Column: Mexico has never seen a president like Fox

Our Mexican neighbors have never seen a political leader quite like their new president, Vicente Fox, who began a six-year term in office on Dec. 1.

This businessman/rancher in cowboy boots is different in almost every way from the lackluster career politicians who ran Mexico's "one-party democracy" for more than 70 years. Believe me, it's a new ballgame south of the border, and that could be good news for the United States.

As the Los Angeles Times noted when Fox became president, "A magnitude 5.5 earthquake and a burst of smoke from the nearby Popocatepetl volcano underscored the seismic shift in Mexican political life - and in its style." Fox, who defeated the candidate of the corrupt Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (PRI) last July, immediately set a new, more populist tone for Mexican politics.

"The strength of the nation can't come any more from just one point of view, just one party or just one philosophy," he told the nation in his inaugural address. And just to prove that things would never be the same again, Fox ordered the Mexican Army out of strife-torn Chiapas state and promised to restart peace talks that have been stalled since 1996. Last Tuesday, as promised, he sent Indian rights legislation to Congress and the leader of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Subcomandante Marcos, announced that he would travel to Mexico City to resume peace talks.

President Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive who represents the conservative National Action Party (PAN), has set an ambitious agenda for his presidency, pledging to guarantee freedom of the press and respect for human rights, while ending political repression. He has vowed to eradicate corruption, the oil that greased the PRI machine for so long, and required that his Cabinet members swear an oath of honesty.

Fox broke another political taboo when he prayed at the Basilica of Guadalupe (Mexico's patron saint) on the morning of his inauguration, an unprecedented act in a country that has maintained a strict separation between church and state since the Revolution of 1810. And then he opened the presidential palace to the people for the first time in history.

The media corruption issue interests me because when I was the U.S. Embassy's press officer in Mexico City nearly 30 years ago, most Mexican journalists were paid by the entities they covered; that is, they received checks from their newspapers AND from the government agencies they reported on.

Unfortunately, some foreign embassies participated in this bribery scheme and when journalists came to me seeking "accreditation" (their monthly payoff), I politely explained that we didn't operate that way but if they thought something happening at our embassy was news, they were free to publish the story. Needless to say, I wasn't their favorite embassy spokesman.

And how will President Fox handle relations with the U.S.? Very carefully in accordance with an old Mexican adage that probably dates back to the War of 1848, when American troops occupied Mexico City: "Poor Mexico, so close to the United States and so far from God."

President Clinton, who found the time to visit Communist Vietnam last month, couldn't interrupt his busy schedule to attend Fox's inauguration and Vice President Al Gore was otherwise occupied, as was the Spanish-speaking Governor of Texas, George W. Bush. So we were represented by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who praised Mexican democracy and Fox's vow to crack down on drug trafficking and other cross-border crimes.

Mexico's new foreign secretary is former New York University Prof. Jorge Castaneda, who is viewed as "anti-American" in some circles because he has been an outspoken critic of U.S. policies that he opposes. At times, we have a simplistic tendency to label any Latin politician who disagrees with us as anti-American.

President Fox's dream of an "open border" between Mexico and the U.S. isn't likely to become a reality any time soon since the 2,000-mile border is delineated by steel walls and barbed wire, and watched over by armed U.S. Border Patrol agents. Between 1993 and 1999 the number of border agents doubled from 4,000 to 8,000 in a concerted effort to combat illegal immigration.

With hundreds of thousands of illegals pouring across our southern border every year, the new American president - very likely Governor Bush - should seek a bilateral solution to this problem. When Bush and Fox met last August, the governor advocated a "humane way" of halting the flow of undocumented workers from "our friendly neighbor to the south."

Many observers believe that it's a good time to cut a deal with U.S. unemployment at its lowest level in three decades and fewer people available to fill low-paying jobs in farms, restaurants, factories and Nevada casinos. Perhaps an updated version of the old "bracero" temporary worker program is the answer.

Nevada receives more than its fair share of illegal immigrants from Mexico and other countries to the south, and I interpret for some of them in the local courts. If President Fox is able to strengthen Mexico's economy and bring wages up closer to U.S. levels, however, illegal immigration will be greatly diminished, and that would be a good thing for both countries.

In the meantime, the most helpful thing Washington can do is to support Fox's economic and governmental reform efforts. If he and his new team can create an economy strong enough to keep Mexican workers at home, both countries will benefit.

And then maybe we can seriously discuss Fox's plan to expand the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) into a common market, allowing the free movement of goods and temporary workers across borders. Now that would be a real revolution in U.S.-Mexico relations.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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