The National Catholic Review
James S. Torrens

On Dec. 1, while George W. Bush and Al Gore were hacking their way through legal thickets, Vicente Fox Quesada strode into the presidency of the United States of Mexico. It was a holiday that elicited from Mexicans, whose history has made them very cautious, much more hope than they are used to feeling.

Standing a head taller than most of those around him, Fox began his presidential address with an Hola! to his four children and then proceeded to map a route for the nation in no uncertain terms. Facing a legislature in which his own party, the Party of National Action (PAN), held far less than a majority, Fox was blunt and uncompromising. (He sailed through the heckling unfazed.) There would be no pious forgetfulness or erasing of the great corruptions of the past and there would be no tolerance for their continuance.

Swathed in the presidential breastband, which was transferred to him from President Ernesto Zedillo, he laid out unmistakable priorities. Democratic procedure received perhaps the most insistence, in tune with the theme of convergencia that had marked his campaign a national convergence of all parties and of all levels of society. Top-down decision making, resources meted out from the capital to states and municipalities, a polarization of partiesall of these familiar procedures Fox vowed to reverse. This is a big order for the man referred to by Benedicto Ruiz, a Tijuana columnist, as a ranch-style populist. But thus far Vicente Fox has shown he can listen attentively to citizen’s voices.

Before his inauguration, Fox shared a breakfast of tamales and spicy soup with children of the streets in a rough neighborhood (un barrio bravo) of Mexico City. He was fulfilling a pledge to a lifelong friend whose organization gives such children legal guidance and moral support. Fox aimed the language and the gestures of his campaign decisively at the 40 percent of the Mexican population that is desperately poor, and their condition clearly preoccupies him. In his address he mentioned children without a school, young people without perspectives, family disintegration, well-trained professionals and technicians unemployed or underemployed, single mothers unprepared to sustain their household, the elderly without resources and ecological systems frankly degraded.

As he took office, Fox pledged himself to this sector of the country in an unforeseen way, one that drew the ire of opposition parties. He appended a phrase to the presidential oath: for the poor and marginal people in this country. It was a hallmark of his plain-spoken style, one sure to leave a quotable trail in the next six years. In his address, Fox promised to increase funding for education and, in general, to ensure that no young person in our country, of however humble a background, be blocked from fulfilling educational plans due to lack of resources.

Vicente Fox is entrepreneurial in both background and outlook. His new cabinet draws heavily from the business world. Opposition parties and the bureaucracy as a whole look very much askance at their political inexperience. One can respond that those in career politics have had their chance. Will Fox carry out his loud promise of transparency, his claim that all the government books and accounts will remain open to view? If so, what a welcome change!

The new president promised not to privatize electric power in Mexico and to increase efficiency in the national oil industry without privatizing its production. Oil income has been the deep pocket bankrolling social spending. Will Fox improve tax collection? No mention of this. Throughout his campaign and planning, he emphasized legal and financial help to small and medium size businesses, and he has created a subsecretariat to assure this. As governor of Guanajuato, he learned first hand about the drain of poor immigrant workers to the United States. He invited a large group of these emigrants, still Mexican citizens whatever their U.S. status, to an official visit on his first day in office. He paid them much attention in his campaign and desires a more thriving Mexico where the pressures on emigration will lessen.

With particular emphasis, Vicente Fox reminded Mexicans of a debt they have not paid to the original peoples of this land who go on suffering intolerable injustice, marginality and inequality. He added, I have been, am and will be committed to a new relationship between indigenous peoples and the Mexican state. (If only the United States had heard something like this from candidates Bush and Gore.) Fox’s first presidential action, in fact, was to pull back the military throughout the high country of Chiapas and pledge to follow the hard-won but afterward neglected Agreement of San Andrés between the Mexican government and the indigenous Zapatistas.

Concerning violence in his insecure country, Fox spoke out against government spying and intimidation of parties, unions, social organizations, politicians or opinion makers. He said, Mexico will no longer be a target of criticism in the matter of human rights. As to the combat with narco-traffic and the protection of citizens from assault and robbery, he was not specific, but has elsewhere declared it to be his government’s number two concern, along with the endemic poverty. He will not be a pushover for American policies on border control or any other matter, but he will be serious about reforms at home. How much headway Fox can make against narco-payoffs, entrenched office holders and long-winked-at practices remains to be seen. Progress will be slow at best, Mexicans think.

With Mexican television following his every move, Vicente Fox started off his inauguration day with a motorcade to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where he prayed and received Communion. Given the resolute absence from church of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) for 71 years, his action raised eyebrows but also lifted spirits.

The Jesuits of León in Guanajuato, played a commanding role, it must be said, in Fox’s education. From kindergarten to the end of high school, except for one year spent at Campion Jesuit High School in Prairie du Chien, Wis., he attended their Instituto Lux, and after that he studied business at the Universidad Iberoamericana, also a Jesuit institution. Xavier Scheifler S.J., dean of the school of business administration, left what Fox has called an indelible mark with his insistence on linking business and economics to a very broad inquiry into the meaning and purposes of life.

The fire that animates Vicente Fox, then, has had its own sacred origin and feeds on his rancher’s spirit of independence. It has been also fed in abundance during his campaign by close contact with the crying needs of the people.

James S. Torrens, S.J., is a professor of English at the Universidad Iberoamericana Noroeste in Tijuana, Mexico, and a former associate editor of America