In Search of Calderón

In Search of CalderónMarch 26, 2007 issue – In style, at least, Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón’s first 100 days have been a success, for reasons on display when he met President George W. Bush last week. Calderón runs a tight ship, speaking only under highly controlled circumstances. In fact, his joint press conference with Bush was the first of Calderón’s term. His wife, Margarita, has proved discreet, stylish and substantive.But the honeymoon they’ve enjoyed with the press and the public is unlikely to last.The reason is simple: job one for any Mexican president is to create an identity. In the old days, when Mexico was dominated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), presidents were handpicked by their predecessors and couldn’t establish their credentials at the ballot box. Instead, they’d consolidate power by distancing themselves from the policies of previous officeholders and/or by exiling their benefactors. With just a few exceptions, such was the pattern until Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) came to power in 2000, toppling the PRI.One-party rule may be a thing of the past in Mexico, but old habits die hard. Though Calderón was democratically elected—and supported by Fox—he has spent his first three months trying to differentiate himself in style, domestic affairs and foreign policy. At home, he’s sought to forge a new, less confrontational relationship with the opposition, especially with the PRI in Congress.In order to pass needed structural reforms, Calderón tried to form a coalition with the former ruling party. It wasn’t to be. He did manage to get the 2008 budget approved unanimously like Fox did in his first three years, but apart from that, the gridlock that has plagued Mexico since 1997, when President Ernesto Zedillo lost his majority in Congress, has persisted.More recently, Calderón seems to have decided that the way to distinguish himself from Fox—who failed to get most of his agenda through Congress—is to ask for nothing, or to submit only preapproved legislation. This means lowest-common-denominator policies, such as a watered-down judicial reform bill. Calderón has proved reluctant to use his bully pulpit against the PRI, fearing it will shoot down his proposals. But the PRI would do so anyway; by avoiding confrontation, he’s ended up with no congressional support, and no credit from the public for having tried.On the foreign stage, Calderón also has yet to find his sea legs. He managed Bush’s visit to the Yucatán well, but only by contradicting his own positions. For example, he and his aides had earlier sought to "demigratize" relations with Washington by reducing emphasis on immigration. But the issue resurfaced front and center in his talks with Bush. This was hardly surprising: the U.S. Congress is now closer than ever to passing an immigration-reform bill and Mexico could hardly have ignored it.More surprisingly, Calderón is seeking to mend fences with Havana and Caracas, even as he tries to attract foreign investors scared off by Hugo Chávez’s turn to the left. After making a few anti-Chávez comments early on, Calderón has tried to avoid Fox’s spats with Chávez and Fidel Castro. But this is easier said than done. The Mexican president cares deeply about human rights and democracy, and has to decide how to respond to Chávez’s provocations—not to mention the 5,000 Cuban teachers, doctors and eye specialists who have entered Mexico in the past couple of years. Calderón’s attempt to placate Latin America’s radical left is purely pragmatic; he hopes it will endear him to the leftist PRI and PRD. But in a globalized world and under democratic rule, it’s hard to have things both ways.Under Calderón, Mexico has embarked on a new journey with a new captain but an old map. The president has the talent and respect to push for real changes in Mexico, and to go beyond media coups such as using the Army and federal police to fight the drug cartels. If he chose to, he could mobilize Mexican society with a bold platform of reforms, seeking to transform the country’s worn-out political structures and its highly monopolized business, union and political spheres. The chances of actual success on these fronts would be low, but at least he’d make clear where he stands and differentiate himself not only from Fox, but from his PRI predecessors—past presidents who, in Calderón’s first 100 days, he’s seemed intent on emulating by governing with style more than substance and worrying more about the past than the future.

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