- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2000

The former Coke truck driver now is about to take the wheel of the Mexican government.

Mexico's president-elect, Vicente Fox, is a true departure from the string of U.S.-educated technocrats who have governed for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had controlled the levers of power for 71 years before Sunday's stunning vote.

A plainspoken buinessman-rancher in cowboy boots, Mr. Fox and his center-right National Action Party (PAN) promise to bring a distinctly different style to the Mexican presidency, even as he scrambles power arrangements dating back seven decades in the Mexican capital.

"I am a threat to the system," Mr. Fox, who turned 58 the day Mexicans voted him into power Sunday, proudly noted in a 1998 interview.

But it was Mr. Fox's ability to combine diverse anti-PRI elements in the electorate that fueled his upset victory over PRI candidate Francisco Labastida, even with leftist challenger Cuauhtemoc Cardenas taking a sixth of the anti-government vote.

Said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who served as an observer for the Mexican elections: "I think [Mr. Fox] realizes that the opportunity for greatness in Mexico's transformation to democracy and freedom is in his hands. I don't think he will disappoint anybody."

Mr. Fox favors close ties with the United States and was a big fan of the 1994 free-trade deal with the United States and Canada NAFTA. He is expected to pursue a similar trade-opening deal with the European Union.

He promises to preserve state subsidies to agriculture and the state oil monopoly but pledges to run both with a new, market-oriented efficiency. He wants to boost Mexico's growth rate to 7 percent a year and create tax incentives for businesses to invest in the country's poorest regions.

While the PAN relies heavily on small-business support, Mr. Fox has no plans to cut taxes. He has pledged to preserve social spending at current levels and double spending on education.

In one major change from the outgoing PRI government of President Ernesto Zedillo, Mr. Fox wants to restart peace talks with rebels in the southern state of Chiapas and reduce the military presence in the state.

Mr. Fox's business background has informed virtually every phase of his political evolution.

The now trademark cowboy boots hearken to his roots in Mexico's arid Guanajuato state, located about 150 miles northwest of Mexico City.

Catholic peasants in the region rose up in the 1920s against Mexico's revolutionary government, which has always had a rocky relationship with the Catholic Church. Much of the Fox family's large hacienda was seized by the government in the 1930s in a land-reform program.

The president-elect, who has four adopted children but is separated from his wife, remains a devout Catholic, attending Mass every Sunday. Unlike the recent U.S.-educated PRI presidents of Mexico, Mr. Fox earned a business management degree from Mexico City's Iberoamerican University.

Through his family ranch, Mr. Fox also had a firsthand taste of the Mexican peso crisis of 1994. His family business in Guanajuato, which includes a broccoli farm and a shoe-parts factory, took a major hit in the bungled devaluation that nearly bankrupted the government.

But many look to Mr. Fox's 15-year career at Coca-Cola's Mexican subsidiary as the formative experience before he entered politics in 1988.

He started driving a route delivery truck and ended up as head of the U.S. firm's Mexico operations. A tough competitor and tireless marketer, Mr. Fox left Coke in the late 1980s with Mexico having the world's highest per-capita consumption rate of the soft drink.

The language of an international business executive often finds its way into Mr. Fox's speeches.

"We are going to achieve a total-quality government, an efficient government, a government that costs less and does much more," he told voters during the campaign.

His campaign manager, recruited by an executive headhunter, was a top official of Mexico's giant telephone company who had no previous political experience. While his party is described as center-right and business oriented, Mr. Fox also won the backing of Mexico's Green Party and recruited a number of left-of-center intellectuals as key advisers to his campaign.

After his business career, Mr. Fox served as a lawmaker in the Mexican legislature and then governor of his home state of Guanajuato from 1995 to 1998. There was little initial enthusiasm for his presidential campaign among PAN regulars when he announced his bid.

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