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Fox Dismisses Environment and Energy Ministers

The Cabinet shake-up appears to be aimed at opening Mexico's electric power system to private investment and mending party fences.

September 03, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — A day after admitting that many Mexicans are disillusioned with his government, President Vicente Fox fired his energy and environment ministers Tuesday and replaced both technocrats with stalwarts of his National Action Party.

The shake-up appeared to fulfill several aims. Fox needed a more effective Cabinet-level advocate to lobby the opposition-led Congress for one of his top-priority reform proposals -- to open Mexico's beleaguered electric power system to private investment.

In addition, the president, after winning election in 2000 as an outsider in his own center-right party, had failed to get its full support for his legislative agenda and wanted to mend fences by bringing more of its leaders into the government.

He was also feeling pressure to shake up his Cabinet as a nod to voters who had dealt his party a humbling setback in midterm congressional elections two months ago. In his annual state-of-the-nation speech Monday, he acknowledged complaints about inefficiency, inexperience and divisions within his administration.

Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive and state governor famously reluctant to fire anyone, dismissed Ernesto Martens as energy minister and Victor Lichtinger from the environment job.

He had appointed them for their technical expertise: Martens headed Mexico's biggest glass and aviation companies, and Lichtinger was an environmental consultant widely respected among ecological advocacy groups here and abroad.

But Martens proved incapable of selling electricity reform to a hostile Congress still dominated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had ruled Mexico for 71 years until Fox took office and opposes any move to weaken state control over energy.

Lichtinger clashed often with Fox's economy and tourism ministers. He opposed several hotel projects on Caribbean beaches and posted warnings of polluted coastline in Acapulco.

"Fox started out with the theory of governing with the best and the brightest in the field," said Andres Rozental, a former diplomat and advisor to the government. "These latest appointments are party appointments. It will give Fox a better relationship with his party, which hasn't been so great these past three years."

Felipe Calderon, a former chief of the party and a leader of its congressional delegation until February, was named energy minister. The environment post went to Alberto Cardenas, a onetime governor of Jalisco state who most recently led the National Forestry Commission.

Alfonso Durazo, the Fox spokesman who announced the changes, said they were meant to emphasize political skills, rather than technical know-how, "as the path to more efficient, sensible and committed government." He said Calderon's appointment would "give a new push" to Fox's energy bill.

Fox said Monday that Mexico needed $50 billion in private investment in electricity generation over the next decade to avoid chronic blackouts.

The problem hit home Tuesday when a transformer failure, apparently caused by lightning or a mudslide, left more than 4 million people without power for most of the day in five southern states.

Loyalists in Fox's party were also named Tuesday to head the public works bank and Profepa, the environment ministry's inspection arm.

Homero Aridjis, who heads the Group of 100 environmental advocacy group, said he was discouraged by Lichtinger's dismissal. He said the new minister did nothing as governor of Jalisco to address that state's worst environmental problem, the shrinking of Mexico's largest freshwater lake, Chapala, because of unregulated drainage by thirsty farms and cities.

Fox on Tuesday emphasized his government's commitment to protecting the environment. He said the new minister would focus on water pollution and soil erosion. Mexico faces several decisions with international significance, one involving a proposal to ring the Gulf of California with marinas, hotels and golf courses. Lichtinger had urged caution on that project.

"As an ecologist, he was a foreign body in a pro-business government," Aridjis said. "Now I am afraid that economic criteria will prevail over environmental criteria."

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