- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2001

MEXICO CITY It has been a testing first year for Mexican President Vicente Fox, the charismatic former businessman who ousted the Institutional Revolutionary Party's marathon regime with the help of a can-do attitude and promises of sweeping change. In office since Dec. 1, 2000, Mr. Fox kept the rhetoric upbeat but so far has struggled to deliver.
And now that the honeymoon awarded for ending 71 years of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rule is long over, the domestic media are reveling in their newfound freedoms by chipping away at the man who made them possible.
Time and again the news gurus on the radio shows, and the country's army of op-ed-penning political analysts point out that the grand vision of a dynamic nation outlined in the president's inaugural address has yet to be colored in with policy advancements.
There have been bold steps toward a more engaged foreign policy with the United States and the rest of the world, as well as signs of a genuine willingness to address the thorny issue of past and present human-rights abuses. But this is hardly enough to satisfy the pundits.
"These first 12 months have been disappointing," is analyst Alfonso Zarate's blunt conclusion. "It looks like a kind of caretaker government already," said Federico Estevez, another observer whose analysis of other matters rarely coincides with the views of his colleague.
Not that Mr. Fox is being blamed blindly for events out of his control.
There are few complaints regarding his spectacular failure to deliver the 7 percent sustained growth promised during the campaign. That goal crumbled when the recession north of the border dragged the Mexican economy down with it.
Nor has there been criticism of the lack of progress in efforts to persuade Washington to soften migration policy, an issue now buried under the Twin Towers.
But public observers have biting words for the government's perceived political clumsiness at home, particularly in dealing with a Congress in which it does not enjoy a majority, and where the PRI remains the biggest voting bloc.
Many analysts say the government's failure to negotiate with the PRI is the main reason a key fiscal package has been languishing in Congress since April and other important reforms remain on hold in the wings.
"The strategy hasn't worked at all," said Carlos Elizondo, the head of the Mexico City think tank. "They were in a very strong position last December, not only because of public sympathy for Fox, but also because the PRI was afraid of what could happen. They didn't take advantage of this at all."
And as time goes by, there are signs that the PRI not only has survived the loss of the presidency, but also might be starting to regroup.
It emerged relatively united from a four-day National Assembly last month, as well as strengthened by dramatic reforms designed to attract women and young people.
These progressive measures were bizarrely mixed with the consolidation of the leadership bid by the old guard's champion, former Tabasco state Gov. Roberto Madrazo. If the hard-line Mr. Madrazo wins the party presidency in February, getting legislation through Congress could prove even more difficult for Mr. Fox.
Meanwhile, the president's critics also point to the lack of sustained progress in the parts of his agenda less dependent on congressional cooperation, such as clamping down on corruption and organized crime. Few doubt his good intentions, but results have yet to be seen.
"In administration, they have been slow and rather erratic," said Mr. Elizondo. "The learning curve is sharper than I expected."
Meanwhile, Mr. Fox's protocol-busting style and verbal gaffes have come under fire from some analysts as trivializations of politics. One much criticized episode was the fanfare surrounding a pair of patent-leather cowboy boots he had made to wear at a state banquet with the king of Spain.
But there are more voices that defend the president's folksy style, considered one of the main reasons his approval ratings remain relatively high despite the paucity of policy initiatives and the stagnant economy.
According to a poll published last week in daily Milenio, 59 percent think he is doing a good job, this despite the fact that 54 percent believe he is losing control of the country.
"They like Fox because he is fresh, and they don't get tired of someone with that kind of direct appeal," said analyst Mr. Estevez. "People's expectations don't seem to be tied to a lot of results as yet."
How long such patience will last if things don't speed up is hard to guess.
"We all knew change after so many years of the PRI would not be easy," said Mercedes Leon, a 54-year-old domestic who was once a fervent Fox supporter. "But I am beginning to get a little impatient."

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