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Saturday, 30 September, 2000, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
All change in Mexico
Fox on the campaign trail
Vicente Fox wants to make big changes in Mexico
By Peter Day

Vicente Fox was elected Mexican President in July, defeating the incumbent party, the PRI, which had ruled for a quite astonishing 71 years.

He was elected on a mandate of change, and exasperation with the closeness and corruption of the long past. Now he has to put change into action.

Meanwhile, Mr Fox has months to work out what to do, before he is sworn in as president in December. There are few other places where an elected leader waits so long before assuming office.

He has hired five leading headhunting firms to draw up shortlists of candidates for the cabinet

And at the president-elect's interim headquarters in Mexico City the women come and go, talking of policy.

But first a visitor has to get in. This part of the city - the Passeo de Reform - is pretty posh, lined with the walled and fortified big houses of film stars and captains of industry. Outside the gate in the high wall lurk three or four wired-up security guards - heavies vetting the credentials of the stream of visitors wanting to see the president or his closest advisors. You wait on the pavement as they verify your references.

Vicente Fox in his tempoary office
Mr Fox wants to run Mexico like a business
Approved, the visitor steps through the gate into a courtyard, and up the stairs of a big, secure luxurious modern house, with understated and elegant horizontals.

And then the intensity of the place hits you. The interior design may be restrained, but the atmosphere at the president's interim court is hectic. Elegant women in bright well-cut suits embrace in the corridor, as Latins do, instead of a handshake. A butler goes round with a tray bearing a lavishly iced cake. From a distant kitchen wafts the smell of recently cooked fish.

In the atmosphere of a well upholstered home, the Government of Mexico is changing hands. The visitor waits on a low sofa in a sort of front room that has become a reception area. On a low table in front of you are laid out the daily papers: speculation about Vicente Fox's intentions dominate the front pages.

And then, just when you think you have been forgotten, yet another elegant assistant beckons you to follow her up the stairs into a sort of boardroom, with a big desk and lots more sofas. This is where the president is planning what to do with his new power.

Business model

Even if he was not president, Vicente Fox would be impressive: a towering man with a bold moustache, relaxed, confident, teasing me in incomprehensible Spanish.

Indigenous people
Tackling poverty is a high priority
He could be the chairman of the board of a major company. Indeed that is what he used to be - head of Coca-Cola in Mexico, one of the beverage firm's biggest markets outside the United States.

Can he really run a country like a company's chief executive officer?

Well, he says, in his sonorous voice, much governing is to do with managing resources. He wants to put the whole government through the international quality certification system, ISO 9000, just like a company. He did it when he was governor of his home state of Guanajuato, and cut the cost of government there by one third.

Now he wants to do the same thing nationally. Like a corporate boss, he has hired five leading headhunting firms to draw up shortlists of candidates for the cabinet.

Vicente Fox is not afraid of thinking big. He had just come back from a visit to the United States, where he talked to President Bill Clinton about his plans to get the USA and Canada to legitimise the flow of Mexicans into their countries.

President-elect Fox wants to turn the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, into something like the European Union, with an eventual free flow of people, as well as goods.

We must inundate the country with computers

Vicente Fox
Opening up the border over which so many illegal immigrants flow every year would produce such economic convergence between countries that eventually Mexicans would have no need to go north to find jobs, he argues. It took Europe more than 40 years; he has a 30 year time scale.

But Europe has a shared culture and shared values. In the case of the USA, he says, there is only one thing - the bottom line.

"We must think long-term and change their culture," he says.

I say this is a big proposition. He counters with a chief-executive aphorism - it is better to have big ideas than little ones, the thinking takes the same length of time.

'Latin American century'

Poverty is Vicente Fox's first priority. There is a huge imbalance between urban Mexico and the rural poor and the indigenous peoples. His anti-poverty weapon will be a big increase in education spending.

"We must inundate the country with computers," says the president.

There is a new confidence in many of the biggest countries of Latin America - endemic inflation (or hyperinflation) may be a thing of the past, many undemocratic countries now have elected governments.

"We were the losers in the 20th century, but we are learning from our mistakes" says President Fox. "This is the Latin American century."

He can still feel the exhilaration of election day, 2 July. A historic day of joy, he calls it, releasing a sense of positive energy in the country.

That is what you sense in Vicente Fox's interim headquarters. But the test will come when the hopes for change have to be turned into action, on 1 December when President Fox takes office. He has no majority in congress to support him, and only 42% of the presidential vote.

But in Reform Boulevard, where the advisers come and go, the honeymoon period is not yet over.

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See also:

21 Sep 00 | Americas
Mexican president-elect 'bugged'
25 Aug 00 | Americas
Mexico and US look to future
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