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Mexico: Vicente Fox Remembered

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CHRONICLE SPECIAL
Latin America Advisor

Vicente Fox, whose election in 2000 ended seven decades of one-party rule in Mexico, [stepped down last week] to make way for incoming President Felipe Calderon. How will Fox be remembered? What were his biggest successes? His biggest failures? What contributions did he make to democracy in Mexico?

Nicolás Mariscal, Chairman of Grupo Marhnos in Mexico: President Fox did not fulfill the expectations he created for the Mexican people, mainly because of his 'permissive' policy that, in the name of democracy, made him not apply the law when it was violated, as for example in the Oaxaca conflict. That 'permissive' policy hindered constructive debate in Congress and prevented the approval of the structural reforms that Mexico desperately needs. As we know, one of the main reasons why Fox won the 2000 election was because he gave the Mexican people hope for change, but he was not able to satisfy it during his administration. In fact, he is handing over the presidential office in a divided country, with the problem of poverty not only unsolved but of a greater magnitude. But there were not only failures during his term of office: in matters of finance and economic stability, the current administration will end up with a positive balance, with less inflationary pressure — inflation fell from 8.9 percent to 3.3 percent in five years—and with low interest rates, which have enabled thousands of families to purchase a house; with stable exchange rates; with the reduction of country risk; and with a decrease in the foreign debt, which fell from $70 billion to $40 billion. Moreover, according to the national statistics institute, INEGI, GDP is 39 percent higher than it was six years ago (equivalent to an average growth rate of 5.6 percent per year). Proof of this macroeconomic stability was the performance of financial markets and indicators during the recent post-electoral conflict. In addition, much was achieved in matters of transparency and of accountability. Also, President Fox supported absolute freedom in the media. He did not centralize power; his administration empowered state and municipal administrations. On the personal side, President Fox was honest and against corruption. His popularity achieved an average rate higher than 59 percent during his term of office. He changed the paradigm of the authoritarian Mexican president, as his style was most of the time friendly and approachable. There are many reasons why Vicente Fox will be remembered, but the most important one is his achievement of a peaceful transition, without a coup d'etat, from the seven decades of PRI rule to a new democratic form of government.

Andrés Rozental, President of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations: Vicente Fox will be remembered first and foremost for having been the first opposition candidate in over 70 years to be elected president of Mexico. But this is by no means his only achievement, and although there were many unfulfilled expectations during his six-year term there are several positive things to be said about his administration. Fox can be credited with three very important changes to Mexico's political system: 1) bringing a higher degree of transparency to government and opening up the inner workings of the system to outside scrutiny. This was mainly done through the IFAI (Instituto Federal de Acceso a la Informacion) which created a set of functioning rules whereby individual citizens, the media, and any interested party is able to access almost any detail of government functions; 2) creating a solid legal framework for lower and middle class Mexicans to access mortgage financing and thus for the first time have the option of buying a home. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have benefitted so far from this mechanism; and 3) strengthening the Oportunidades program, which gives poorer Mexicans financial incentives to keep their children in school. On the other side of the scale, Fox's biggest failure was his lack of leadership and his inability to make difficult decisions on the reform agenda, in the fight against organized crime, and in the eradication of corruption. He squandered a golden opportunity to use his political capital at the outset of his presidency to bring about many of the changes he promised during his campaign. His contribution to democracy can best be measured by the fact that the recent elections—although complicated and full of vicissitudes—took place within the institutional mechanisms that were created to bring openness and certainty to the process. This is no small thing in a country as politically divided and geographically polarized as ours.

James R. Jones, Co-chair of Manatt Jones Global Strategies LLC, and a former US Ambassador to Mexico:  Undoubtedly, President Fox will be remembered as the man who ended seven decades of one party rule in Mexico. Clearly, Fox was the vehicle who established competitive political democracy in the country, although President Zedillo was the man who paved the road toward real democracy, which let Fox be the vehicle to realize it. Fox disappointed many in Mexico by not accomplishing all that Mexicans had hoped. But it would have been impossible for him to realize the overly high expectations. He did create a culture of transparency and honesty throughout his administration, which will have lasting results. He failed to achieve an immigration agreement with the United States, and he failed to achieve domestic reforms, such as fiscal and legal reforms. Fox was an outstanding mass marketer who lifted Mexicans' dreams. But he was not comfortable with confrontation nor one-on-one congressional politics, which severely damaged his ability to achieve a more robust legislative agenda. In short, he didn't achieve what was expected of him, but he was a solid transition president on Mexico's road to being a fully respected first-world nation."

Pamela Starr, Latin America Analyst at the Eurasia Group: As Mexico's first democratically elected opposition president, Fox embodied a huge leap forward in Mexico's slow-motion transition to democracy. Fox reinforced this benefit by not exploiting the full reach of presidential powers and thereby allowing the Congress and the state governments to increase their political authority. He also oversaw transparency legislation that increased accountability in the federal government. On the economic front, the Fox finance ministry transformed the macroeconomic landscape. Six years of price stability opened the door to consumer loans, a mortgage loan market, and a ballooning corporate bond market. Responsible fiscal policy helped Mexican government bonds to earn investment grade which enabled the country to issue debt with lower interest, longer maturity, and in national currency. Mexico's debt profile has rarely looked better. Yet Fox failed to make progress on a series of economic reforms essential to Mexico's longer-term growth and economic stability, and he mismanaged petroleum policy. Unable to engineer a fiscal reform, he continued to exploit Pemex. Under Fox, Pemex focused on production rather than exploration, leading to the country's current economic quandary—declining oil reserves and production, even as the federal government continues to depend on Pemex to cover a third of its operating budget. Fox's decision to skirt the legal limits on presidential involvement in electoral politics to prevent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from reaching the presidency, meanwhile, seriously damaged the legitimacy of Mexico's electoral institutions for a quarter of the electorate. Felipe Calderon will inherit the consequences of this mixed legacy.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter.  

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