Mexico's New President Fox

One day I visited Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in his campaign headquarters. I told him, in all sincerity, that he was the hero of Mexican democracy, due to his race in 1988 and his dignity afterward. And I asked if he didn't worry that by splitting the opposition, he was going to bring his heroic career to a tragic end. My premise was that Fox's victory would represent an obvious forward step for democracy. But Cárdenas didn't agree, for reasons that mirror a crucial ambiguity that you find among a lot of people in the Mexican left. If you ask those people to explain why they hate the PRI, sometimes they will say: because the PRI is corrupt and dictatorial. But other times they will fall into an old-fashioned, left-wing style of thinking, which looks on economics as the foundation of life and on politics as secondary. When they slip into that particular mood, Mexico's leftists are likely to say: we despise the PRI because it is the agent of the rich.

From Cárdenas's perspective, the PRI wasn't so bad until the early 1980's, when it began privatizing the old state economy. But from that point of view, Fox's National Action offers very little alternative. National Action is strictly pro-business, and given its druthers, would surely privatize everything in sight. National Action and the PRI disagree on many things, but on macroeconomic issues, their instincts are the same.

Now, you might suppose that after all these years the Mexican left could tell at a glance the difference between a corrupt, authoritarian octopus like the PRI and an ordinary pro-business party like National Action, even if both parties speak the language of market economics. But the Mexican left has modern moods and antique moods, and when antiquity prevails, the left sees no difference at all. That was Cardenas's position. He said about Fox, "I don't think he represents the real and deep change that Mexico needs."

Cárdenas had a deeper worry, too -- a gut belief that, even apart from economic policy, Fox is no democrat at all. It is because of his tempestuousness and because of the crafty shifts in his campaign positions. Cárdenas worried about National Action and its old-fashioned Catholic prudery and its line on abortion and other sexual questions.

Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the leftist, probably cannot win but can determine who will.

Photograph by Jorge Silva/Agence France-Presse/Corbis


And this gut belief of Cárdenas's, as I discovered, was by no means his alone. I visited the new mayor of Mexico City, Rosario Robles Berlanga, who took over City Hall after Cárdenas resigned to run for president. Robles is a vigorous woman in her mid-40's, a big talent who has made herself tremendously popular in no time flat -- someone with a real possibility of becoming a presidential contender herself six years from now on a left-wing ticket. She told me that in her judgment Fox is an authoritarian-in-waiting. "There is no difference between him and Fujimori," she said, referring to the Peruvian strongman.

I visited Carmen Boullosa, who is one of Mexico's liveliest literary figures. Fox reminded Boullosa of the macho Catholic authoritarians she knew as a child, against whom she had to rebel -- the kind of figure who has always blocked the door to any kind of modern life. I visited Marta Lamas, Mexico's leading feminist and the editor of "Debate Feminista." Lamas nearly exploded at Fox's name. She saw in him a threat to every forward step that women have taken in Mexico, a threat so large and dangerous that, unlike all the other left-wingers with whom I spoke, she said that six more years of a lamentable PRI dictatorship would suit her better than a wild experiment with Vicente Fox as president.

The whole attitude was expressed in detail by Carlos Monsiváis, the cultural critic, in the weekly magazine Proceso and again over coffee and Coke. Monsiváis looked on Fox as the worst sort of Catholic reactionary. He had gathered together an alarming collection of quotations to prove it, too: Fox complaining about the useful laws that long ago defined the secular state; Fox criticizing the lay character of public education; Fox saying he wants the schools to teach religious values, meaning Catholic values. Monsivais observed that on matters of abortion, Fox has expressed a hostility even to the extreme cases, like the rape of a child, where Mexican law does permit the procedure. Fox on homosexuality: "A degenerate act which goes against human nature."

Monsiváis saw a dangerous messianism in Fox. It bothered him no end that Fox began his campaign by hoisting the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the ancient symbol of Mexico's Catholic extreme right. But then, for all his hair-raising quotations, Monsivais wouldn't go so far as Lamas, the feminist. He looked on Fox as horrible, and on the PRI as even more horrible. It was just that Monsivais couldn't possibly bring himself to vote for the lesser of two horribles. He told me he was going to vote for Cárdenas and hope for the best.

That sort of reaction has not gone unnoticed among Fox's advisers. And so, in the latter days of the campaign, Fox set out to undo some of his more disastrous gestures to the extreme right. The banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe was quietly put away. In one of his television debates, Fox poured words of praise on the Mexican left for its historic role in opposing the PRI. He praised the student uprising of 1968. He praised Cárdenas himself for his battles on behalf of democracy.

It is true that in trying to soothe the ruffled left, Fox also managed now and then to hurl a few unforgivable personal insults. I watched him stand up in Veracruz and call Cárdenas a traitor to his own party for refusing to withdraw from the race. He insulted Cárdenas's mother. A bad move! Still, he calmed down and resumed his courtship, with an occasional success. A group of some 30 left-wingers announced that they were endorsing Fox in spite of their philosophical differences. Those were serious radicals -- people from the defunct Mexican Communist Party and from the '68 student rebellion. They held a meeting in Mexico City, and Fox stood on the podium and pushed his courtship even further. In a sober tone, as if swearing an oath to the entire public, he promised not to do any of the scary things, point by point, that he had been accused of wanting to do.

Cárdenas had a deeper worry -- a belief that, even apart from economic policy, Fox is no democrat at all. And this gut belief of Cardenas's, as I discovered, was by no means his alone.

"I commit myself to maintain the lay character of the Mexican state and public education," he said. "I commit myself to maintain the liberty, diversity and pluralism of Mexican society and never to use the power of the state to impose lifestyles, religious beliefs or codes of personal behavior. To respect the liberty of creation, of culture and of expression of all the groups who form Mexican society."

He promised to limit the power of the presidency, which, under the PRI, has been almost monarchical. He promised to make the struggle against poverty and inequality the "supreme priority" of his new government. And he absolutely promised not to do what, in the past, he has always been itching to do, which is to privatize Mexico's state oil company, Pemex.

It was everything he could possibly do to placate the left, short of cutting off a hand. But the response among a good many left-wingers was, I must say, to recoil from Fox even more violently than before -- as if he had now revealed himself to be not just a dangerous reactionary but a dangerous liar too, a man without any principles whatsoever, not even reactionary principles.

It should be added that Fox's enemies on the left have not been the only people to glance in his direction and worry. Enrique Krauze is Mexico's leading historian and one of its most eloquent defenders of liberal democratic ideas, and in May he published his own estimation of Fox. It was a balanced appraisal, not entirely condemning Fox but fretting about his political background. Krauze reminded his readers that during the 1920's, thousands of peasants in central Mexico rebelled against the anticlerical wing of Mexico's Revolution and in the name of Christ the King went to war. They were known as the Cristeros, from the Spanish for Christ. The war was a calamity.

Fox, as Krauze saw him, comes out of the fiercest of the Cristero districts and has always nursed a vivid and slightly alarming nostalgia for Cristero values. Then, too, Krauze observed that Fox went to visit Fidel Castro not long ago and came away full of praise. That was not exactly a right-wing thing to do. Krauze found it worrisome, though.

There is, of course, one other group that has been steadily tossing its own criticisms at Fox. An internal dossier of Francisco Labastida's PRI campaign has fallen into my hands -- a book-length analysis of Fox, part of which appears to have been written by a psychologist, in the grimmest of terms: "An obsessive character, possibly associated with messianic delirium," not to mention misogyny and authoritarianism. And, sure enough, no sooner did I leaf through the PRI dossier than I began to notice attacks of that nature on Fox's character appearing in the press. It was even suggested, somewhat indirectly, that Fox is not only a madman but also a fascist.

Labastida spoke at a PRI rally in Jalisco. "Long live liberty and long live tolerance!" cried the candidate of the world's oldest ruling party. "Let's not let reaction, intolerance and fascism spread!"

o is Vicente Fox the hope for Mexican democracy? or, if you will pardon the pun, is Fox a wolf in sheep's clothing? I cannot peer into his head to identify his actual intentions. But I have been able to observe him and chat with him on a number of occasions. And I can offer an impression. His personal values on questions of abortion, homosexuality and the importance of religious education came to him from his Jesuit upbringing, in the conservative environment that Krauze has described. Those ideas are not going to change.

Even now he collects books on Cristero themes. But business became his passion. When he changed course in life and became a politician for National Action, he had no difficulty in squaring his antique Catholic sentiments with his modern business ideas. National Action has always had its Catholic nostalgias. The party was organized in 1939 to fight against the leftward tilt of the Mexican Revolution, and its early sympathies veered toward Generalissimo Franco in Spain. Franco's Falange wore blue shirts and so did Mexico's National Action. Still, the old fascists in Spain have mostly evolved into democratic conservatives. And in Mexico, National Action, which was never entirely fascist, likewise evolved -- from the party of Christ the King to the Catholic party of business and democracy.

ox himself shows the evolution. as soon as he opens his mouth, it becomes obvious that he despises the PRI -- despises it with a quick, hot passion that endears him to ordinary people. He remembers the PRI's murders, massacres and corruption. But mostly he hates the PRI because it has run Mexico's economy badly. He is an outraged businessman. And then, having evolved into a businessman-politician, he adopted one more set of ideas, which you don't find anywhere else in National Action.

This last set of inspirations came to him from an unhappy experience in his first, unsuccessful race for the governorship of Guanajuato state, back in 1991. The PRI converted that particular election into an obvious fraud. Fox mounted a furious protest. And he found himself standing shoulder to shoulder with a number of activists from the left, Cárdenas's supporters, who were campaigning for a modern electoral system. One of those people was Jorge G. Castañeda, a political writer who is well known in the United States as a commentator on Mexican affairs and as a professor at New York University.

In 1991, Castañeda was an ambitious young man from an elite but slightly peculiar background. His father had been foreign minister for the PRI. He himself had spent a few years in the Mexican Communist Party. By the time he met Fox, though, the young Castañeda had given up on Communism and was hard at work trying to rethink the whole concept of leftism and its goals. His research led him to still another Latin American professor in the United States, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a Brazilian who teaches at Harvard.

Mangabeira Unger had soured on the traditional left-wing dream of a giant social-welfare state. He wanted Latin America's left-wing movements to build smaller and more efficient states that would use market methods to improve the condition of the poor -- to harness higher taxes to the methods of the pro-business right, in order to achieve the egalitarian goals of the left. Mangabeira Unger was a Latin American theorist of what only later has come to be known as the Third Way.

Castañeda picked up on those ideas, and he and Fox began to talk. Castañeda introduced Fox to Mangabeira Unger. And Fox became entranced with the notion of using his Coca-Cola skills to do what the PRI in recent decades has never been able to do: achieve something lasting for the poor.

Those are the ideas that seem to fire up Fox's imagination. When I spoke with him two years ago, he nattered on about economics, market programs to help the poor, democracy and corruption. Riding around with him on the campaign bus in the last weeks of his campaign, I must have watched Fox deliver a dozen speeches to audiences of every kind, and those speeches, too, hit the same notes. Sometimes he stressed the importance of labor unions -- real unions, run by their own members, instead of the state unions that are run by the PRI.

Late one night on the bus, when everyone seemed to be nodding off except the driver and the candidate, I took the seat next to him at the front of the bus and asked him about Fidel Castro. Fox told me that he genuinely admired Castro's achievements in public education, in creating "human capital." But what most caught Fox's imagination in Cuba seemed to be how beautifully Castro has restored a portion of downtown Havana. "That kind of thing is valuable for tourism," he explained, as if everything ought to have its business justification. He reflected on Mexico City and its failure to capitalize on the tourist potential.

The bus was hurtling through darkness, with no cars on the highway and no houses on the side. We pulled up at a toll booth, and Fox interrupted our chat to lean out the window and flash his V sign at the astonished toll collectors and win two more votes.

Then he wanted to talk about an interesting system for spreading financial credit to the very poor that he has seen in Bangladesh. He is a big fan of what he calls "microenterprises," the tiny businesses of the poor. And he veered into a discussion of the international business of freelance political consultants -- people like Dick Morris, who struck Fox as rather creative, and James Carville, who struck him as less creative (and who has gone to work for the PRI). But can foreign consultants make any sense of Mexican politics? "I don't think they have a nose for Mexico," he said. Fox hired his own consultant from the ranks of Mexico's Coca-Cola. And such was the conversation: business, politics, business and more business.

In my hearing, he never did harp on what, in the United States, are called "family values" or "Christian values." Those were simply not his campaign themes. Still, I did hear him let rip more than once with a slogan from the Cristero fanatics of the 1920's. He said: "If I advance, follow me! If I hold back, push me! If I retreat, kill me!" Which does sound a little extreme. And there you have the problem with Vicente Fox. He dreams a businessman's vision of a modern Mexico. But now and then, when the moon comes out, he reverts to his old nostalgias. He can't help himself.

Most of the people who line up to hear him speak aren't thinking about religious questions or about sexual and cultural controversies. They want him to lambaste the PRI and to lay out his business ideas, which sound so much more inventive and impassioned than anyone else's. But there are any number of historical-minded people whose ears twitch at the sound of those ancient Cristero slogans and who begin to reflect that Fox's National Action does contain a number of genuine fanatics of the old-fashioned Catholic right. Which is true; I've met them.

And so the worries begin. Fox has only himself to blame. But it must be said that in Mexico's left-wing opposition, he and his National Action have met their counterpart. For the Mexican left is likewise a mix of modern ideas and old-fashioned prejudices. And under the pressure of a desperately close election, Mexico's right-wing party and its left-wing party have, between them, ended up refighting the Cristero War of the 1920's, or perhaps the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's -- the eternal battle of class-struggle left-wingers against the warriors of Christ the King. And they have managed to forget that the largest and most intractable of Mexico's problems today don't come from Catholic fanatics or from anti-Catholic fanatics but from a corrupt authoritarianism whose end could be easily arranged -- if only the right and the left would stop their quarreling.

What Mexico needs, you might suppose, are some lucid intellectuals, capable of dragging their own political movements into modern times. All over the world in the last dozen years, when authoritarian governments have been overthrown, the intellectuals have been in the forefront, and a few of them have even become political leaders. Vaclav Havel, the Czech hipster, is the supreme example. But Mexico is not like other countries. Mexico's intellectuals can boast of one of the world's most brilliant literary cultures, and they bask in prestige and wield influence and have always received handsome subsidies, in one form or another, from the state, which means, the PRI. The subsidies have not exactly made them slaves either.

On the contrary, most of Mexico's intellectuals vociferously oppose the PRI. But the greatest number of them do so by supporting C1/3rdenas, even if he can't win. Some of them support an utterly marginal left-wing politician named Gilberto Rincón Gallardo, whose poll statistics hover around 2 percent. And only a handful have supported Fox -- joined in the last days of the campaign by a reluctant and slightly larger number. It is an amazing situation, given how much hangs on this election. But the most striking phenomenon in this campaign has been an outpouring of articles and op-eds supporting democracy in general -- essays so watery and indistinct that you could easily conclude that democracy must be already well established and that the PRI must be no less democratic than any other political organization and that it hardly matters whom you vote for, so long as you vote.

Carlos Fuentes is the most prestigious of the literary intellectuals, and he has made himself a master of such watery endorsements. "Vote for yourself," he wrote. And so Mexico teeters on the edge of an enormous decision -- teeters on the brink of achieving, through peaceful and legal means, a democratic transition of power in the world's largest Spanish-speaking country. And because Fox is an outsider among the intellectuals and because Fox's background has some worrisome aspects, the overwhelming majority of intellectuals have found all kinds of rhetorically elaborate ways to remain safely on the sidelines.

When will Mexico change? What can surely be predicted is that in today's election Mexico will undergo either a larger tragedy or a smaller tragedy. The larger tragedy will come about if the Mexicans simply cannot figure out how to escape the only political party they have ever known. The smaller tragedy will come about if, in spite of every obstacle, Vicente Fox does succeed in defeating the PRI. Fox will move into Los Pinos. And he will discover that bringing democracy to Mexico is going to be harder than it ought to be, if only because he and the rest of Mexico's democrats are still caught up in ancient myths and feuds, and people who should be his allies aren't.