Mexico enters new era as Vicente Fox becomes president

MEXICO CITY - A towering businessman in custom cowboy boots strode into Mexico's presidency Friday, ending a seven-decade political dynasty and thrusting his nation into a new, democratic era.

Raising his right hand and swearing to uphold the Constitution ''for the poor and marginalized people of this country,'' Vicente Fox brought to a close a political system that dates to the Mexican Revolution.

''What is at stake over the next six years is not just the change of a party in power,'' Fox said. ''What is at stake is much more significant and profound: the hopes of millions of Mexicans.''

Thousands of those Mexicans lined the streets of the capital, wanting somehow to be a part of what Fox calls simply ''the change.'' Even the earth shook and a volcano erupted as the new president began his term.

''I've never lived under any other system. Neither has my mother - or my grandmother,'' said Mirel Orozco, a 27-year-old college student who went into the streets with her mother to catch a glimpse of Fox passing.

''Imagine someone blindfolded you for 70 years. Today, they suddenly took off the blindfold and said, 'Look, there's the sea. There's the sun,''' she said. ''Now let's see if the sea is blue, like they say it is.''

Fox took the oath of office before a joint session of Congress, breaking a 71-year string of presidents from the Institutional Revolution Party. Fox, a member of the National Action Party, won the election July 2.

The inauguration was the first event in a three-day series of celebrations in four Mexican cities, during which Fox planned to meet with peasants, Indians, artists and intellectuals.

On Friday, he showered the nation with populist promises, and pledged ''to demolish all vestiges of authoritarianism.''

He appealed for national dialogue - something he will need as he works with the most divided Congress in a century - and vowed a government of tolerance for all viewpoints.

After naming a Cabinet heavy with conservative businessmen, Fox's speech seemed intended to assure Mexicans he will attack poverty and social injustice and that the fight against crime, drug-smuggling and corruption would go beyond muscle.

''No police force can stop hunger and unemployment,'' he said.

In contrast to the stiff delivery of past presidents, Fox showed touches of humor. Often accused of overly grandiose promises and famed for his cowboy boots - he had a pair custom made from goat and ostrich leather for Friday's events - Fox playfully assured Congress: ''I have my boots firmly planted on the ground.''

His first act of government was to send to Congress an Indian rights bill drafted in peace talks with the Zapatista rebels, and which his predecessor had rejected.

Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, hunkered down in the jungles of southern Chiapas state, had wary hope for Fox, writing in a communique: ''The nightmare ends today. Another could follow, or it could be a new dawn.''

Fox answered him in a speech Friday, assuring him: ''Today a new dawn begins for Chiapas.''

Fox began the day unlike any president in well over a century - with a visit to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint. All Mexican presidents had shunned religious displays since 18th-century struggles against the Roman Catholic church's privileged role in the country.

Fox spent several moments kneeling at the altar in silent prayer, often gazing up at the image of the Virgin, before leaving to shouts of ''Viva Vicente!'' from other worshippers.

His motorcade threaded slowly through crowds of people waving from the sidewalks, and sometimes had to stop as police cleared the way.

Fox then had an open-air breakfast with street children in Mexico City's tough Tepito neighborhood. Wearing a blue work shirt and jeans, Fox chatted and laughed with children, handing out tamales and pouring cups of atole - a traditional drink based on corn starch - as mariachis played.

He ducked into a slum apartment to change into his suit before heading to Congress for the inauguration, where guests ranging from Cuban President Fidel Castro to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright awaited him.

As the sun rose over Mexico City, a mile-high plume of ash could be seen billowing from the Popocatepetl Volcano. Hours later, while Fox was heading to church, buildings swayed when a magnitude-5.1 earthquake struck. There were no reports of damage.

''We are leaving purgatory and entering heaven,'' said political analyst Primitivo Rodriguez, who said he didn't vote for Fox. ''Whether Fox governs well or poorly, Mexico is entering a fantastic, new and beautiful era: the era of democracy.''


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