Fox?En Vivo!

The President, the Subcomandante, the Media, and the March.


Every Saturday the President of Mexico broadcasts a radio program called Fox en vivo, Fox contigo (Fox Live, Fox with You). The program is a combination of fatherly advice and down-to-earth folksy chatter of the sort that helped propel the former governor of the central Mexican state of Guanajuato to victory on July 2, 2000, making him the first opposition party president after 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In between the jovial chit-chat–”Don’t forget to call us with your questions;” “You, the citizen, give the orders;” “The challenges are there, but working as a team, if we’re 100 million Mexicans, who can stop us?” –the President does a few celebrity interviews.

On a recent show, broadcast live from the Fox family hacienda in the town of San Cristóbal, about 200 miles north of Mexico City, Fox had a few words of advice about what to do in the wake of an economic slowdown in the United States.

He spared his listeners the boring statistics. In December, Mexico registered its highest trade deficit since the ill-fated December of 1994, when the peso collapsed. The overall trade deficit last year was 44 percent higher than in 1999. As part of a worldwide cutback, DaimlerChrysler was closing plants, and laying off 2,600 employees in Mexico. Despite 20 years of an economic revolution that sold off state industries, liberalized trade, and promoted diversified exports, Mexico still depends on oil revenues for a third of its budget, and oil prices were declining. Among the legislative battles ahead was one over tax reform. How was the administration going to pay for even a miniscule portion of the commitment Fox made on December 1, when he tinkered with the words of the oath of office and swore to be the president of the poor and the marginalized?

What Fox told his listeners was that rather than grow 4.5 percent as initially predicted, the Mexican economy would grow by maybe 4 or 3.5 percent next year. Hardly slouching around; lots of countries would give their eye teeth for growth rates like that and “it wouldn’t do us any good to just sit here and cry and feel sorry for ourselves because the American economy isn’t going to grow. That’s their problem,” he pushed forward. “We’re going to fight on other fronts.”

The particular front he had in mind was Europe, where the president had gone to attend the globalization love-fest known as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. To report on his activities in Davos, Fox called on his first guest, Jorge Castañeda, the prolific author and academic, and now Minister of Foreign Affairs. In his previous role as political analyst, Castañeda had succinctly described the challenges faced by Fox . “[H]e will have to strike a perfect, almost impossible balance between the specific, policy-based changes that people want and expect, and the self-evident limits on change that Mexico’s domestic and external situation obviously impose,” he had written in the preface to Perpetuating Power: How Mexican Presidents were Chosen, an obituary for the old regime.

But now, the professor was playing the role of the good pupil, as he recounted for the benefit of the listeners the President’s recent travels: conversations with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the president of the World Bank, the former president of Singapore, the head of the AFL-CIO; meetings with businessmen from Milan and massive coverage in the European media, the Financial Times, CNN, and the front page of the International Herald Tribune.

Just a year earlier Fox’s predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, a distinctly uncharismatic, paint-by-numbers economist. had spoken at Davos. Now Mexico had a new president and a new image with Fox preaching the gospel of market populism, a kinder, gentler version of globalization. At Davos he pitched his version of an expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement he called “NAFTA-plus,” vague plans for an energy corridor from Alaska to Panama, open borders for North American residents– all part of what he described as a vision of NAFTA that would do for Mexico what the European Union had done for Spain.

Mexican cultural critics like to refer to their new president as “mediatico.” Fox has more media presence than virtually any other political leader in the global arena today. He is, after all, six-foot five, has a deep, booming voice of the sort that was just made for radio, and the let’s-chow-down-at-the-donut-shop-and-go-out-and-meet-the-people” approach to politics of Bill Clinton. Part of his appeal is attributable to his personal history–a story told with a few embellishments. The press has seized on the fact that Fox is a businessman, one who worked his way up through the corporate ranks of Coca-Cola and then returned to Guanajuato to work in the family ranching, agriculture and boot businesses (the famous trademark Botas Fox (Fox Boots), which along with jeans and the enormous FOX belt buckle are his signature accessories.)

How successful he actually was as a businessman, however, is a matter of dispute. Enrique Gómez of A.M., an independent newspaper in León, Guanajuato, which is publishing an upcoming book on Fox, puts it simply: “The best business that Fox ever ran was his own presidential campaign.” When the Mexico City newsweekly Milenio published unflattering stories about the Fox family business and the gigantic scandal-tinged bank bailout fund known as Fobaproa, Fox charged that the publication had succumbed to campaign smear tactics. The story soon died down– there are skeletons of all political ideologies in the Fobaproa closet. And voters of all political ideologies were willing to overlook them, and cast a vote for change by voting for Fox.

The man they elected was born in Mexico City on July 2, 1942, the second of nine children born to José Luis Fox and Mercedes Quesada. Fox grew up on the family hacienda in Guanajuato, a state known for its colonial architecture, agribusiness, and shoe industry, its high rates of migration and the reputation of its native sons and daughters for being somewhat mocho, a derogatory word referring to an excessively prickly, conservative form of Catholicism. His paternal grandfather was an Irish-American immigrant whose landholdings had been reduced considerably by the Mexican Revolution; his mother, with whom he eats Sunday dinner whenever he is in town, is an immigrant from Spain. The town of San Cristóbal is still a largely rural enclave of 2,400, almost all of whom are employed by the Fox family. (Whenever Mercedes gave birth to a child, Jose Luis gave his employees the day off. As veteran AP reporter Joseph Frazier observed, San Cristóbal is “a study in the paternalism that was both a mark of the regime Fox ousted and a visible element of the style that carried him to victory.” )

Fox attended the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, but left to work with Coca-Cola before finishing his degree (“I almost became president before I became a licenciado,” Fox joked on his radio show; while running for the nation’s highest office in 1999 he defended a thesis based on his experience as governor of Guanajuato and received his degree.) He married Liliana de la Concha, his secretary at Coca-Cola, whose mother had discouraged the relationship with the man she described as “that Apache.” When Liliana left him for another man, Fox retained custody of their four adopted children, turning traditional notions of machismo on their head.

His political career was launched by the late Manuel Clouthier, a businessman from Culiacan in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa. Clouthier had become active in the National Action Party (PAN), long-associated with conservative Catholicism, after the government nationalized the banking system in 1982. Like Fox, Clouthier (who was killed in a car accident in 1989), was a charismatic figure whose use of earthy language earned him the nickname “Barbarian of the North.” In 1988 he ran as the PAN’s presidential candidate. After the PRI proclaimed victory for Carlos Salinas, the portly Clouthier went on a hunger strike to protest electoral fraud. Fox, who had gained a legislative seat as a member of the PAN, also registered his protest: He taped two burnt electoral ballots to his ears (poking fun at Salinas’s big ears), and delivered a speech in which he mimicked an imaginary Salinas conversation in which the president elect confessed that he knew he had not really won the election, but that Mexicans were not ready for democracy, something that Salinas would never forget.

Three years later, when Fox ran for governor of Guanajuato, the election was so marked by fraud that Salinas would eventually have to back down from his initial acknowledgement of a PRI victory. An interim governor from the PAN would serve–but it would not be Fox. Finally, in 1995 Fox easily won the governorship. By that time it was clear that he had presidential ambitions. In complex negotiations between the PAN and the PRI, and after a media campaign enlisting noted intellectuals, Fox had managed to change the Constitution to allow someone with a foreign-born parent to run for president.

In 1988, much of the media ignored the opposition candidates. There were no presidential debates; the idea of candidates appearing together on a radio program was unthinkable. At times the changes were hardly perceptible, and more often than not they were eclipsed by the economic revolution commandeered by Salinas and his team of Ivy-League economists, but the political landscape was slowly changing as Fox climbed up the political ladder. New independent publications had opened up outside Mexico City and a generation of younger reporters throughout the country was eager to investigate abuses of government power. Radio made tremendous advances. As government industries were sold off, government-paid advertising declined, forever changing the dynamics of the Mexican media. (The argument could now be made that while much improved, more and more the Mexican media suffers the same vices of the media everywhere–corporate control and over-simplification of complex stories.)

In 1997, Emilio Azcárraga, the paternalistic business tycoon who had ruled Televisa for decades and had once described himself as a soldier for the PRI, died. The company was taken over by his only son, Emilio Azcárraga Jean, who was more of a soldier for the bottom line. Televisa, along with TV Azteca, the other half of the Mexican network oligopoly, is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange. All of these changes–political, economic and journalistic–would eventually favor a Fox candidacy.

Among the other changes wrought by NAFTA and greater economic inter-dependency between Mexico and the United States, was the incorporation of American media consultants into Mexican presidential campaigns. Among them was PR executive Rob Allyn, a one-time speechwriter for former Texas Gov. Bill Clements. He arrived at the hacienda in San Cristóbal in 1997 with enough videotapes to program a political advertising revival festival–From Eisenhower, to LBJ’s 1964 daisy ad, Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign, Clinton’s bus tour, to commercials for Chile’s 1988 referendum on democracy, etc. Soon there would be memoranda on “Corbata o no corbata” (Tie or No Tie?), and wardrobe consultations with former Coca-Cola executives.

On July 6, 1997, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) was elected mayor of Mexico City. The PRI lost its absolute majority in Congress. Fox declared that he was running for the presidency.

After Castañeda was finished, Fox introduced his next guest on the radio program, a television comedian named Andrés Bustamante, whose repertoire of characters includes one known as Ponchito, a free spirit who is known to do a mean imitation of Vicente Fox. The week before, Bustamante was in the Lacandon Jungle in Chiapas, where he played to an unusual audience: Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Tacho, leaders of the Zapatista National Liberation Army [EZLN].

“Listen, Subcomandante, probablemente –pro-ba-ble-men-te – I’m going to see President Fox in about a week,” Bustamante/Ponchito told the rebel commander, slowly separating his syllables and hitting them for emphasis in the way that Fox likes to do. “Would you send him a message?….You have a good imagination to do everything that you’ve done with the EZLN . You want to go along with me in an imaginary exercise?”

And so it happened that Bustamante, pretending to be Fox, picked up a cell phone to take an imaginary call from Marcos. Then he told Marcos to answer, adding that Martha Sahagún had said it was all right for Marcos to speak to Fox. Sahagún is Fox’s spokeswoman; she is also romantically linked to the president. Marcos joked that the mention of Martha Sahagún would be censored. Tacho cracked up when Bustamante/Ponchito began speaking like Fox; the Zapatistas thought the whole thing was just hilarious. Televisa must have thought so, too, since the Ponchito/Fox encounter with Marcos was later broadcast on a network news show. The Subcomandante had scored another media coup and beaten the President at his own game.

During the campaign, Fox said he could solve the problems in Chiapas in 15 minutes–an example of Foxspeak often chided by his critics. Nevertheless, the announcement made by the President during his inaugural address–that he was initiating a limited troop withdrawal from Chiapas and re-submitting to Congress the San Andrés Accords, an agreement negotiated between the government and the Zapatistas in 1996–ended six years of Zedillo’s intransigence.

Marcos had been silent all through the campaign and even after the July 2 victory that changed the political landscape. Then, the day after Fox’s December 1 inauguration, he began talking– and hasn’t stopped talking since: Interviews with the Mexican dailies, interviews with The New York Times. The Mexico City daily El Universal featured a three-part interview with Marcos on its web site–an interactive click on the site and the Subcomandante’s eyes flicker on the screen from behind the trademark black ski mask. Marcos announced three conditions for renewed negotiations – withdrawal from seven specific military installations, fulfillment of the San Andres Accords, and the release of Zapatista prisoners. He also announced that a delegation of 24 Zapatista leaders, including himself, would travel to Mexico City to put in a good word for the Accords in the Congress. They would be leaving sometime later in February and travel across a third of nation’s territory.

As the weeks went, on the plan–if there was one–didn’t seem to be going well. The Zapatistas said the government wasn’t cooperating and publicly doubted whether Fox was serious about negotiating with them. Fox wondered aloud what more he could do. There was rumbling in the ranks of the PRI and the PAN over whether the Zapatistas would march to Mexico City armed or unarmed, masked or unmasked. The PAN governor of Querétaro made it clear they were not welcome, suggesting that they were traitors to the patria who deserved to be shot. The PRI leader in the Senate made it clear he was not about to support the proposed Constitutional amendment on indigenous rights and culture. Fox was blamed for raising the Zapatistas up from the dead, giving them another shot in the arm with media exposure.

When drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who apparently had long enjoyed “walking” privileges in a top security prison, simply walked away for good one day, Marcos didn’t miss a beat. If the Zapatistas were going to be arrested during their march, he wrote, so be it. But just send them to the same prison where El Chapo had been incarcerated. That way should they develop an ur
e to go out for ta
os, they could just walk out, too.

In Davos, the first question Fox was asked was about the Zapatistas. At one point during his media tour in Europe, Fox made a sudden switch, referring to Marcos as Rafael Sebastián Guillén, the radical communications professor from Mexico City, whom the Zedillo government identified as the rebel commander. Symbolically, Fox was trying to distance himself from the Zapatistas to appease his critics in the PAN and the PRI. To his critics on the left, he was beginning to sound like Zedillo. Mexico City columnists began speculating on the political positioning for 2003 and 2006, which they insisted was the story behind the story of the Chiapas negotiations.

For all their differences across the vast territory of philosophy and style, there are many similarities between Marcos and Fox. Both are products of a Jesuit education, both have delighted the Mexican public with earthy, at times coarse, language. Both have a sense of humor, enormous ego, a commanding media presence, a sense of national symbols and an understanding of politics that goes far beyond traditional political parties. When Marcos appeared on the scene in 1994, it was his breaking with traditional political rhetoric, as much as the substance of his arguments about indigenous rights, that captivated the nation.

For all Fox’s plans for his new government, the test of the first 100 days will be the Zapatista march, the San Andrés Accords of 1996 (a compromise agreement that everyone talks about and no one ever reads; hardly a guarantee of tranquility in southeastern Mexico),and the prospects for renewed negotiations with the Zapatistas. So, far it’s either been a huge gamble by Fox or an example of a strategy gone awry.

None of this was mentioned during the President’s radio encounter with Bustamante/Ponchito. In fact there was no mention that Bustamante had even spoken to Marcos and performed his Fox impersonation for the Zapatistas. Instead, after some preliminary banter, the President got down to business: “Now you talk like Fox and I’m going to try to talk like you,” he said. For the next few minutes the president of Mexico pretended to be Ponchito and Poncho/Bustamante pretended to be Fox,”–a re-fried version of what had taken place in the Lacandón Jungle.

And then it was time to go. The President signed off, urging his listeners to give it their best shot the next week: “We’ll see you next Saturday. I look forward to your comments, your questions, your suggestions, your proposals. God bless you. We’ll see you next week.”