Mexico and the failure of Vicente Fox

By Zidane Zeraoui (for Safe Democracy)

Zidane Zeraoui examines the government of ex-President of Mexico, Vicente Fox Quesada, explaining that Fox‘s policy-making was erroneous from the very beginning. Fox‘s faith in the possibility to change the country, without negotiating with the other political forces in Mexico, brought his government to an impasse and paralyzed all reform. In the name of a poorly understood democracy, Fox carried out an erratic economic policy (without growth), and a disastrous foreign policy (without results). He was also incapable of resolving the growing Zapatista turmoil in Oaxaca. In Zeraoui‘s opinion, the new President, Felipe Calderon, has already begun to differentiate himself from his predecessor in defining his national and international priorities, proving, yet again, that Vicente Fox‘s Presidency was a failure for Mexico.

Zidane Zeraoui is a professor of International Relations and Coordinator of the Master’s program in International Studies at the Technological University of Monterrey, Mexico.

ON DECEMBER 1ST, IN AN UNREMARKABLE CEREMONY, Vicente Fox Quesada stepped down from the Presidency of Mexico after six years of erratic and contradictory leadership.

When Fox won the elections on July 2nd, 2000, the hope that a new era of democratic development had begun took hold of all of Mexico, thanks to Fox’s direct and frank manner of expressing his ideas. Ever since the ex-Governor of Guanajuato entered into the electoral race –against the will of the traditional sector of the National Action Party (PAN)– he was seen as a man of daring: a leader capable of kicking the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) out of Los Pinos (the Presidential residency of Mexico).

And Fox achieved just that, winning with an ample margin of 42.5 percent against the eternal loser Cuahtemoc Cardenas (who had already lost several elections and been snubbed by his own Democratic Revolutionary Party members) and the PRI dinosaur, Francisco Labastida Ochoa (who had only managed to beat out Madrazo in the partisan elections by resorting to the PRI tradition of inter-party fraud).

Vicente Fox was an excellent communicator, and a charismatic Presidential candidate, but his success in the elections did not translate into success as a national leader.

Fox set out on the wrong path from the very beginning. His faith in the possibility of changing the country without negotiating with the other political powers in control led Mexico to an impasse and paralyzed reform. In the first three years of his government, confrontation between the executive and legislative branches impeded the advancement of the reforms necessary to transform the PRI’s authoritarian structured institutions.

And so, rather than changing the PRI’s institutions, Fox decided to govern with them, despite the fact that PAN held a minority in Congress. The announcement within two years of taking office that Marta Sahagun, Fox’s wife, would become PAN’s Presidential candidate for the elections of 2006 demonstrates perfectly the loss of political control of Fox’s administration. Yet, it was the hope of achieving a majority in Congress in the legislative elections of 2003 that led the President to ignore negotiations with the opposition, hoping for PAN control of the legislature in the middle of his six-year term.

These initial errors –the lack of growth due to an absence of reforms and erratic decision-making, as well as the external shock of September 11th– marked the first period of Fox’s presidency, and destroyed PAN’s chances of gaining control over the Congress. In 2003, in fact, PAN lost seats, falling from 205 seats to 153, while the PRI went from 208 to 224, and the PRD from 54 to 95. With this new legislative configuration, Fox’s capacities for Presidential negotiation had been reduced drastically. And the opposition parties saw the possibility to put pressure on the government by blocking any suggestion for structural reform.

Little economic growth –despite the favorably high price of oil–, unemployment, political errors –like the attempted political trial against Lopez Obrador, then Mayor of the City of Mexico– and a pre-elections campaign of PAN candidates (including Fox’s own wife) marked the uselessness of the rest of Fox’s mandate.

But it is, above all, his foreign policy that stands out as the most egregious of his failures. The decision to subordinate Mexico to the United States in an alliance, ended with disaster on every front. The defeat of the second Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Luis Ernesto Derbez, by the Chilean Insulza for the position of Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), as well as the polemic unleashed during the Mar de Plata (Argentina) Summit at the end of 2005 when Fox brought up the FTAA, even though the agenda for the day was to discuss hemispheric security, are among the administration’s most consequential blunders. Nestor Kirchner even signaled to Fox that he seemed to be spending more time worrying about George W. Bush’s interests, than the interests of the Mexican people.

And yet, the coup de grace of Fox’s political career came from his own successor. Immediately after taking over the Presidency, Felipe Calderon began to distinguish himself from his predecessor by establishing distinct national priorities. Calderon decided to pay his Presidential visits first to other Latin American nations, and then to the United States. When Fox began his term he invited George W. Bush to his ranch in Guanajuato to symbolize the start of a new alliance, one that ended in a resounding failure.

All of the publicity spots that the new President has launched indicate that a change has come, and a new era is beginning. Even the Presidential image has changed: Calderon brought back the Mexican constitutional shield of arms, the famous eagle devouring a serpent, thus replacing Fox’s self-created shield of arms (that Congress declared in violation of patriotic symbols).

Calderon’s small margin of victory (having won only .45 percent more votes that Lopez Obrador) will force him to employ the strategy of negotiation that his predecessor failed to implement.

And in the face of adversity, Calderon has shown himself, already, to be a firm leader. Not only was he sworn in despite massive PRD militant blockades of Congress, but he has also begun to take action to resolve the crisis in Oaxaca by arresting the leaders of the APPO movement, as well as sending 7,000 soldiers to Michoacan to stamp out drug trafficking.

Already, Calderon is distinguishing himself from Fox, who, in the name of a poorly understood democracy, was not able to solve the question of Oaxaca, nor the problem of the Zapatistas. Fox was also incapable of building a new airport, essential to solve congestion in Mexico City, because of the opposition of Atenco flower sellers.

Only weeks after Fox stepped down, sapped of all honor, Calderon has already put the final touches on reversing the effects of Fox’s incompetent and useless term.

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1) In the Presidential elections of 2000, Cardenas only won 16.64 percent of the votes, while in the legislative elections the PRD got 18.63 percent, which is to say that Cardenas was so unpopular that 2 percent of PRD voters voted for Fox.

2) On various occasions, Fox’s Presidential Spokesperson contradicted him.

3) Both Fox as well as his first Minister of Foreign Affairs Jorge Castaneda, wanted to create a total alliance with the United States, a complete enchilada as Castaneda called it. However, President George W. Bush placed most of his priority on his war on terror and security, thus marginalizing Mexico. The US decision to build a wall, more than 1,000 kilometers long, along the border between the two countries, will stand as a symbol for years to come of the failed foreign policy of Fox’s government.