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Mexico Under Fox

When he was elected Mexico's president five years ago, Vicente Fox ended the Institutional Revolutionary Party's seven decade grip on power. But many observers say his ambitious programs to reform the country's politics and economy have been disappointing at best.

It was an event, the likes of which Mexico had not experienced in seven decades. In 2000, Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, rode to power on a wave of enthusiasm fostered by his promise to overhaul the political and economic life of a country racked by corruption. In winning the presidential election, the 58 year-old Mr. Fox ousted the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had held power since 1929.

The Mexican Constitution limits presidents to one six-year term. Thus, in 2000, Mr. Fox did not face an entrenched and long-serving incumbent, but rather the PRI's nationwide and well-organized political machine, which observers said controlled the media and had turned keeping itself in power into an art form.

Enter Vicente Fox, the former governor of the central state of Guanajuato, with his well-trimmed mustache and trademark cowboy boots. His victory caused a sensation in a country longing for change and where 40% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Sidney Weintraub is an expert on Mexico at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or C.S.I.S. He says Mr. Fox's election fostered a significant change in Mexico's political culture. "I think his major domestic achievement was the fact that he was elected, because it changed quite dramatically the nature of the Mexican process in that a party could win and lose, be turned out of power, come in to power. And that's an important change."

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, who runs the Mexico Program at C.S.I.S., gives the Fox administration credit for some significant achievements. Mr. Peschard adds, "I think at the end of the day, Mexico now no longer has the all-powerful president that had the rubber-stamp Congress. It definitely represents progress for Mexico in that you have congressional oversight and you have more checks and balances. They have been able to get some pieces of legislation. For example, there is a Mexican transparency law that forces the executive branch to be more transparent."

But experts on Mexico agree that the weakness of President Fox's PAN party in Congress and other political constraints have severely limited his ability to push through other significant reforms. According to Peter Hakim, President of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, "Whenever you have a government that doesn't control the legislature, you have difficulties. The fact is that Fox was unable to resolve that. It was on his watch that a whole series of reforms did not get done and that he has to accept the blame as the president."

One of the most frequently cited criticisms of Mr. Fox's tenure in office is his inability to reform the country's energy sector. The state-owned PEMEX company dominates the country's oil production. But Peter Hakim says it needs outside help to boost production and modernize Mexico's energy infrastructure.

"Mexico, as you know is a large producer of oil and changes that would allow for greater private investment even in some of the related industries should have helped Mexico a great deal economically, would have helped the United States, would have helped the relationship between the two countries."

Sidney Weintraub of C.S.I.S. says another problem stems from the weakness of the Mexican state. He says the Fox administration has not been able to modernize the country in the way it would like in part because the government cannot collect all of the taxes it needs in order to implement its policies.

"If we are talking about the ability to actually collect taxes that are on the books, there are some difficulties there," says Mr. Weintraub. "The underground economy is about 40% of the total economy and most of these people don't pay taxes. With the value-added tax, Mexico collects about 40% of what the potential is under the tax structure. In other words, that really runs into ingrained habits of Mexicans not paying their taxes when they don't have to."

In foreign policy, President Fox has also been unable to accomplish his goal of a far-reaching immigration agreement with the United States. He and President Bush, whose home state of Texas has a large Mexican-American minority, established a cordial working relationship in early 2001, as the two leaders took office less than two months apart. However, the United States dramatically reordered its foreign policy priorities toward the Middle East and South Asia and away from Latin America after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Next year, Mexico will elect a new president. No one knows whether the new head of state will come from Mr. Fox's National Action Party, the PRI, or the left-wing Revolutionary Democratic Party. But most experts agree that Mr. Fox's victory five years ago has ushered in a culture of democratic dissent and media freedom that will push Mexico toward greater democracy, no matter who wins next year's election.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.