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The Fox In The Pri's Henhouse (Int'l Edition)

International -- Cover Story -- Latin America


At a time when Mexico seems ripe for new leadership, Vicente Fox Quesada, the recently elected opposition governor of the state of Guanajuato, is attracting a lot of attention. A tall, handsome man with a graying handlebar mustache, Fox has the sort of charisma and drive needed to succeed in Mexico's increasingly open political system. As a millionaire businessman who headed up Coca-Cola Co.'s Mexico operations for 15 years, he is a results-oriented leader who sports a resume very different from those of his rivals from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Fox makes no secret of his interest in running for president in the next elections, in 2000. Although much can change in five years, he could be the one who ends the PRI's 65-year monopoly on power. The recession has embittered much of the populace against the PRI. Fox's party, the center-right National Action Party (PAN), seems poised to make big gains at the PRI's expense.

Sitting in the governor's palace in the town of Guanajuato, Fox vows to lead a revolt against what he calls the PRI "technocracy." Fox became a national hero after PRI vote-rigging cost him a 1991 race for governor. He shamed former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari into voiding the election. Fox won new elections held last May.

Fox enjoys breaking the rules in order to shake up the system. In September, he raised eyebrows when he showed up at President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len's state-of-the-nation address in Congress wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots made by his family company, and his signature silver FOX belt buckle, designed by his father.

But many people are taking Fox seriously--even though he only joined the PAN in 1988. Perhaps the only politician with a personality and drive to match Fox's is Manuel Camacho Sols, former mayor of Mexico City, who resigned from the PRI to launch an independent presidential drive.

RETHINKING NAFTA. What would Fox do as President? "I'd begin a thorough housecleaning," he says. "I would issue an amnesty for everyone in this country who has stolen [through corruption] because there are so many, they wouldn't fit in the jails. But starting that day, anyone who stole so little as a nail would be severely punished." Fox also would offer incentives to bring home the $80 billion he estimates rich Mexicans have stashed abroad. And he would rethink NAFTA to make sure there is fairer competition between the U.S. colossus and smaller Mexico.

Fox's emerging election strategy could get him in trouble with his own party's leaders. Fox says that if the PAN, which won 26% of the presidential vote last year, does well in the 1997 congressional elections, the party should try to win the presidency on its own. But if the PAN performs poorly, he says, it should join with other opposition parties to oust the PRI. "In the year 2000, someone from outside the PRI, from outside the system, must attain the presidency in order to start a massive cleanup job," he declares. Clearly, Fox hopes he'll be wielding the broom.By Geri Smith in Guanajuato

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