Stories by Paul Lagunes

Paul Lagunes is a PhD candidate at Yale University.

FF Exclusive Interview with Former Mexican President Vicente Fox

September 17th, 2010 at 7:30 am 4 Comments

For decades there has been one rule that has bound the conduct of Mexican presidents: when you leave office your political life is over. Now former president Vicente Fox aims to make history by challenging that precedent, sickness just as he made history as the first opposition candidate to win Mexico’s presidency in over seventy years.

When Fox walked into an interview at his presidential library, cialis he gave the impression of a man confident in his vision for reshaping the role of former presidents in Mexico. With his jeans and trademark black cowboy boots, Fox was casual and friendly, seamlessly switching back and forth between Spanish and English as he discussed his new role in Mexican political life, Mexico’s relations with the US, and his country’s future.

Since leaving office in 2006, Fox has taken on the role of an elder statesman to promote the types of long-term institutional reforms that take longer than one presidency to see through. His initial step was to push for the creation of the first presidential library in Mexican history. The Fox Center, a library and research institute dedicated to the promotion of global democracy, located on Fox’s family ranch in the small town of San Cristobal, Guanajuato, is a tool the president hopes will keep his reformist agenda alive. Now open and awaiting the finishing touches after years of fundraising, the president seems confident that his library’s mission will be successful.

Of Mexico’s five living former presidents, Fox is the only one who has managed to carve out a niche of enduring political respectability inside the Mexican political system. Ever since the creation of the modern Mexican state nearly a hundred years ago, former presidents have been unwelcome figures on the political scene. Carlos Salinas, the president who gained international fame by championing NAFTA in the early 1990s, fled overseas after his presidency to escape corruption and other charges and lives in a cloud of lingering disgrace. Ernesto Zedillo, the reformer who made Fox’s historic election possible, has undertaken a respected post-presidential role as an advocate of globalization and development, but he prefers to live in the United States and avoids discussing Mexican politics, possibly in order to escape the wrath of enemies in his own political party who saw his democratic reforms as a sellout.

Fox has sought to buck this trend, actively supporting political reform from the sidelines. Indeed, the former president appears determined to stay in Mexico’s political spotlight and push for changes he believes are desperately necessary if Mexico is to make the transition to a developed country. Despite his commitment to achieving reform, many criticized Fox during his presidency for not going far enough to modernize the political system.

Fox is guardedly optimistic regarding the consolidation of Mexico’s nascent democracy, although he pointed out that Mexico has a long authoritarian legacy to overcome. He said that more than seven decades of single-party rule by Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party deprived Mexicans of the experience needed to rule themselves democratically. Mexico’s long history of rigged elections and ineffective political opposition caused long term damage to the political institutions of the country. “We were in the hands of dictators,” Fox said. They made us dependent children. Children that never grew up. Children that never knew how to exercise freedom because they were not allowed. Children who never learned to rely on themselves instead of on the government.”

President Fox also lamented social problems that he believes have held back the nation’s development. In a country where two-thirds of the population never complete high school, and the government spends less of a percentage of its budget on education than the OECD average, the link between education and poverty is laid bare. During his tenure Fox made education reform a top priority. His administration greatly expanded a scholarship program that enabled millions of low-income families to afford to send their children to school for the first time. Yet Fox believes that Mexico still has not come far enough. “We haven’t discovered how to go from poverty to a middle class. We haven’t discovered how to go from ignorance and lack of education to competitive levels of education.”

Mexico has also suffered from its inability to undertake major fiscal reforms to remove inefficiencies that plague the national economy.  Confined by extremely harsh laws against foreign investment and saddled by a politicized bureaucracy, Mexico’s oil industry is in danger of soon losing its status as a net exporter of petroleum. Fox conceded his own failure to get Mexico’s Congress to approve desperately needed reforms of this hulking government monopoly and criticized a watered down reform law passed in 2008 that had attempted to reduce inefficiencies and increase private sector participation. The former president stated that the failure to push for more reform in this key industry will cause the oil giant “to go into bankruptcy and to take the whole nation into bankruptcy.”

Mexico’s contentious relations with its neighbor to the north have also been a priority for the ex-president. Fox felt the failure to achieve a lasting immigration accord between Mexico and the US to have been a huge wasted opportunity to solve a longstanding hot button issue between the two countries. After initially agreeing on the need for immigration reform with President Bush to expand Mexican workers’ ability to immigrate legally and to normalize the status of Mexicans living in the United States, Fox believed the terror attacks of September 11th and the United States’ subsequent prioritization of national security concerns caused his American counterpart to abandon immigration reform.

Fox said that President Bush “never followed through on his word” to steer an immigration reform bill through Congress when the two men were presidents, and he fears that President Obama’s commitment to a permanent immigration agreement is no better. “Obama does not believe in this… At his core he is not convinced, even though he comes from a family of immigrants,” Fox stated. While President Obama has stressed his desire to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation, he has also made clear that he intends to address several pieces of domestic legislation before attempting to address immigration.

Fox’s frankness did not spare his own political party either, the National Action Party. The president said that it has not done enough to improve Mexico’s socioeconomic situation in the decade since it took power. Fox expressed disappointment with the political direction the country has taken since his successor and fellow party member Felipe Calderón took office in 2006. He lamented the tendency of President Calderón to blame Mexico’s current problems on Fox’s administration and offered a rare criticism of a sitting president, saying that “we have totally lost course.” Fox particularly criticized Calderón’s war against the drug traffickers in Mexico, which he stated has caused the president to lose track of other major issues like NAFTA, education, and the global economic crisis. Indeed, public support has been waning for a conflict that has dragged on for years, cost more than 18,000 lives and that shows no signs of ending soon.

The former president appears willing to run the risks of creating powerful enemies in order to pursue his ambition of reshaping both Mexico and the institution of the presidency. If he succeeds, he could create a precedent of civility and dialogue that could enable future Mexican ex-presidents to play an active role in politics as Mexico finds its way in a new democratic era.

“Stay the course,” Fox emphasized, “and in twenty-five years, yes, things will change. But not in one administration.”

Paul Lagunes is a PhD candidate at Yale University and Matt Blomerth is an MBA candidate at the University of Chicago. Both interviewed President Vicente Fox as part of their ongoing research regarding the Mexican State.