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Foreign Correspondence: James Smith

Los Angeles Times Mexico City bureau chief James Smith examines the fledgling administration of Mexican President Vincente Fox.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And tonight our correspondent is James Smith, Mexico City bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He's been reporting from Mexico for the last four years. Welcome, Jim.

  • JAMES SMITH:

    Thank you.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Tell us about this new president Mexico has, this guy, Vicente Fox, who came in last year and upset the ruling party that had been in power for seven decades. What kind of a difference has he made?

  • JAMES SMITH:

    Well, Vicente Fox is literally larger than life. He's a 6′-4″ cowboy-boot president, and he has really shaken up Mexican politics very dramatically. He has brought a new style. He travels around the country. He's much more visible than past presidents. He's… He's been less presidential in the classic Mexican sense. Presidents always in Mexico were extremely powerful. Fox, of course, retains that power, but uses it in very different ways.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Is he very… Does he use the media a lot? Is he very media savvy?

  • JAMES SMITH:

    He certainly uses the media a lot. That's how he got elected. He knew that he had to create a presence for himself, a personality, and he does that very aggressively. He's very driven, and so far he's used the media very well.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, one thing that definitely seemed a style departure happened earlier this month, when one day he announced that that morning he'd just married his press secretary. Tell us about this. Who is this woman? How was this received?

  • JAMES SMITH:

    Well, his press secretary is Martha Sahagun, who is, has been throughout the campaign, throughout his presidency, has been much more than a press secretary, very obviously: One of Fox's closest aides during the last four years; one of the architects of his campaign, in terms of public relations strategy. She's from Guanajuato State, his own state, and they had had a close relationship for a long time, and in Mexico… I think Fox was very clever to marry her quickly in a private ceremony at the presidential residence. He didn't let it become an issue. It's not a Carlos Menem marrying a beauty queen. It's very personal, he kept it personal, and I think she'll be more effective as a first lady than perhaps she was as a press secretary.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So this style of his, how effective is he with this style? In other words, he promised revolutionary change; how much has he been able to deliver?

  • JAMES SMITH:

    Well, the challenges are immense in Mexico for any president who's replacing the former ruling party, which was entrenched in power for 70 years, in which corruption became an enormous problem, and beyond corruption, where the systems didn't work, and that's the real challenge I think that Fox has to address now, is to fix the systems that are broken — because it's more than corruption; it's that the civil service doesn't exist. I mean, basic boring things, but things that really are very fundamental to create the kind of modern Mexico education that works, and beyond those issues, he's got plans. He's got plenty of plans. There's no shortage of crusades in Vicente Fox's government, and I think that's good and healthy, but deliverables at this point are fairly minimal.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    You wrote actually about six weeks, two months ago, you said that the honeymoon is definitely over. What are the problems?

  • JAMES SMITH:

    Well, his first major problem is economic. In the past, every Mexican presidency since –1970, '76 has ended in an economic crisis. He has the advantage of not having had to face a serious economic, a full-blown economic crisis with devaluations and the kind of recessions that past presidents have had to deal with, but on the other hand, he's got a big U.S. downturn to deal with.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Economic downturn.

  • JAMES SMITH:

    Economic downturn. The economies have become so intertwined in the last 20 years, and especially since NAFTA in 1994, that any slowdown in the U.S. economy has a huge impact on Mexico– 90% of Mexican exports go to the U.S.– and that's being felt dramatically. The growth is likely to be 2% at best this year, down from 7% last year, and that means fewer jobs for young Mexicans and more unemployment, and it's a real dampener for Fox.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But you've said he's also had trouble… You wrote that he's also had trouble getting through the Congress some of the things he wants.

  • JAMES SMITH:

    Well, part of the challenge of the new Mexico is that democracy has run amuck, in healthy ways. The Congress never mattered. Now you have a Congress that does matter, that has very diverse views and is not a rubber stamp for the president, and Fox has battled to build the kind of relationships that he needs with the new Congress and even with his own party, which is a center-right party, a fairly conservative party, it's by no means totally behind him, and that's a big problem, and he recognizes it, his cabinet team recognizes it. I think they're starting to try to mend those fences, but without that, it's going to be very hard to achieve what he wants to achieve.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Let's look at the U.S.-Mexico relationship. The two new presidents had a meeting at Fox's ranch, President Bush and President Fox in February. They pronounced themselves amigos. Has that had practical results?

  • JAMES SMITH:

    Well, certainly it's been comfortable for Bush, who knows Mexico well from Texas, to build this relationship with Fox. It's very much in Fox's interest because the relationship is complex and it's enormously complicated, and so far I think delivering some results. That's probably one of the areas where some of the most concrete results, and I think a lot of it has to do with Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, who has also built a good relationship with Colin Powell, and they plunged right in on very tough issues. Migration and drugs are the two obvious examples.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now migration, the plight of Mexican immigrants here, is a big issue to Fox. He talked about that, in fact, when he was on this program. What changes has he been able to institute there? I mean, he calls these migrants heroes.

  • JAMES SMITH:

    Well, there are two broad areas that the Mexicans want to deal with: One is border safety, because hundreds of Mexicans die crossing the border illegally every year. The Mexicans say 491 people died last year, which is an enormous loss of life, and the deaths of 14 migrants in the Arizona desert in one group a couple weeks ago really catalyzed, I think, the will to do something, and the U.S. and Mexico signed a big border-safety agreement. The other half of that is creating legal flows of migrants that meet U.S. needs for labor through a guest-worker program, and that meet Mexico's needs to offer job possibilities to people at home, and that is now the subject of I think quite intense negotiations this summer, and the two presidents want to get to a deal by September. Certainly the Mexicans do. How anxious the Americans are to sign a deal I think depends on the details.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, the Americans say at least that the tradeoff would be, would it not, that more legal flows of guest workers here, but in turn the Mexican government would try to stop the illegal flows. Is that something Fox could really deliver on?

  • JAMES SMITH:

    It's very hard to say whether Fox could deliver on that. I think for the first time the Mexicans are saying that, that they would be willing, if there's a package deal– not if there's just a guest-worker program, but if there's a comprehensive deal increasing the legal flows– that they would discourage the illegal migration, and that would be the first time that that ever happened, and it's not clear that merely asking people to stay home when they're hungry and they need work is going to be effective.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Finally, is Fox still as popular with the public as he was, at least immediately after his election?

  • JAMES SMITH:

    People are still willing to give Fox a good bit of time to do more. The honeymoon isn't yet over publicly. It's over with the media. The media is much more critical, and that's healthy, too, that the Mexican media is no longer a pushover for the president, but the public is still willing to give him a chance.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right. Well, Jim Smith, thanks so much. Thanks for being with us.

  • JAMES SMITH:

    Thank you.

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