A New Mexican Revolution

February 15, 2001

When President George W. Bush meets with his Mexican counterpart on his first foreign trip tomorrow, the two will have more in common than cowboy boots, ranches, and the Rio Grande.
It is no stretch to call President Vicente Fox a compassionate conservative. The leader of Mexico’s conservative National Action Party, or PAN, has reached out to his congressional opposition. Both are minority presidents who hope to prevail by picking up opposition blocs with specific legislation. But Fox, who campaigned against the PAN hierarchy to win the party’s nomination, is more like Senator John McCain in temperament as well as program. Moreover, it almost trivializes Mexico’s historic democratic transition to equate it with what is happening in Washington.

Fox heads a reform process whose scale dwarfs Bush’s agenda. Mexico is undergoing a transformation of its economic and political system, not just a change of government; an institutional makeover, not merely a shift in parties. The changes Mexico has achieved and the ones Fox now envisions can fairly be called revolutionary. But if this is a new Mexican revolution, it is a gradual, nonviolent, and democratic one.

Mexico is moving toward a federal, liberal democracy from having been a virtual one-party state. Like Mexico’s Congress, the Mexican Supreme Court has gained leverage over the last few years. State governors have earned a degree of autonomy from the central government hardly imaginable in the heyday of the centralized reign of the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. At the same time Mexico has embarked on a policy of economic liberalization involving privatizations (unfortunately, often nepotistic) as part of the dismantling of the autarchic PRI model.

Mexico’s is first of all a revolution against the impunity of absolute rulers, crooked officials, and drug lords. Fox is engaged in what could be a duel to the death against the cartels that recently shot a state governor and sprung a drug baron from jail. The Fox administration recently announced that it intends to extradite 14 Mexican drug kingpins to the United States. These events make the current US practice of ”certifying” Mexico’s antinarcotics cooperation appear superfluous as well as demagogic.

In a country where nationalist cant has excused waste and corruption, Fox’s willingness to place responsibility for Mexico’s problems at its own door is a radical departure. He proposes to expose the corrupt and inefficient nationalized energy sector to competition and foreign investment. It would help California if Mexico became a major exporter of electricity. Fox also seeks to clean up a corrupt bureaucracy, which he blames for much of Mexico’s poverty.

But it would be misleading to depict Fox’s election as a sudden break with a rotten past. What is distinctive about the Mexican transition to markets and democracy is its length and its many parents.

The Mexican transition is the handiwork of the entire political spectrum: leftists from the 1968 student movement, PAN reformers who began winning local elections two decades ago, and a centrist, technocratic, market-oriented elite from the dominant PRI. The last PRI president, Ernesto Zedillo, carried out political reforms that allowed Fox to win.

The complex roots of this transition help explain why Fox has formed a meritocratic Cabinet of PANistas, PRIistas and (not-so-former) leftists. But the PRI is the most numerous party in the Mexican Congress and could unite with the left-leaning PRD—the Party of the Democratic Revolution—to block Fox’s energy and tax reforms. Fox’s proposal to grant local Indian autonomy in exchange for peace with Zapatista rebels also faces resistance, even within his own government.

Energy and trade as well as drugs and immigration will occupy the bulk of the Bush-Fox conversations, but progress in all of these will be abetted by deepening the Mexican reform process. The United States should also bear in mind that Mexico’s democratization contrasts brightly with bad news elsewhere in Latin America, especially in the Andes.

The guerrilla war in Colombia is spilling over its border. Venezuela’s new leader cozies up to Fidel Castro and has begun to jail critics. Peru’s autocratic leader recently fled to virtual exile in Japan when scandal engulfed his regime. Thus a good piece of Latin America faces a choice between authoritarianism and violence or Fox’s peaceful democratic road. Bush should do what he can to clear obstacles like certification from that road.