Mexico's Reality Check

Mexican voters made a historic choice three years ago when they ended the 71-year monopoly of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and elected Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) as president. The vote was a cry for economic reform and curbing corruption.

But in July, voters held Mr. Fox to account, cutting back by 51 the number of seats the PAN holds in the lower house of Mexico's Congress. In this week's annual state-of-the-nation address, Fox's usual sunny optimism gave way to a more accurate and frank assessment of what the country needs. Gone was the partisan rhetoric of his campaign speeches, replaced by a call for cooperation and negotiation to get things done.

That's a start.

One of Fox's promises in 2000 was to create millions of jobs, so Mexicans wouldn't have to emigrate to the US to find work. But Mexico now has the highest jobless rate in five years, and more than half its 102 million people are officially ranked as poor.

To be fair, Fox has presided over a period of relative economic stability for a third-world country; inflation is at its lowest in 30 years. But the economy remains stagnant. Meanwhile, China has overtaken Mexico as the second-largest source of US imports, because foreign investors find Mexico less attractive.

But Fox's proposed response - overhauling the tax code to boost revenue and opening up the state- dominated energy industry to the private sector - must not push aside another promise: to improve the country's human rights record.

Things are going in the wrong direction there, too. Last month the foreign minister closed the country's first high-level human rights office on the same day Amnesty International released a report criticizing the government's inept investigation into the mysterious killings and disappearances of more than 300 women over the past 10 years in Ciudad Juárez.

Elsewhere, an inquiry into past human rights violations - including routine police torture and the massacre of student protesters before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics - languishes for lack of support. Then there's the long-standing problem of human rights violations in the southern state of Chiapas, both before and since the 1994 Zapatista uprising.

Fox and Mexico's Congress must work together toward long-term systemic reform. Mexico's problems won't be solved in one presidential term. But Fox must act more boldly to root out entrenched interests and old political habits, or he will squander his opportunity to effect real change.

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