The Magazine

Fox Populi

Thanks to NAFTA and Zedillo, Mexico finally holds a democratic election

Jul 17, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 41 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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THE FALL OF THE Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico's July 2 elections is a Latin equivalent to the end of the Soviet empire -- or even more. As one campaign adviser to the victorious Vicente Fox put it, "This is our first constitutional transition of power since the Aztecs." The PRI ruled for 71 years, almost tying the Bolsheviks in longevity, and was a model of corruption and intermittent repression. It was as well the purest repository of the negative nationalism that has long burdened Latin America: a nationalism that mobilizes people to blame the United States for everything wrong with their country rather than to solve problems. No institution contributed more than the PRI to keeping Mexico from the political and economic modernization it has now begun.

Much of the credit for the wholesome turn in Mexico's politics goes to reformers within the PRI, above all outgoing president Ernesto Zedillo. An accidental president who became the PRI candidate when Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated six years ago, Zedillo was sworn into office in December 1994. He has been what his corrupt predecessor Carlos Salinas was supposed to be: an honest and effective reformer. Aided by the economic reforms begun under Salinas's predecessor, Miguel de la Madrid, in the 1980s and speeded up under Salinas, Zedillo has delivered additional economic change and a free election. If this brought about his party's defeat, it has certainly cemented Zedillo's place in Mexican history.

Zedillo delivered, and so did NAFTA -- spectacularly. The great sucking sound once predicted by the free trade area's leading critic Ross Perot turns out to be the sucking in of breath, as startled observers see a Mexico that has changed enormously since NAFTA went into effect in 1994. Mexico's sharp turn toward democracy and its first free presidential election would be unimaginable without the new and tighter relationship with the United States, and the confidence in Mexico's economic future, that NAFTA brought. Trade with the United States, Mexico's largest trading partner by far, has nearly doubled under NAFTA, and Mexico has surpassed Japan as our second largest export market after Canada.

Who is Mexico's next president? Vicente Fox is a 58-year-old rancher, businessman, and former Coca-Cola executive who was elected governor of the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico in 1995 (after his 1991 victory was stolen from him by PRI fraud). He is a conservative -- a devout Catholic and an equally devout free marketeer. His National Action Party (PAN), only 20 years ago a small protest party of northern Mexican businessmen, managed to harness the desire of many middle-class and poor Mexicans to break free of the poverty and corruption that have dogged Mexico for decades under the PRI. Many had visited or lived in the United States and had come to wonder why democracy and opportunity could not cross the Rio Grande. Others had watched the Asian tigers race past Mexico in wealth, and searched for a formula that would make Mexico rich -- or at least cut into its poverty. Such voters protested against the PRI machine as much as, or far more than, they voted for Fox, but Fox and his desire to modernize Mexico is what they got. He has a spectacular opportunity to drive Mexico along this new track during his six-year term, and the current strength of the American economy makes his timing good. Every American should wish him well -- and it should be a top priority of the next administration to do absolutely everything possible to help him succeed.

Mexico's free elections are a rare piece of recent good news from Latin America. While Argentina, Brazil, and Chile -- what in textbooks used to be called the ABC countries -- seem settled into democratic politics and free market economics, the Andean countries are in disarray. The trend toward democracy of the 1970s and 1980s has now been reversed, and it seems clear that our failure to expand NAFTA into a broader Latin free trade area has helped reduce our influence in the region. A military coup ejected the president of Ecuador earlier this year, a coup-plotting general now rules as a populist in Venezuela, Fujimori in Peru has crushed the opposition and a free press to win himself an unconstitutional third term in power, and Colombia's government seems powerless in the face of guerrillas and narcotics traffickers. The war on drugs is not being won, and it continues to threaten stability and democracy not only in the Andes but throughout the Caribbean as well, where tiny police and military forces are outclassed by the sophisticated equipment in the hands of traffickers passing through the region on the way to their market in this country.