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Mexico's Beset Fox Must Redefine 'Change'

Making truth a pillar of government could restart a paralyzed presidency.

July 03, 2002|DENISE DRESSER | Denise Dresser is a senior fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy at USC.

Two years after dislodging the Institutional Revolutionary Party from power, Mexico's President Vicente Fox inspires a multitude of metaphors. He's frequently described as a captain without a compass, a quarterback who can't score a touchdown, a janitor who takes care of a building but doesn't have the skills to remodel it.

At home and abroad, the prevailing perception is that his administration is paralyzed, his team is in disarray and his bold vision is a mirage.

Unless he is able to salvage his presidency, Fox will be remembered as the man who knew how to topple the PRI but didn't know how to govern or change the country he fought so hard to lead.

Mexicans are growing worried about what hasn't happened since Fox took office. They speak about the gap between what was offered and what has been delivered, between what they demand and what they get in return.

Fox is applauded for maintaining macroeconomic stability and opening up the archives of the 1970s "dirty war" against leftists and supporting a freedom-of-information act.

But his modest triumphs have been overshadowed by his dramatic defeats. Fox promised ambitious fiscal reform and ended up with diluted disaster; he promised a new labor law but wasn't able to domesticate old labor leaders; he promised badly needed structural reforms but hasn't mustered enough consensus to get them approved.

Today, Mexico is stuck in a rut because of hostile relations between the president and the Congress, ambiguous relations between him and the PRI and dysfunctional relations between him and the disparate Cabinet he selected.

After two years of almost daily disappointments, Fox is a changed man. He seems less inclined to make courageous calls for action or take the risks they would entail. He has shrunk the purpose and the scope of his presidency. Whereas two years ago change meant total renovation, today it means minimum maintenance.

Fox once wanted to be remembered as the man who reinvented the country, but now he's content if his popularity rating remains higher than 50%. Instead of using his six-year term to bring about change, he simply wants to stay out of trouble.

Yet, it may be too soon to label his presidency a squandered opportunity or to speak of what could have been.

A recent poll in the newspaper Reforma indicates that although 51% believe that Fox has not changed the country at all, many think that he could still do so. They criticize Fox for not taking corruption head-on, yet they praise him for his honesty.

Fox could get a second chance if he moves aggressively to identify and bring to justice those responsible for human rights abuses in the past and those responsible for illegal campaign financing in his own election.

Fox needs to step away from measuring the success of his administration by legislative victories. If he continues to tread down that path, the PRI will trip him at every turn, given that the party has no appetite for congressional collaboration.

Therefore, the Fox team must redefine "change" so that it means total transparency and true accountability and governmental responsibility. Fox should not only reveal the names of the 74 officials--identified in a National Human Rights Commission report written in 2001 but yet to be publicly released--who tortured and killed leftists in the 1970s; he should make sure they are brought to justice. Fox should not only pursue those who channeled millions of dollars from the state oil company into his rival's campaign coffers, he should also come clean on irregularities in his own campaign finances and the role his Friends of Fox organization played in them.

To restart his paralyzed presidency, Fox needs to focus on the truth--not as a government concession but as a citizen right. If Mexico's president can build a political system wherein lies are exposed and government is not immune from scrutiny, his presidency will have amounted to more than just removing the PRI. After so many years of deceit in Mexico, truth would be a real change.

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