Cowboy brings Mexico a new leadership style

Vicente Fox will be sworn in today as the first non-PRI president in 71 years.

Today, Mexico City street kid Manuel Santos will have breakfast with his president.

Before Vicente Fox dons the presidential sash and becomes Mexico's first president in 71 years not from the PRI, he'll stop by this slum in the capital. Here, he'll break tamales and sip atole (a hot sweet-milk and corn-starch drink) with street children and locals. (See related story, page 2.)

There's a public relations element to this breakfast, of course. But along with Fox's other moves, it shows how the cowboy president is already changing the traditionally imperial Mexican presidency, in ways big and small.

"I don't think Senor Fox is doing this just for his image, because most people see us as animals, so how could it help him to be seen with us?" Manuel reasons. "I think he's telling us that, for him, we count."

Fox takes office today on a wave of demand for change. His focus will be a revival of the impoverished Mexican middle class and a great leap in the number of Mexicans who, like Manuel, feel they "count" and have a stake in their country.

After a series of popular fiestas around the country this weekend to celebrate the new Mexico that emerged from July's landmark elections, Fox will permanently throw open to the public the president's gated official residence, Los Pinos.

He is also scuttling what he considers outdated taboos. He'll host an inaugural dinner tonight at Chapultepec Castle, long a pejorative symbol of the Mexican "royal president." He's already been publicly practicing his Roman Catholic faith, despite a tradition dating to the Mexican Revolution that presidents be distanced from the powerful church.

"It was our bad custom in Mexico that presidents were grand, distant men who didn't live normal lives among the people and didn't have to stoop to the level of the lowest among us, like street children," says Lucia Ruano, who runs Liberty House, where Fox will breakfast. "The changes are as much for us as for Vicente Fox, because now we will have to see ourselves differently, even as we see our leaders differently."

Fox plans no drifting from the global-trade, free-market economy constructed by his two predecessors. But this former Coca-Cola executive will mix his pragmatic business side and an obsession with tackling poverty, immediately focusing on up-by-the-bootstraps initiatives.

As he did as governor of Guanajuato state, he'll set up a program of microcredits for marginalized Mexicans with ideas for generating wealth. And he'll budget millions of dollars for scholarships and credits for schooling through college level, with the idea that no Mexican child should leave school for economic reasons. And as he sets out to accomplish that, the new president will be sending an important message to the rest of the hemisphere: that change can be accomplished with respect for the rule of law and without resorting to strongman, "caudillo" presidencies.

"Fox has committed to a limited presidency, and that's healthy," says Delal Baer, a Mexico specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Part of that is Fox's dominant pragmatism. He knows he's taking office with a Congress that has no clear majority and where the three principal parties (including his own center-right National Action Party) are on the couch analyzing identity crises.

But until the Fox election, Mexico lagged behind other Latin American democracies that had already experienced orderly handovers in executive power. Now Mexico stands as a "shining example of constitutional order," Ms. Baer says, with a president committed to ruling not by steamrolling other powers, such as Congress, but by working with them.

For some Fox critics, especially from the left, initiatives like the opening of Los Pinos and street-kid breakfasts are only a confirmation of what they have long feared as Fox's style trumping substance.

But others say these programs reveal a leader with a particular vision for achieving national progress, advocating both small and larger ideas. "I'd call it depth of change through an original style," says Liberty House's Ms. Ruano, who first knew Fox as a young man who organized sports at the home for indigent children where she grew up.

"Sure there's some fluff in what [Fox] is doing, but we also shouldn't forget that when he took over Coca Cola here, it was No. 2 in Mexico, behind Pepsi," says Mexico City political analyst Federico Estevez. "When he was done, it was No. 1. And how did he do that? He had a vision, created a team to help him, and followed the vision with a vengeance."

Some elements of that vision are going to be a hard sell to Congress, especially initiatives like opening the electrical energy sector to foreign investment, which nationalist and reform-averse sectors of Mexican society see as the true thrust of Fox's heavily entrepreneurial government.

Fox knew all along some of his proposals would not be swallowed easily, which is why he has said since his election-night victory that he would form a government with talent from all of Mexico's political forces. But the time it took to form his Cabinet and its final composition, unveiled last week, show he was unable to do that.

Now some analysts say he will face a strengthening opposition from the left, where Baer says the "long-lost cousins" of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party and its more-left-wing offshoot, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, will increasingly team up.

But Fox's gubernatorial experience shows he knows how to sit down with opponents and hammer out a deal preserving the essentials of what he wants. He also comes into office with high public support.

"He'll be willing to spend his honeymoon capital on tough decisions, like tax reform," says Baer. As he moves to build the new Mexico he envisions, Fox starts with one advantage no Mexican president has had for three decades: He isn't taking office with an economic crisis breathing down his neck.

"For the first time in 30 years, a Mexican president is taking office with no dark clouds on the horizon, either economic or political," says Mr. Estevez. "Most Mexicans alive today have never known this in a presidential transition. It's a tremendous advantage for Fox," he adds, "and it's the reason he'll be able to hit the ground running."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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