Mexico, one of my favorite countries in the whole world, is going through another difficult period in its troubled history. Unfortunately, I personally observed some of the country's economic and political difficulties early last month during a visit to my late wife's family in Mexico City.
I say "unfortunately" because I had high expectations for Mexican President Vicente Fox when he assumed office five years ago, and because I always hope that things will get better for my Mexican family. But that's not how things are turning out for Mexico and the Flores family.
When I first visited Mexico City more than 40 years ago, it was one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with many public parks and tree-lined boulevards. All that has changed, however, as the city's population has exploded to 20 million, give or take five million (no one really knows). Street crime is a daily reality for residents of the sprawling Mexican capital, traffic is impossible and the air is as polluted as it is anywhere in the Third World. I don't know how anyone manages to live there and retain a sense of humor but somehow, they do. More than anything, Mexicans are resilient and able to adapt to difficult living conditions, as they've proven in this country.
A recent Washington Post article revealed the daunting problems that Mexico faces. Titled "The Revolution That Fizzled," the two-page spread recalled that President Fox came into office five years ago promising a revolution in the way Mexico was governed following 70 years of corrupt one-party dictatorship under the venerable Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Although Fox promised to slash crime, create millions of jobs and energize the economy by reforming antiquated tax, labor and energy laws, the Post asserted that he gave up on those reforms early on because he was "nearly paralyzed by concern that adversaries, if provoked, could destabilize the economy with strikes or protests." As it turned out, Fox's distaste for confrontation and his failure to get tough with PRI opponents doomed his six-year presidency, which ends next year.
In June 2001, according to the Post, a group of Fox's closest aides advised the president that his "revolution of the 21st century" was failing. "You are not doing the job; you are deserting us," charged Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a key aide to Fox and architect of his successful presidential campaign. The aides told Fox that he was being too soft on PRI politicians who were blocking his reforms in Congress. "Let's give them options: leave the country or go to jail," Aguilar said.
"I am not God," replied Fox. "Who am I to draw up a list (of those who should leave the country)?" So the new president did nothing and sure enough, his much-needed reforms failed.
"When Fox took office, full of swagger and standing 6-6 in his trademark cowboy boots, perhaps no Mexican political figure had ever so captivated both Mexicans and millions of people in the United States (including yours truly)," the Post reported. Many of us fondly remember Fox's first meeting with President Bush at the Mexican president's huge ranch outside Guadalajara. Both presidents wore big smiles and cowboy boots and promised a new era of bilateral cooperation. That's when Fox launched his ill-timed "open borders" proposal, only months before the deadly 9/11 terrorist attacks against New York City and Washington, D.C.
But now, four years later, "open borders" is a distant memory as we attempt to crack down on illegal immigration along our southern border. By the way, while I was in Mexico City, that government proudly announced an agreement with Guatemala to implement stricter border controls in order to stem the flow of illegal immigration into Mexico from the south. This is just another example of the double-standard that frequently prevails in U.S.-Mexico relations.
While in Mexico, we got a close-up look at President Fox's popularity, or lack of same, when my two kids and I strolled by a pro-government "celebration of democracy" rally on a major thoroughfare, Paseo de la Reforma, near the American Embassy and our hotel. The rally was poorly attended and we were able to approach much too close to the main reviewing stand despite heavy security. Opposition newspapers ridiculed the rally the next day and argued that it proved how unpopular Fox has become after a promising start. Even though I'd hate to see the corrupt PRI return to power, I'm inclined to agree with the opposition assessment of Fox's presidency.
We asked several members of our Mexican family whether things are any better under Fox and his National Action Party (PAN) than they were under the PRI kleptocracy, and the answer was always the same. "No," they replied. "We've only substituted one group of crooks for another." Back in the early 1970s, when I worked at the American Embassy in Mexico City, the honest opinions I heard from my wife's family often contradicted the rosy reports Embassy officers were sending to Washington.
Of course Fox's failure to strengthen Mexico's economy is a major factor in the tidal wave of illegal immigration that's inundating our southern border. And far from cooperating with us to resolve this national security problem, the Mexican government issues phony ID cards to illegal immigrants in this country and advises them on how to avoid detection by American authorities. That's the sad reality of U.S.-Mexico relations in 2005. So will bilateral relations improve during my lifetime? I sure hope so but as an adopted Nevadan, I wouldn't bet on it.
MY HEARTFELT CONDOLENCES to the family of my friend and former State Gaming Control Board colleague John H. "Jack" Stratton, who died last week. He had a long and distinguished career as a gaming regulator and everyone who knew him will miss him. He was one of the good guys in the pressure-packed gaming control business.
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, has a 45-year relationship with Mexico including a two-year assignment to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.