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Mexico's Fox admits efforts have fallen short

Mexican President Vicente Fox has reshuffled his Cabinet in the wake of rising unemployment.
Mexican President Vicente Fox has reshuffled his Cabinet in the wake of rising unemployment.
Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — President Vicente Fox ousted two Cabinet secretaries Tuesday, a day after admitting that many Mexicans were disappointed with his government.

Halfway through his six-year presidential term, Fox has found it easier to make history than to govern Mexico.

He came to power in December 2000 with a cowboy swagger and a famous demand for immediate change — "Today! Today! Today!" — ending 71 years of single-party rule.

Fox sounded far less confident Monday during his third state-of-the-nation speech, in which he referred to a sluggish economy, rising unemployment and political deadlock.

"In no way can we yet talk in terms of the historic transformations our times demand," he said, acknowledging that many Mexicans complain of inefficiency, inexperience and divisions in his own administration.

Fox aides portrayed the Cabinet changes as an effort to answer those complaints — though the changes were noticeably partisan.

Out went Energy Secretary Ernesto Martens and Environment Secretary Victor Lichtinger, two nonpartisan experts appointed when Fox became president.

In came two stalwarts of Fox's National Action Party. Former party president and Congressman Felipe Calderon took over at Energy while Alberto Cardenas — who was the first National Action governor of Jalisco state — will head the Environment Department.

Fox said a persistent problem in the Energy sector — the difficulty of finding a legal way to get private investment into electricity and oil production — "threatens the future of our country."

Congressional and legal foes have hobbled government efforts to skirt constitutional clauses reserving both industries for the government.

Environmentalists have accused Lichtinger of becoming too involved with major tourism projects, but he also irritated many in the tourism sector by acting against hotel projects on Caribbean beaches and by posting warnings of polluted coastline in Acapulco.

While Fox spent much of Monday's speech talking about the progress he had made, his address was unusually humble.

"The new thing in this speech is the self-critical part," said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political scientist at the Center for Economic Research and Education in Mexico City. "There is a recognition that things have come out badly."

Members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI — the party Fox drove from the presidency — taunted him during his speech by chanting: "Today! Today! Today!"

"John Wayne has died," wrote columnist Ciro Gomez Leyva in Tuesday's newspaper Milenio. "But who took his place?"

Fox once denounced PRI members as "scorpions, vermin, black snakes." Now he finds the success of his government depends on cooperating with them. July 6 midterm congressional elections reconfirmed the PRI's control of the largest blocs in Congress, making it tough for Fox to pass laws without the agreement of PRI leaders.

"It is time to come together, with renewed spirits, in dialogue and political understanding," Fox told Congress on Monday as he appealed for agreements on tax, energy and economic policies and on issues such as letting Mexicans abroad vote in Mexican elections.

"It is time to ratify our essential agreements."

Fox may have at least a small window of opportunity to reach those agreements. A friend, Elba Esther Gordillo, is leader of the PRI's delegation in Congress. Her own speech on Monday also called for compromise.

Referring to the PRI's attempts to win back the presidency, she said, "It would be worth little to recover what we have lost if it comes at the cost of a crisis in the country."

She urged "a new generation of reforms that the country demands."

But Gordillo herself is under fire within her party, where many distrust her friendship with Fox and her earlier, limited acceptance of Fox's plans to raise some taxes. Rivals — widely believed to be from her own party — recently circulated alleged texts of her illegally tapped phone calls. Local newspapers reported that some prominent PRI senators complained bitterly that she had been too soft on the president in her comments Monday.

Fox's power to win agreements with the PRI also is likely to disintegrate as the national elections of 2006 approach and would-be candidates try to prove their party credentials by attacking the president.

Fox's greatest achievement so far may be his embrace of his very weakness — a break from a system in which generations of PRI presidents were so strong that novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called Mexico "the perfect dictatorship."

"Mexico is not today subject to the logic of an authoritarian regime," Fox said Monday. "The will of the president is truly subordinate to the letter and spirit of the constitution."