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President-Elect Fox Treads Softly Toward Inauguration

October 14, 2000|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Ever so carefully, President-elect Vicente Fox's team is navigating the five-month transition to his Dec. 1 inauguration, issuing conservative economic projections and offering still-vague proposals for reforms.

Too carefully, some Fox supporters grumble. They worry that he will stick too closely to the path followed by the outgoing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, during its unbroken, 71-year reign--despite Fox's campaign pledge of profound change.

For many Mexicans, however, memories are still painfully fresh of the bungled presidential hand-over in 1994, which led to the nation's worst recession in decades. So Fox's team is avowedly cautious in its transition program, wary of sending any signals that could touch off economic turmoil.

One signal reassuring financial markets is the apparently harmonious relationship between Fox's team and the lame-duck government of President Ernesto Zedillo.

Fox has pulled together a transition team of experts from all areas of civic life--financial, labor, security and judicial--to work with the departing officials in Zedillo's government. These liaison networks appear to be functioning effectively: Zedillo has promised Fox full access to information, and Fox has said the lines of communication are open.

That matters because the PRI has a monopoly on presidential experience in Mexico. Fox's center-right National Action Party, or PAN, holds eight governorships but has never run the country. Fox has pledged to avoid a wholesale housecleaning of experts within ministries, which might create a dangerous skills vacuum, and hinted that he may keep a couple of PRI members in his Cabinet.

Memories of the 1994 economic crisis are especially clear these days because former President Carlos Salinas, who was in office from 1988 to 1994, has just published a book blaming Zedillo for the chaos that erupted days after his inauguration on Dec. 1, 1994.

Salinas says Zedillo's novice economic team mishandled a currency devaluation, setting off a year of soaring inflation and interest rates that cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.

And that was a hand-over from one PRI president to another. This transition, from the PRI to a party untested at the national level, is far more sensitive.

Luis Ernesto Derbez, Fox's top economic advisor, this week disclosed tightfisted economic targets for the first year of the new administration that won praise from Wall Street as well as from many Mexican analysts. Derbez said the new government wants to cut spending by half a percentage point of gross domestic product, bring inflation down from about 9% this year to 7% and achieve economic growth of 4.5% to 5%.

The current finance secretary, Jose Angel Gurria, quickly endorsed Derbez's targets. Gurria stressed that the close cooperation between his staff and the Fox transition team will ensure that "we will have a calm transition, a transition in a climate of growth."

But others worry that Fox's economic team is being too conservative, emphasizing inflation-cutting over the growth needed to attack poverty.

Juan Castaingts, an economist at the Autonomous Metropolitan University, wrote in a column Thursday in the daily El Financiero: "The goals proposed not only will create tensions, but show little imagination and reflect a total continuity with the policies we have suffered until now."

*

Times staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

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