TOPICS > Politics

Calderon Becomes President of Mexico

December 1, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The official ceremony was rushed and followed brawling and chair-throwing in the Mexican congress. But Felipe Calderon was able to take the oath as Mexico’s new president, replacing Vicente Fox.

FELIPE CALDERON, President of Mexico (through translator): The people have chosen me. I will work for the good of the country and the prosperity of the union. And if I don’t do it, may the people demand it.

RAY SUAREZ: Both the outgoing and incoming presidents are members of the pro-business and pro-trade National Action Party, known as PAN. But Calderon’s opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, labeled the July election count “fraudulent.” He’s refused to concede in the 12 weeks since the country’s highest court certified Calderon’s win.

Obrador, of the more leftwing Democratic Revolution, or PRD, Party, has declared himself “shadow president,” swearing himself in before a huge crowd last month. His supporters have staged protests across the country.

With the congress in an uproar, outgoing President Fox took off the ceremonial presidential sash in a hastily arranged midnight swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace. Calderon appealed for unity in a televised message.

FELIPE CALDERON (through translator): I do not ignore the complexity of the political times we are living, nor our differences. But I am convinced that today we should put an end to our disagreements and from there start a new stage whose only aim is to place the national interest above our differences.

RAY SUAREZ: The new 44-year-old president comes into office promising to create jobs and reduce poverty, but he also faces major unrest outside Mexico City. Nearly 3,000 people have been killed in the last two years in an increasingly ruthless war between rival drug gangs; 500 of those deaths occurred in Calderon’s home state of Michoacan this year alone.

The popular tourist destination of Oaxaca has been the scene of escalating violence. A teachers’ strike that began in May mushroomed to a broad protest against the state and national governments. Nine people have been killed in clashes between demonstrators and police.

And for more, we talk with Jorge Castaneda, who served as Mexico’s foreign minister during the Fox administration. He’s now a professor at New York University. And Pamela Starr, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, a risk consulting firm, she was previously a professor at the Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico in Mexico City for eight years.

Tumultuous beginning

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Castaneda, what does the tumult surrounding the swearing-in of the new Mexican president mean about the strength of the country's democracy and its institutions?

JORGE CASTANEDA, New York University: Well, actually, Ray, things turned out much better than most people expected. At the end of the day, both Fox, the outgoing president, and Calderon, the incoming president, were able to be present at the swearing-in ceremony in the National Congress. Then, Calderon was able to deliver a message to the nation which was a clear, precise, very definitive message.

So I think that actually things worked out much better than most people thought, and I think the opposition has showed itself to be much weaker than most people thought.

Is that enough? No, it's not. Calderon now has to actually do things and not just say things. But he said the right things today. The ceremony took place. The left-wing opposition was not able to stop the swearing-in ceremony or the inauguration.

I think it's a big step forward for Mexico and for Mexico's institutions, given the uncertainty that we were facing as late as last night, when nobody knew what was going to happen, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Starr, what do you make of those pictures, those scenes that we saw coming from Mexico City this morning?

PAMELA STARR, Eurasia Group: Well, I have to agree with Jorge to a certain degree. I think it was a very important step forward for Mexican democracy that Mr. Calderon was legally installed as the president of Mexico today.

But I also think that the concerns that the left was going to be able to disrupt the inauguration and prevent Calderon from taking the oath of office today was somewhat overstated. They were able to prevent Fox from giving his state of the union address in September, but mostly because Fox allowed them to do so. He agreed to step down.

Felipe Calderon has made it plain throughout the last month that he would not allow that to happen, that he would not enter the presidency looking weak and backing down before the opposition of the left. And he easily outmaneuvered them today.

Fulfilling goals

RAY SUAREZ: What does he have to do coming right out of the box? What are the first couple of main tasks for this new president?

PAMELA STARR: First and foremost, he has to develop political capital. He has to build the support in the society and in the political class to be able to govern Mexico.

He enters a weak president who does not have legitimacy in the eyes of about a quarter of the electorate, who faces a strong opposition, not only from the left, but also from the former ruling party, the PRI, in the legislature. His party only holds 41 percent of the seats.

So to get anything approved, he has to work with the legislature. So he's going to need to find a way to, as Jorge said, begin to get things done, but also in the process to be able to develop a working relationship in the legislature so that he can actually govern for the remainder of his presidency.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Castaneda, you just heard your colleague. There's a divided congress, a shadow president, serious crime and economic problems. Can he do all those things that she just spelled out in the agenda?

JORGE CASTANEDA: Well, I think he has to do everything Pamela Starr said, but he also has to try and begin to dismantle Mexico's monopoly system. Mexico is a monopoly game.

We have a monopoly on television, a monopoly on telecommunications, a monopoly in cement, a monopoly in political representation, monopolies in the unions, monopolies in the bread and tortilla industry. Mexico is a country run by monopolies.

None of this has been transformed over the last 15 years when so many other things have changed in Mexico. What Calderon has to do is to try to begin to dismantle this corporate and this monopoly system that has been running Mexico for 70 years.

I know this is a very difficult challenge for him, but I also think it's the only way for him to strengthen his presidency. On many issues, he is going to be following the same line Fox is following. Most of his cabinet are made up of -- is made up of people from the Fox administration. Most of his policies will be the same as the Fox administration's policies.

I don't think there will be any major changes on most issues, but he has to change on this one specific issue: start dismantling Mexico's monopoly game. Without that, the country cannot grow, Ray. There's no way.

RAY SUAREZ: But does that mean, Professor Starr, biting the hand that feeds him and fed PAN in this last election? Does it mean opposing big business when you ran as a pro-capitalist candidate?

PAMELA STARR: To a certain degree, it does, Ray. I mean, part of the problem -- I agree with Jorge, that that's one of the things that Calderon should do and Mexico needs for him to do.

But I think it would be a terrible mistake for him to try to start doing that right out of the gate. He simply doesn't have the political capital.

When Jorge talks about monopolies, he's referring not only to the private-sector monopolies, meaning Jorge would have to directly to confront a very powerful business community, but also he's talking about the monopolies in the state sector, the monopoly in oil production, in electricity generation, et cetera.

And those are things that Calderon simply does not have the political capital to do. He cannot confront the business community. He cannot try to change the constitution for allow for private investment in the oil sector or the electricity sector.

That's a guaranteed way to reunite or maintain the unity of the left and the decidedness of the left in its opposition to him. It would be a big mistake.

A united opposition

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Castaneda, let's talk a little bit more about the unity of the left. The country was very closely divided in the election. The new president won by a hair. And now the defeated, the vanquished aren't going home; they aren't giving an inch. They say they're going to oppose him in every way they can for six whole years of this term.

JORGE CASTANEDA: Well, they say -- they talk the talk, Ray, but they don't walk the walk. Today, they did not really try to make it impossible for Calderon to be sworn in. They, in fact, allowed him to enter the chamber through the back door. They allowed Fox to enter. They allowed both of them to do the ceremony quickly.

Probably some of them were bought off; others were convinced; others felt that it was bad politics for them to continue on this road of confrontation. So I think the left is beginning to break up.

It won't break up definitively. But still more and more of the PRD congressmen, senators and governors will realize that they have a lot to work with Calderon.

And they will also realize that, if he takes this anti-monopoly stance, which is both private and public, like Pamela Starr says, but includes freeing up the labor movement, freeing up the private monopolies, and breaking up the private monopolies in Mexico, and, yes, allowing private investment in the public monopolies -- of which there are only two left -- that's an agenda that part of the left not only can live with, but actually would be very happy with.

So I think the left is beginning to break up a little bit on its own. And what we saw today, they could have done a much better job. They were out-tricked, outflanked, outmaneuvered by Calderon and by Fox, which I think is a very good thing for the country. But I think they also let themselves be outmaneuvered, Ray.

The United States and Mexico

RAY SUAREZ: Very briefly, Professor Castaneda, what's America looking for, as it looks south to Mexico City in this new administration?

JORGE CASTANEDA: Well, I think the Bush administration and the United States in general, Ray, should really help Calderon do what he wants to do, unlike the Bush administration's stance towards Fox since 2001, when there was no immigration agreement, when there was no real cooperation on other issues.

The Bush administration and mainly the Democratic majority in the House and the Senate should reach out to Calderon, reach out to Mexico, get an immigration reform, get an immigration agreement, do the other things that have to be done on Mexican infrastructure, on drug enforcement, on cooperation at the border, so the two countries work together.

This idea that Mexico has to put its own house in order without the United States' support simply ignores geography, ignores history, and ignores the enormous disparity between the two countries.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Starr, same question.

JORGE CASTANEDA: It's been 12 years since NAFTA; it's time to fix it.

PAMELA STARR: I would agree, but I think the focus is somewhere else. I think what the United States, the best thing it can do to help Felipe Calderon is to accept the fact that the United States is either going to import goods from Mexico or it's going to import workers.

The United States has to get realistic and realize that it either helps Mexico grow or it's going to continue to import illegal labor from Mexico. That's where the focus needs to be.

RAY SUAREZ: And, as Professor Castaneda suggested, reaching out from the new Democratic Congress, is that in the cards?

PAMELA STARR: I highly doubt that the Democratic Congress is going to pass any kind of a migration agreement. I just don't see that in the cards before the 2008 presidential election in the United States, hence my emphasis on the need for a focus on trade and growth in Mexico, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive migration agreement.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Starr, Professor Castaneda, thank you both.

JORGE CASTANEDA: Thank you, Ray.