- The Washington Times - Monday, November 28, 2005

VERACRUZ, Mexico - In the final year of his presidency, President Vicente Fox still thinks the United States will endorse a guest-worker program and that Latin America — like China — should embrace more international trade as the path out of poverty.

“I have conviction and will continue to have the conviction that immigration is something that can be turned into a great bilateral opportunity for the United States and Mexico,” Mr. Fox said in an interview this month while on a trip to Veracruz state in the south.

“The [guest-worker] proposals are in the United States Congress right now. The congressional representatives and senators are discussing them right now. So, I think it’s a question of time and of democratic dialogue and hard work and perseverance,” Mr. Fox said.

“I continue to be confident,” he added, “and to have hope that before my government ends [in December 2006] we will have a good answer on this theme.”

Mr. Fox looked weary after a contentious visit to Argentina for the Nov. 4-5 Summit of the Americas, during which he drew criticism at home and from some other Latin American leaders for his avid defense of the stalled proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela called Mr. Fox a “puppy of the empire” early this month, implying he was doing the United States’ bidding.

Mr. Fox took office in December 2000 as a pro-business politician who promised to push for greater economic integration with the United States and the world. He hoped to reach an agreement with President Bush to give Mexicans more employment visas so they would not cross the border illegally to work in the United States — a centerpiece reform.

His election in July 2000 ushered in a new era of democracy for Mexico, which was ruled by the authoritarian and corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, for 71 years.

A tall, blunt rancher and former Coca-Cola executive in Mexico, Mr. Fox remains popular among much of the Mexican public. But he also has disappointed many because he has been unable to fulfill promises to create millions of jobs and reduce poverty in a country where half of the population is poor.

Mr. Fox is relentlessly lampooned in the press, and after the recent summit, a PRI politician called him a “lackey” of the United States for supporting hemispherewide free trade.

Mr. Fox’s administration has stumbled in political negotiations and dealt too softly with the PRI, which has blocked many reforms, said Mexico City political analyst Federico Estevez.

However, Mr. Estevez said, Mexico’s democratic advances under Mr. Fox might have unraveled had he been too tough with the PRI, which still runs many states and millions of public workers through PRI-controlled unions.

Mr. Fox’s proposals to improve the mismanaged state-run oil and electricity industries failed to muster support in Mexico’s Congress, as did proposals to improve tax collection and public education and to reduce government waste.

“I don’t have a majority in the Congress,” Mr. Fox said. “If the Congress hasn’t wanted to approve these reforms that the Mexican people want and that this government wants, then the Congress will have to assume responsibility for that.”

By law, Mexican presidents cannot be re-elected. Polls suggest Mr. Fox’s successor could be a leftist from the Democratic Revolutionary Party, which has attacked free trade as a vehicle for multinational companies and U.S. corporations to dominate Mexico’s economy and exploit cheap labor.

Mr. Fox concedes that U.S. imports of corn and other farm products under the North American Free Trade Agreement have hurt Mexican farmers and spurred illegal immigration.

Because poverty and lack of opportunity remain constants in Mexico, about a half-million Mexicans emigrate every year, mostly to the United States as undocumented aliens.

But Mr. Fox remains adamant that lowering tariffs on imports and attracting more international investment are the keys to improving Mexico’s economy.

“China is becoming one of the most open economies in the world,” he said. “Who can question the success of China? And who can question that international trade has been the reason for China’s growth? China has lots of poor people, just like Mexico. But that doesn’t mean that poverty can’t be defeated through trade and investment.”

Distributed by New York Times News Service

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