Towel flap pops Mexico's Fox

Spending scandal erupts as president struggles to fulfill last year's campaign promises of reform.

Dirty laundry was not exactly what President Vicente Fox was expecting to be hit with as he marks one year since his historic election.

But revelations of a presidential palace renovation including $400 monogrammed towels and $1,000 sheet sets have some Mexicans wondering whether Mr. Fox is living up to the ideals of his campaign.

Pledging to end waste and corruption and transform the economy, Fox broke 71 years of one-party domination by defeating the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) last July 2.

But now the advocate of budget austerity finds himself fending off comparisons with former free-spending leaders of this country where about 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Fox has ordered an investigation by the federal auditor and says heads will roll for the costly purchases.

The scandal, known locally as "toalla-gate," or towel-gate, comes as a growing minority of disappointed Mexicans are concluding that nothing has changed with the election of Fox.

Some analysts voice the view that simply defeating the PRI isn't enough, and that Fox may not be the leader to deliver a new Mexico as he promised.

Yet a strong majority of Mexicans still support Fox seven months after he took office Dec. 1. Surveys show that Fox's approval rating has slid from a previous 70 percent but still remains high. A poll released June 22 by the Mexico City daily Milenio showed two-thirds of Mexicans approving the president's work.

Patiently waiting

What has shifted is that many of his supporters no longer expect the quick progress Fox himself promised in the campaign.

"You can't expect change immediately," says Ricardo Perez Pena, a young Mexico City restaurateur, "especially when you're talking about dismantling the way of doing things for so many decades."

Recalling the enthusiasm he felt on July 2, 2000, Mr. Perez says a year later, "I really don't feel any disappointment at all. I understand better now that the changes we need will take even more than Fox's term. But I think he's off to a good start."

Even with the economy suffering from the slowdown north of the border, many Mexicans say they are just thankful there wasn't the same economic meltdown with Fox's arrival that hit Mexico in recent transitions from one PRI president to another.

Fox has not yet spent all the currency he won with Mexicans by accomplishing what had once seemed impossible - defeating the PRI. The party that ruled longer than any other political party in history gave Mexico what was called the "perfect dictatorship" - as well as a system corroded by corruption and inefficiency.

"What will be possible in six years of government [the Mexican presidential term] will be sowing the seeds of change," says Alicia Buenrostro, a Fox press official. "The fruits of that change - a revolution in education, expanding opportunities, the cultural changes, like stopping corruption, that take so long - will really be felt in 30 or 40 years."

Some analysts say, however, that the lack of concrete results in Fox's first seven months as president bodes ill for a country that requires deep economic, political, and social change if it is to modernize and better the lives of its 100 million citizens.

Skeptics say what amounts to a call for patience underscores how little the new president has delivered.

Fox's tax-reform initiative, which he says will give Mexico the revenues it needs to improve conditions in the country, faces growing opposition in Congress and out. The seven-year-old Mayan Indian rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas - which Fox once said he could solve in 15 minutes - smolders on. The 7 percent growth rate candidate Fox promised has been trimmed by Fox to an anticipated 2.5 percent for 2001.

"July 2 was more than a change of government, it was a change of regime, and that Fox accomplished," says Lorenzo Meyer, a prominent observer of Mexico's political evolution at Mexico City's Colegio de Mexico. "But the more time goes by, the more it seems that while Fox knew his objective was to defeat the PRI, he didn't really know why. The 'what for?' of the Fox presidency is what people are starting to question."

A feeling that "our destiny is not in our hands" or that leaders are not delivering what they promised is not unusual in a world where countries often have few economic options, Mr. Meyer says. But he adds that this sentiment is exacerbated in Mexico by particularly low government revenues that hamper Fox's field of action.

Mexico takes in an anemic 11 percent of GNP in taxes and other government revenues, compared to closer to 30 percent in the US and even other Latin American countries. Fox's plan to boost revenue by taxing food and medicine while lowering income taxes on the wealthiest is so far hitting a stone wall.

Arturo Nunez, a former PRI congressional leader, says what Fox wants to accomplish requires "alliances," especially in a Congress with no clear majority and where the president's own National Action Party remains as critical of Fox as other parties.

"We're in a situation where the president is learning to be a leader and lobby the Congress he needs at the same time; while his party, which developed as an opposition force, is also learning what it is to be in power," Mr. Nunez says. "That learning process is taking longer than is good for the country. It has the yellow caution light burning bright."

Opposition parties have seized on towel-gate, which broke in the press earlier this month and has dominated newspaper pages and Mexican conversation since then, as a way to blast Fox. In one lampoon, politicians and supporters of the Democratic Revolution Party paraded around the center of Mexico City wrapped in towels.

Fox, a tall, down-home-talking cowboy politician, has shot back at his detractors by saying that the remodeling costs became public knowledge thanks to his administration's policy of openness.

"Today, even the price of the towels we buy is in the public domain, and it is good that the media should let people know," Fox says. "That is transparency."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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