse group with a collective reputation for honesty and efficiency. Most come from the private sector. Some, like Francisco Gil Diaz, chosen as finance minister, have worked in both the private and public sectors. Gil is known as the father of Mexico's current tax regime and has a reputation as the "Iron Tax Man." His appointment means that more thorough fiscal reform is in the works.
To reassure Mexicans concerned about law and order, Fox appointed men with long experience. The new attorney general, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, is an army prosecutor known for his tough stance against officers accused of drug smuggling. Former Mexico City Police Chief Alejandro Gertz Manero will head a new federal public security office.
To help usher his presidential initiatives through a divided Congress, Fox has chosen Santiago Creel as interior secretary. Creel is a calm negotiator who as a congressional leader for the National Action Party learned to build consensus among fierce opponents.
Fox wants to push Mexico up the economic ladder and accepts that direct foreign investment, the spur to a livened economy, will be part of the solution. But many of his proposals have not delivered the clarity and certainty that U.S. and European investors want to hear. He has raised the prospect of a European-style common market with Mexico's NAFTA partners, talking, without specifics, of "open borders," which suggests unchecked immigration. That's not in the cards.
Fox, personally likable, made a favorable impression in his visits to Washington and California earlier this year. But he will have to make progress south of the border before he can expect to broaden NAFTA.
If Fox wants good relations with Mexico's northern neighbor, he should return to Washington as president and sit down with critics to address sensitive issues such as illegal immigration and trade. His presidency opens a promising door.