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Mexico’s Vicente Fox has problems at home

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Posted: Friday, May 10, 2002 10:00 pm

Mexico's President Vicente Fox is under house arrest.

In early April, the Mexican Senate denied Fox's request to make yet another trip to the United States.

The opposition party, the PRI, controls Congress and voted to keep Fox home. The PRI reasoned, accurately, that Fox's 15 trips abroad in 2001 were excessive. And the further sentiment was that Fox has plenty to do at home.Joe Guzzardi

For the time being, Fox's appearances in the U.S. will be limited to his Webcast appearance as the keynote speaker at the Jones International University commencement Tuesday. Jones International is the first fully accredited, online university.

No question that Fox has a full domestic plate. New York Times business reporter Graham Gori, in his April 12 story, "Latest Data Dampens Mexico's Hopes," outlined the grim picture.

Industrial production in Mexico has declined for the 13th consecutive month. Over the same period, more than 450,000 jobs have been lost.

The lost jobs were mostly from the manufacturing segment. In mid-2001, Mexico had 1.2 million maquiladora workers. Those jobs - in plants that import duty-free components and assemble them for export - were once considered Mexico's future. But 250,000 of those workers have been displaced.

Worse, analysts don't expect any shift in the economic wind. Ironically, Mexico, once a highly desirable location for multinational corporations because of cheap labor, is today considered cost ineffective versus Guatemala or China.

Fox is touting southern Mexico as wage competitive with Central America or the Far East. So far, though, there have been no takers.

All this is very bad news for Fox, of course. Fox campaigned on a pledge to create 1.3 million jobs in Mexico. Instead Mexicans lost 450,000 jobs. Fox is left with the ticklish charge of explaining the difference between what he promised and what he delivered - in this case a net differential of over 1.75 million jobs.

Fox also pledged a 7 percent economic growth rate for Mexico. Instead, Mexico recorded the first negative growth rate, -0.3 percent, since its 1995 economic crisis.

The bottom line: Fox's popularity has sunk to 50 percent. Only 30 percent of Mexicans feel that the country is on the right track. The Mexican weekly Proceso summarized Fox's first year as "useless."

Fox finds himself, temporarily at least, in the company of his two predecessors, Carlos Salinas de Gotari and Ernesto Zedillo, who also fell short on their campaign promises.

Salinas' economic reforms - tighter money, less government intervention, privatizing national industries and increased foreign investment - took off into clear skies but crashed and burned by the time he left office.

Incoming president Ernesto Zedillo was met by a tumbling stock market, a peso that had lost 50 percent of its value and a collapsed banking system. Only a $100 billion bailout led by the U.S. kept Mexico from a total collapse.

Fox still has time to right the ship. He is only 18 months into his six-year term. But the Mexican Congress is correct. Fox needs to turn his attention inward.

Mexico's high unemployment rate, income disparities, abject poverty, the Chiapas conflict, and the dismal education system remain firmly entrenched.

President George Bush, in his annual Cinco de Mayo address to the nation, referred to Fox as "a great American patriot, a man of honest talk and convictions who is passionately concerned for his people's welfare."

A good place to start with the people's business is education.

During his address to Jones International, Fox is expected to discuss his plan to make e-Mexico, the country's Internet service, available in 10,000 Mexican cities to more than 98 percent of the populace.

And the Fox administration has been touting a five-year program to have School Net, Mexico's educational online service, offered in all 130,000 schools throughout the country.

To attain those aggressive but noble goals, Fox will have to regain Congress' confidence. That's a large order and one that Fox can only carry out at home.

Joe Guzzardi, an instructor at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly opinion column since 1988. He can be reached via e-mail.

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