Democracy in Latin America faced a bumpy ride this year, propelled by strong and sometimes erratic personalities. In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori fudged the rules to run for a third term and resigned as Peru was about to become an international pariah. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez Frias pursued his populist revolution and gave a sharper edge to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Both Fujimori and Chávez were examples of end-of-millennium pressure for change among Latin Americans frustrated at the failure of political and economic systems to deliver promised benefits.
But the main focus for those frustrations, and the aspirations behind them, was in Mexico City, where on July 2 a former Coca-Cola executive and state governor, Vicente Fox Quesada, 58, overthrew the oldest political organization in the hemisphere, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to inaugurate an era of openness, change — and uncertainty.
Fox's election as Mexico's 62nd President marked the first peaceful handover of power to the political opposition in 179 years since independence and the end of 71 years of PRI rule. He accomplished this feat almost entirely on the basis of his personal charisma, upbeat exhortations about change and record as a businessman and politician. A longtime member of Mexico's right-of-center National Action Party, Fox was considered an outsider by Mexico's political class. His principal ideology is a down-home pragmatism drawn from years on his ranch in the central state of Guanajuato and from working at Coke, where he rose from delivery-truck driver to company president for Mexico.
Fox has promised a revolution, which Mexico badly needs. After seven decades of PRI dominance, the country is shackled with the remains of a rusted-out authoritarian system in which a privileged minority divided up the spoils and flouted the laws. Nearly 40% of Mexico's 100 million citizens live in poverty. Drug trafficking, impunity from legal punishment by police and the bureaucracy, and festering social and ethnic conflicts have made Mexican society an obstacle to its own ambitions.
Fox has started to change all that. "I will share the power, and also the responsibilities," he declared in his inaugural speech. "I am the guardian of power, not its owner." He reached out to the opposition in choosing his Cabinet and is creating a new security force to chase corrupt cops. His attorney general has promised to demolish a network of PRI-era wiretaps on opponents. To fight drug traffickers, Fox is pushing the idea of a joint U.S., Colombian and Mexican task force. And he intends to lead the charge for expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Encouraged by Fox's election, Zapatista rebels in southern Chiapas state have declared they will talk with him about a peace deal. But the new President lacks a majority in Congress, and most state governors also belong to opposition parties. The true test of Fox, the Coca-Cola Revolutionary, will be his ability to convince Mexicans, with all their diversity and conflicting interests, to follow his banner.