Mexico's Third Way?
In a twist, it's the rightist, Vicente Fox, who is courting the leftists in today's vote. If he succeeds in winning their trust, he could put an end to the PRI's 71 years of authoritarian rule.

Issue in Depth
• Mexico's Presidential Election

Vicente Fox, part reforming capitalist and part Catholic traditionalist, scores with the people but not with the intelligentsia.

Photograph by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio


icente Fox climbed a podium in the broiling sun at Minatitlán -- a tropical oil town on Mexico's Gulf Coast oozing with heat and petroleum. A few thousand people gazed at him from under their sun umbrellas and straw sombreros. And he cried out in his booming bass voice, "When is Mexico going to change?"

Fox is running for president of Mexico in today's election, and the people in the street knew his slogan and shouted it back at him.


"When is Minatitlán going to change?"

Everyone shouted, "Today!"

Fox shouted out denunciations of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The PRI has been governing Mexico for 71 years. The PRI is the world's oldest continuously ruling party. It is a tired old dinosaur, dragging its tail through the dust.

"They are corrupt!" he shouted, and the r's in the Spanish corruptos trilled through the loudspeakers. Fox said that 40 million Mexicans live in the most wretched poverty. Millions more have fled to the United States, where they are persecuted and mistreated. Those are the PRI's achievements! He talked about Mexico's presidential palace, Los Pinos. "When are we going to drag the PRI out of Los Pinos?"

And Vicente Fox Quesada and the people of Minatitlán began to chant, "Today! Today! Today!"

Those were campaign slogans. But Fox's question -- When is Mexico going to change?" -- is a question that, in a quieter mood, ordinary Mexicans have been asking themselves for a long time. People get wistful on the topic. They say -- they have said to me a hundred times -- Mexico is rich. We have oil, agriculture, industry. We have a good and honest people. We are creative. We have an artistic soul. So why is Mexico stuck where it is: poor, fearful, awash in baroque crimes and gargantuan bank scandals?"

Mexicans are perfectly aware that all over the world in the last dozen years, one country after another has shaken off the oppression of the ages, has overthrown its authoritarian government and has sometimes lifted itself out of poverty too. Fox plays on that awareness. He invokes the names of Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa. When he cries out, "When will Mexico change?" he wants people to think, "When Vicente Fox gets into power." He wants them to swell with hope. And they do. They shout, "Today!" But you can almost hear them adding, in a dark tone of fatalism, "Maybe!"

Paul Berman is the author of "A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968." His article on Cuauhtemoc C1/3rdenas appeared in the magazine in August 1998.


For how else can Mexicans feel? They have had their hopes raised before. Twelve years ago, in 1988, one of the princes of the PRI, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Sólorzano, having defected from the old party, ran for president as an opposition candidate with support from the left. That time, the feeling of hope was sharp and fiery. Cárdenas won the election, or so it is thought by a good many people. But the PRI is a past master at election frauds. The vote-counters announced a computer crash. The PRI's candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was declared the winner. And Salinas's circle turned out to be spectacularly corrupt, and slightly murderous to boot.

In the 1994 election, people again began to imagine that, at last, the PRI might get overthrown. Cárdenas, the old hero from 1988, had lost some of his sheen by then -- partly because a wave of killings during the Salinas years had decimated his left-wing party. But in Mexico there has always been a right-wing opposition, too, the National Action party, which is Catholic and pro-business. In 1994, someone from National Action stepped forward to lead the new crusade -- a dapper, bearded politician named Diego Fernández de Cevallos, who seemed to be a man of talent.

That year, as in 1988, I watched the goings-on. I remember Diego Fernández's face glowing from a television screen in a Coyoacán cantina, and the whole room shouting "Diego!" Yet, just when Diego Fern%#225ndez seemed to be doing pretty well against the PRI, he stopped campaigning; no one knows why. The PRI sailed to victory yet again. Ernesto Zedillo became president. And ordinary Mexicans sank still deeper into the gray swamp that surrounds authoritarian societies everywhere -- the miasmas of resignation and cynicism, streaked with bizarre and sinister conspiracy theories and brightly colored millenarian fantasies that cannot possibly come to pass.

In the years after Cárdenas's powerful showing in the 1988 race, Mexico did, in its timid way, begin to change. The PRI was always a giant octopus of an organization, with business interests, state enterprises, its own labor unions, street mobs and mass organizations of the poor and a dozen other tentacles, known and unknown, all of them attached to the octopus's head, which consists of money and corruption. Even today, the old organization makes a fairly open habit of buying votes in poor neighborhoods. The PRI's candidate for president in today's election, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, has shown no embarrassment at all in surrounding himself with some of the shadiest faces from the PRI's old guard.

And yet, the democratic breeze has been blowing for a long time now, and the PRI has had to bend with the wind. The old party has allowed one and another opposition politician to win local elections in the last few years, including Cárdenas, who became the mayor of Mexico City, and Vicente Fox, who became the governor of Guanajuato state. Freedom of the press, which used to be minimal, has become more than minimal. And so the PRI has ended up weaker and more vulnerable, and the opposition has grown bigger and richer (no small thing). And this time, in Fox, the opposition has found a candidate who is sensational even in his looks.

For as everyone loves to notice, Vicente Fox, at a rugged 58, is the Marlboro Man. He wears black cowboy boots. His belt buckle, in a slightly ominous touch, touts the oversize letters FOX. His mighty shoulders point like ax blades in either direction. His chin is a steel prow, cutting the air. Every bristly hair of his Dapper Dan mustache expresses impudence. The crown of his head stands a full 6 feet 6 inches above the ground. He is a giant. And that is only half the story.

Francisco Labastida, the PRI candidate, claims to be fighting fascism.

Photograph by Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press


Fox wears his big leather boots because, having grown up on a farm, the rancher's manner is his by right. But having studied with the Jesuits, he left the farm behind and took up a career in business. And because some clichés are, in their boundlessness, positively sinister, the Marlboro Man steadily rose in the world until he had become the president of Coca-Cola in its Mexican branch.

When he shifted over to politics, he enlisted in National Action, the right-wing party. But he also cleverly applied a few soft-drink marketing methods to constructing a parallel organization of his own, the Friends of Fox, in order to keep a distance from the pesky barons and troglodytic ideologues of National Action. He raised money, apparently with no trouble at all (though his enemies complain about foul play). And he has shown that he knows how to work a crowd.

rode in his campaign bus into villa isla, a few miles from Minatitlán, where his local organizers had gathered a few thousand people together with a long row of farm tractors. Fox shook a couple of hands. He strode over to the first of those tractors and climbed into the driver's seat. He clapped a straw sombrero on his head. And right away he began, very slowly, to drive.

The tractor was a big green John Deere with rear wheels five feet tall, and it was surrounded on all sides by the jostling crowd, which made driving a delicate business. But he pushed forward. And with one hand on the wheel, guiding his tractor through the human sea, Fox raised his free hand in the V sign, which is a symbol of his campaign. The crowd roared. And down the street he went, the conquering general, riding in triumph on his white steed, which happened to be a green tractor.

It was quite a stunt. It was the performance of a man who really might get himself elected president -- cheerful, confident, well organized, efficient with time. And so, as any number of Mexicans have come to believe, in today's election the moment for change on the biggest of scales may finally have arrived. Every single condition for a democratic transition at the national level seems to be at hand: a popular disgust for the PRI, a lust for change, a feeling of freedom, a smaller likelihood of large-scale fraud and an opposition leader who radiates brio with every oversize step he takes.

There is only one problem. Vicente Fox is not the only well-liked insurgent running for president. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas is also running. No one seriously believes that Cárdenas can win, though his supporters sometimes convince themselves otherwise. His poll statistics dropped into single figures just a few months ago. But many millions of people in Mexico will always have a place in their hearts for the wronged and defrauded hero of 1988, and his poll statistics began to rise. He still can't win, short of a miracle. But if his numbers climb high enough, he will guarantee that Fox can't win, either. And the PRI will triumph once again.

Mexico's leading feminist nearly exploded at Fox's name. She said that six more years of a lamentable PRI dictatorship would suit her better than a wild experiment with Vicente Fox as president.

When will Mexico change? This year, the question can be answered with exactitude. Mexico will change when enough people among the opposition democrats, on the right and left, agree to pull together against the PRI. You might imagine that, in our postideological age, a principled alliance of right and left would have been easily enough arranged. In any number of countries around the world during the last dozen years, democratic revolutions have succeeded precisely because of that kind of coalition. In 1990, coalitions of the democratic right and left overthrew the governments of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. It was the same in Eastern Europe in 1989, where some of the anti-Communist dissidents were social democrats and others were free-market Thatcherites.

In Mexico, Fox and Cárdenas did entertain the same idea. Their emissaries negotiated, and in the southern state of Chiapas the two parties managed to come up with a single candidate for governor. But no such luck at the national level. It could even be that by the time you read this article, some 11th-hour maneuver might have taken place, and Cárdenas or some of his allies might have thrown their support to Fox. But even if some such alliance did take shape, it is impossible to imagine Cárdenas and his allies working up any enthusiasm for Fox. So the real decision will have to be made by the voters themselves, with or without their leaders -- by many thousands of ordinary Mexicans who might normally prefer to vote for Cárdenas and the left but who will now have to consider voting, in the name of democracy, for Fox, the right-wing cowboy.