Many still waiting for Fox's changes

Saturday, December 1, 2001

MEXICO CITY -- As he sought the presidency in Mexico, Vicente Fox was an impatient crusader who made "Today! Today! Today!" a campaign slogan.

A year after overturning seven decades of political history, Fox is pleading for patience as he struggles with a sluggish economy and a hostile Congress.

Fox changed the country merely by winning the election, ending the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. No living Mexican had ever seen an event quite his inauguration on Dec. 1, 2000: the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another.

But he promised much more -- nothing less than a "revolution of hope" that would transform Mexico into a prosperous, pluralistic, modern democracy.

The economy would grow by 7 percent a year within three or four years. A revived countryside would blossom. Crime would fall. Corruption would be defeated. Business would be liberated from red tape.

In one now lamented quip, Fox suggested he could solve the Zapatista guerrilla rebellion "in 15 minutes." He vowed to crush the corrupt "black snakes" and "toads" of the old regime.

"I firmly believe the problems of the country should be solved today," Fox said in a May 2000 campaign debate.

And he would do it all, he said, while slashing the powers of his own presidency to end Mexico's authoritarian heritage.

Needs OK from 'toads'

In that, Mexico has certainly succeeded. The rise of a once-supine Congress means Fox has less power than any president in generations.

His legislative proposals -- even permission to visit Texas, for that matter -- must be approved by the "black snakes" and "toads" of his campaign: PRI politicians who hold pluralities in both houses of Congress.

Even Fox's own National Action Party has broken the old PRI mold of blindly supporting its president. It weakened Fox by helping rewrite his first proposal to Congress, an Indian rights bill meant to end the Zapatista revolt.

"They showed they were not Roman soldiers. They were not willing to fall on their swords," said political analyst Federico Estevez. "When they bucked and they said no, the signal they gave to everybody else was that it was clear that Fox did not count on the certain support of his party, and the ante went up for everyone else" in rival parties.

"We ended up with a do-nothing Congress, a do-nothing government in the midst of a do-nothing economy," Estevez added.

Fox took office just as a worldwide economic slump dragged Mexico back to zero growth and forced cuts in planned social spending.

Congress has stalled Fox's proposed overhaul of the tax system. He hasn't even tried to introduce promised political reforms.

Grumbling about the modified Indian rights bill, the Zapatistas returned, unpacified, to the jungle after marching to the capital to promote Fox's original bill.

Critics say promises of new funds for education, health, local governments and welfare have been unmet.

Feuding with press

Polls show the president remains popular, though his approval ratings have slowly declined under steady sniping from his critics.

Usually upbeat, Fox recently feuded with the press after he was lampooned for wearing patent-leather cowboy boots to meet Spain's king, flubbing the name of late Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and letting aides order comically expensive towels for the presidential residence.

But he has kept his vow to avoid trying to muzzle the press in the way that PRI presidents long did.

The voluble, folksy Fox often seems to be a cheerleader in chief. He tours the country to promote hard work and self-reliance and to drum up private financing for farms, schools and factories where public funds are bare.

The cheerleading can pay off. Aides claim that a sharp increase in money sent home by Mexicans abroad is partly due to optimism over Fox and to government attention to their needs -- lobbying for lower fees on money transfers, for example.

Those transfers now rival tourism as a source of national income.

Fox insists things are on course, even if he no longer shouts "Today! Today! Today!"

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