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Mexico’s Age of Reform has arrived

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I was born in a country that glorified revolution and despised mere reform. When I was a child in elementary school, my classmates and I were taught to sing "La Marseillaise" along with the Mexican national anthem because the French Revolution had set the standards of justice, equality and fraternity to which Mexico aspired.

Reform, Mexicans of my generation were taught, does not bring about change because real change has to be radical. The choice, we were told, is either all or nothing. Not even the idea of representative democracy, as practiced in the United States, was popular when I was growing up. Voting, I was told repeatedly, does not solve centuries-old problems like poverty, inequality and illiteracy. Only a revolution can solve them.

And, indeed, the original leaders of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 led an important uprising that did away with a backward dictatorship that had lasted more than seven decades. And, to their credit, they proceeded to instill two basic democratic principles in Mexico: free elections and no re-election.

Unfortunately, by the time the fighting ended in the 1920s, those ideals had been corrupted. A series of "caudillos," former generals and other powerful political leaders, emerged to seize control of the Mexican government. Some did it to perpetuate the power and influence of the "revolutionary family" that had defeated the dictatorship. Others did it merely for personal gain. But the political party they created, known first as the National Revolutionary Party, then the Party of the Mexican Revolution and finally the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was to remain in power as long as the dictatorship it had ousted — 70 years.

It was only this month that another major democratic change took place in Mexico, and it altered everything that began in 1910. Running as the candidate for the National Action Party, or PAN, an opposition party founded in 1939, Vicente Fox kicked out the "revolutionaries" of Los Pinos, Mexico's White House.

Not surprisingly, this dramatic change came about only after Mexico's Congress, with the incumbent president's approval, enacted a series of electoral reforms that made it possible to have fair elections. The process took years and was not without controversy, but Mexico's electoral reforms have begun a process of change that seems irreversible.

However, the most important blow to the PRI and its political sibling on the left, the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, was delivered not by Mexico's Congress but by a new generation of Mexican voters — a young, urban electorate that clearly prefers reform to revolution.

This new generation of Mexicans feels closer to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which opened Mexico's once state-controlled economy to the rest of the world, than they do to the last epochal change in Mexico's economy, the nationalization of the oil industry in 1938.

This new generation of Mexicans sees itself as contemporaries of all people in the global village. They believe in democracy and despise authoritarianism. They are young men and women who enjoy living in an open society. They understand that respect for human rights is essential.

For this new generation, a Marxist revolution in Mexico, like the one proposed in Chiapas by Subcommander Marcos, is a nonstarter. And Marcos himself, for all his leftist charisma, is an almost laughable anachronism.

Nowadays, even the poor young Mexicans who live in rural areas don't believe a revolution in Chiapas would improve their lot the way that emigration to the United States would. So the young, entrepreneurial men and women who can't find jobs in Mexico head for California, Illinois or New York rather than La Realidad, the Zapatista stronghold.

This is not to say that all Mexicans share these ideas. Old habits and attitudes have not yet changed in many circles, especially on the Mexican left. Many leftist commentators in the Mexican news media are insisting that Fox's election will not mean real change. Their view, I am afraid, reflects the thought of many people in the left, from Cuauhtemoc Cardenas down. They believe that there will be no real change until the issues of poverty and inequality are resolved.

I couldn't disagree more. The Mexican election of 2000 was a historic landmark that will give new impetus to the country's transition to democracy through gradual reform.

Mexico's very real problems of poverty, inequality and illiteracy will not be solved by a revolution, but they just might be overcome through reform.

The Mexican Revolution is dead. Long live the Mexican Reformation.