Mexico's love-hate affair with first lady

Marta Sahagun de Fox, once with presidential dreams, takes heat for expensive clothes and financial questions

The blue plastic chairs set up so carefully on the lawn were almost empty. The bidders' paddles laid in a neat, untouched pile on a table. The items, 36 dresses from the world's top designers, hung, rather forlornly, on a rack backstage.

The auction, to benefit poor children with cancer, was supposed to start at 11 a.m. But practically no one showed up.

Marta Sahagun de Fox, Mexico's first lady, a powerful and increasingly controversial figure here, can't seem to do anything right lately. Criticized for having spent too much public money on her wardrobe, the well-heeled Ms. Sahagun, commonly known here as "Marta" or "Martita," hastily donated her favorite outfits to a charity which, in turn, tried to auction them off last Sunday.

"But no one likes Marta," explains Rosio Barrios, a butcher who works in a market next door to the auction space. "So it's not a surprise no one wants to wear her old clothes." President Vicente Fox's biggest mistake, she says, wiping her hands on her orange track suit, "was getting married to Marta Sahagun."

The seemingly daily roasting of Sahagun on TV, in newspapers, and by large numbers of Mexicans generally, recalls the days when Hillary Clinton was the lightning rod in the White House. Like Ms. Clinton, Sahagun has taken a prominent role in her husband's government - much to the dismay of critics. The Fox administration says she is being unfairly targeted by political opportunists.

"In the last few months, a series of publications have come out with the intention of attempting to defame the president or members of his family, trying to raise doubts about their honor and reliability," Mr. Fox said in a statement this week. "In the context of the upcoming [2006] election, these publications are part of a political strategy ... to discredit the administration, debilitate institutions, and denigrate politics."

When Fox came to power in 2000, after seven decades of de facto one-party rule, no one expected his wife would be so high profile. That's because he didn't even have one.

Sahagun, a divorced mother of three, was the bachelor president's chief spokeswoman. But soon, her relationship with the boss - a divorcé himself, with four adopted children - became an open secret. On the first anniversary of his election, the two married.

Sahagun, eschewing the typical ceremonial responsibilities of her position, created waves from the get-go. She started her own foundation - "Vamos Mexico" (Let's Go Mexico) - which collected millions from the country's wealthy and distributes everything from bicycles for rural children to food for hurricane victims. She printed parenting guides, delivered computers to schools, and comforted orphans. Her popularity soared, especially among the poor and lower-middle classes. In a poll conducted by the Mexican think tank GEA, a year after she became first lady, supporters of her husband's PAN party named her as their preferred presidential candidate for 2006.

She did nothing to discourage speculation about her political ambitions. "You will have Marta around for a long time," she told reporters last year. "I think Mexico is ready for a woman president."

But Sahagun never managed to gather as much of a following as the former American president's wife did. By the time she officially announced that she would not be seeking the presidency, she already had a new slew of criticisms to fend off. "Vamos Mexico" was accused of donating less than 30 percent of the $30 million collected to actually help the poor - and of siphoning off public funds from the national lottery. Congress began an investigation.

Since then, at least four unfavorable books, hundreds of unflattering political cartoons, and even a rock song titled "I Did Not Vote for Martita," have made the rounds.

Every week seems to bring a new allegation, ranging from accusations she used the presidential jet for a gambling foray to Las Vegas to rumors she uses witchcraft against her enemies.

Some argue that the focus on Sahagun is a diversion from the real issues of the Fox presidency and the country.

"So much of this is irrelevant gossip and does nothing to contribute to the solving of any of our problems," says Marisol Martin, a prominent legal writer.

Others see it differently, arguing that the focus on Sahagun is neither a distraction nor a political ploy against Fox - but rather is at the very heart of the problems of the administration.

"What is lacking is accountability," argues Martha Lucia Micher, a legislator from the leftist Democratic Revolution Party who heads a congressional investigation into abuse of influence by the Sahagun's sons. "The issue of Marta's clothes stops being trivial when it has to do with public funds ... and with the change that was promised to this country." Sahagun has become, says Micher, symbolic of the country's disappointment with a presidency that carried so much hope.

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today. Eloise Quintanilla contributed to this report.

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