- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2000

Once in a while John Kettle is wrong.

John Kettle is a philosopher from one of our better centuries, the glorious 18th, a man of prescience and remarkable insight: "When an opinion comes to be held by almost everyone," he once said (approximately), "it is almost always wrong."

Kettle is vindicated every day, but Sunday in Mexico we saw what may be the exception that proves the Kettle rule.

The Mexican election result is a remarkable achievement, as nearly everyone can see. All across Latin America, where democracy is often little understood and always fragile, there were sighs of admiration for the Mexicans who threw out the political party that has ruled governed is much too mild a word longer than any other party in the world.

Swept away was a legacy of fraud, avarice, hubris and corruption, along with a few good men, Ernesto Zedillo no doubt among them. They proved their own integrity by stepping gracefully out of the way when the earth moved.

The election of Vicente Fox as president promises a lot, and by winning, and by being allowed to win by the party that has ruled for 71 years, Mr. Fox has already delivered a lot. When he started his campaign three years ago, most Mexicans figured the old order would never allow itself to be humiliated. Fatal coincidences abound in Mexico, as they did in Bill Clinton's Arkansas, and some people thought he might not even survive not survival as a politician, but with his life. Such is the legacy of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI.

Mexico joins Brazil, Argentina and Chile as the tiny coterie of Latin American nations that have enjoyed free elections over the past decade, and prospered for it. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil cabled (or however governments do it in the era of e-mail) his best wishes: "I congratulate you along with our brothers in Mexico for the serenity and exemplary democratic maturity demonstrated in this singular moment in your history." From Argentina, an editorial in the daily newspaper Pagina 12 expressed the popular sentiment: "Clean elections in Mexico may seem like an oxymoron, but today the [Mexicans] have well approached the ideal."

And not only Latin America. Mexico joins South Korea and Taiwan as nations with dominant but defeated political parties that only yesterday imagined they would always rule simply because they always had. The old order in South Korea and Taiwan stepped aside without grudging because the old order not only saw the handwriting on walls that could once have been execution walls, but recognized that a new order was not only inevitable, but better.

Elections in Peru and attempted coups in Ecuador and Paraguay cast shadows over the democracies in Latin America, where so much of everything lives in the shadows. Bolivia struggled through a state of emergency in April and Paraguay suffered another in a dreary succession of military uprisings in May. The government of Colombia, perhaps suffering terminal narcolepsy, has watched its authority erode under a wave of corruption scandals in Congress and Cabinet.

Against all this the Mexican election promises to be a prototype. The result has to send a certain shudder down the spines of remaining tyrants, first among them Fidel Castro. The odor of the body politic (and probably Fidel's own body as well) becomes a greater affront to the times with every passing day.

The resurgence of manufactured hysteria in Cuba not only contrasts with Mexico's turning to the future, but suggests that Fidel sees chilling handwriting on his execution walls. Deprived at last of little Elian, who as expected has been packed off to an indoctrination school in a Havana suburb, Fidel nevertheless retains the daily two- and three-hour televised roundtable discussions where government officials and state journalists examine every detail of Cuba's bitter and endless argument with the United States. Imagine, if you can bear to, a daily three-hour session of the "McLaughlin Group" on all channels. Some Cuban officials who dare think such thoughts doubt that their government can keep up popular enthusiasm for an indefinite daily hate-America campaign now that the photogenic little boy is back in government captivity. Events in Mexico are much more hopeful, especially to Cubans.

With Latin America's second-largest economy, just behind Brazil's, Mexico is envied throughout the region for its close trading ties to the United States, and, indeed, its close proximity to the colossus of the north. "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States." Still, it's an affliction the rest of Latin America would die for. The wretched refuse of a continent can only dream of cuddling close to the United States.

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