Friendship across continents
Reviewing historic ties, regional events and the virtuous circle of development and reform, Ibrahim Nafie interviews Mexican President Vicente Fox in Mexico City
Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once called Mexico the "perfect dictatorship". Your election in July 2000 marked an end to 71 years of uninterrupted one-party rule in Mexico. How did the process of democratic transition take place, and how much has been achieved in deepening democracy over the past five years?
Ibrahim Nafie with President Vicente Fox
First of all, I would like to thank you for this opportunity to communicate with the Egyptian people and with the Arab world at large by means of this important newspaper. Yes, I do remember the words of Mr Mario Vargas Llosa, but I also recall the remarks made by Mr Carlos Fuentes, who said that actually, Mexico is more of an "imperfect democracy" than a "perfect dictatorship". I do have to say that the process towards the achievement of democracy has been a long one; we cannot forget, for instance, that my political party has been in opposition for several decades. The Mexican people wanted democracy, with free and fair elections; it was a must for all of us. Over the past five years, the results have been remarkable. We have not seen any post-electoral conflict, either on a federal or local level, and in the future the will of the people will continue to be respected.
Now that your second presidential term is coming to a close, how stable and sustainable, in your view, is Mexican democracy, especially in light of the fact that the opposition has been able to block many of the reforms you were committed to achieving?
I think Mexican democracy is stronger than ever. Our Federal Electoral Institute -- which is run totally independently from the government -- has reaped outstanding results. The Institute has cooperated in the organisation of elections abroad. This Institute, and of course the will of the Mexican people, are the cornerstones of our electoral system. With the Legislative branch, we have to continue working together in order to reach a consensus on important matters for the country.
Please provide us with an overall assessment of the achievements and shortcomings of your five years in office, on the political, social and economic levels.
Certainly, on the political level, we now have a much more transparent administrative system. My fellow citizens have access to information on government expenditure, officials' salaries, budgets, bids, etc. Another important factor is the now total freedom of speech and media. Now, everyone can express whatever they wish to, without facing reprisals. In the social sphere, our development programmes -- like the Opportunities programme -- have had a huge, positive and unprecedented impact on the most needy quarters of the populations. Figures showing the reduction of poverty are impressive. In economics, we have, for one, the highest level of international reserves ever; we have tight fiscal discipline; our foreign trade has boosted over recent years, and so on. Today we are well protected against any sort of crisis, even though our federal budget remains highly dependent on our oil exports.
Your entry into office was marked by promises to seek peace in Chiapas. Within days of your inauguration you ordered the withdrawal of troops encircling the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas and freed jailed Zapatista sympathisers. You also declared your acceptance of the failed 1996 San Andres Accords to codify the rights of Mexico's indigenous people. Five years on, how would you evaluate the successes and shortcomings of your administration in this area? And what further steps need to be taken in order to solve the problems of the people of Chiapas and to achieve peace at last?
Regarding the Chiapas state, I have to say that since I took office the doors for dialogue have been permanently open. We have been, and we still are, very willing to listen, talk and negotiate in a peaceful ambiance, with good faith and respect. We have to remember that in March 2001, the Zapatistas came to Mexico City and spoke from the highest platform in our country, the plenary of our Chamber of Deputies, where I give my annual address to the Mexican people about the state of the country. I am not totally satisfied regarding the situation in Chiapas state, although I am convinced that the government has decidedly worked for the best development of that state. The results are not the best, but still we find progress. The federal government has invested for development in Chiapas more than ever before during the last years. That is for sure the route for the total normalisation of the Chiapas indigenous situation.
What are your views of the complex relationship and often- contradictory requirements of maintaining and strengthening democratisation, a free market economy and integration into the global economy on the one hand, and combating poverty and economic marginalisation on the other?
I think there shouldn't be contradictions between democracy, free market economy and combating poverty. For me, democracy is social development and a free market economy means opportunities for the majority. Of course, the state has to provide facilities to the people, in particular the weakest of our society, in order to help them to promote themselves to higher standards of living. Through good credit, education, and health systems we can do it. No other type of government and economic system like democracy and the free market, respectively, can provide equity and better life quality, in all senses, not only economically speaking.
You were the first head of state to be visited by US President George W Bush at the start of his first term. What is your assessment of subsequent Mexican-US relations?
Our bilateral relations are complex; they are strategic for both countries. We have so many issues to talk about and, of course, some problems to resolve, and we have so many things to benefit from on both sides of the border. Practically millions of citizens and authorities (federal and local, executive and legislative branches) from both countries have extremely important ties. We have about 15 million Mexicans living in the US, the crossings of our 3,000-kilometre border is of about 250 million people every year, in both directions. Our bilateral trade comes to $200 billion annually. Mexico has the largest consular net in the United States, with 47 Mexican consulates. We collaborate very closely, practically in all fields, from security to agriculture, scientific research and so on. I have a very good personal relationship with President Bush. The terrible attacks of 11 September provoked some changes in our agenda, like migration, but we both are willing to enhance our relations. My meeting last week with President Bush and Prime Minister Paul Martin from Canada proves it.
At the outset of his first term, President Bush promised to deal with the problem of Hispanic immigrants in the US in a more positive manner. Have these promises been fulfilled, and what do you feel needs to be done to protect the rights of Mexican immigrants to the US?
Actually, there were no promises from President Bush regarding migration. We know that it is a very sensitive topic for both societies. While there are some measures that might be adopted in order to facilitate the entry of Mexican workers to the United States on a temporary basis, both governments are being cautious in their analysis and eventual implementation considering that this is a structural phenomenon that needs comprehensive solutions. We are exploring the different routes in order to achieve the most convenient results for our countries and our peoples. The protection of Mexican peoples abroad is a constitutional principle of our foreign policy, and we have tremendous experience in that field.
You have called for transforming NAFTA into a much stronger regional free trade union along the lines of the European Union. Is this achievable, and what, in your view, are the obstacles?
NAFTA was a means to improve the legal frame of something that was already happening: economic integration, basically in the fields of trade and investment. That does not exclude the strong economic ties that Mexico has forged with other countries. We have free trade agreements with more than 30 other countries. To reinforce NAFTA and some other topics would have the same purposes: to have a better legal frame for the amazing dynamic trade we have developed in North America.
The co-chairs of the FTAA Trade Negotiations Committee were due to meet at the end of March. What is your assessment of progress in negotiating the free trade area of the Americas that was to be established this year?
From our point of view, the negotiations of the Free Trade Area of the Americans would be something similar to our previous answer: to improve the legal frame of something that is already happening. Trade within America is very strong and important. Mexico maintains free trade agreements with Central American countries, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador. We are also associate members of Mercosur and the Andean Community.
There are indications that, in its second term, the Bush administration is bent on "regime change" in Cuba. What are your views on the matter?
I cannot go beyond the fact that this is a question on the hypothetical internal affairs of another country.
What in your view are the reasons behind the exclusion of Central America, generally, and Mexico in particular, from the forthcoming summit-level dialogue between South America and the Arab world?
I wouldn't say that it was exclusion; the invitation was not comprehensive, and that's all. We respect the Brazilian initiative and we think it is positive to strengthen foreign relations. We wish them all success. At the same time, we have strong Latin American mechanisms of political dialogue and compromises -- in particular the Rio Group -- that are very important at this time and that have developed an outstanding tradition for international dialogue. Recently, Mexico has also fostered its bilateral relations with the Arab world.
What are Mexico's views on the significance of this dialogue, and what should be done in your view to bolster relations between Latin America as a whole and the Arab world?
I believe all dialogues are important and meaningful. Both Arab and Latin American countries have to get to know each other better. Cultural promotion is as important as trade and investment. Political dialogue is essential as well, between different authorities and legislators. We have to invest more time and more resources to strengthen our relations. In this sense, Mexico and Egypt are organising the Africa-Latin America Seminar, which was created by both countries in the 1980s. This time it is going to be held in Cairo, next October, and we are due to invite intellectuals and academics from both regions. This is very positive and we have to take advantage of such initiatives, because they create other ones.
Mexico's geographic proximity to the US and its membership of NAFTA has created the impression in the Arab world that its foreign policy would be, more or less, identical to that of its powerful northern neighbor. Yet Mexico opposed US-British plans to use force against Iraq. Would you explain?
We were once again members of the Security Council during 2002-2003. The first time was in 1980. This opportunity was a very important experience for my country in one of the most delicate moments of world history. We always considered that we were in the 21st century and we were keen to start working on the reforms of the UN system, in a constructive and positive way, not only regarding our national interest, in order to improve multilateralism as the optimal way to build certainty. In the case that you mention, a resolution was not passed, because the project finally was not presented. However, we had to have a clear position. We had intensive consultations with all Security Council members. We considered the positions of our partners and we analysed them. As has been our tradition in foreign policy, we maintained a sovereign and independent position, not necessarily an opposing one to any other country. We worked based on principles and international law. We had to do it that way without necessarily coinciding, in this case, with the positions of some other members of the Security Council. It is always opportune to remember that NAFTA countries don't have a common foreign policy and we all three accept each other quite respectfully.
Since the 9/11 attacks in the US, the Bush administration declared "terrorism" the greatest threat to world peace and stability. Other world leaders have differed, designating poverty and hunger as the primary threat. What are your views on the subject?
I think both are huge challenges, and are linked in certain respects, because frequently extremism originates in poverty, when groups don't have alternatives for development. Mexico has decidedly stated that we must always focus on the deep causes of instability and conflict. Still nothing justifies terrorism. But a part of the fight against modern threats is to promote development.
At a time when the notion of a world divided on cultural and civilisational lines has become preeminent, is there an alternative Latin America perspective on the "fault-lines", to use Huntington's term, dividing the world today?
I think that the world has been much more divided before. Today, there is an important and evident improvement. I am optimistic about the future. Conflicts can be solved, respect for human rights and democracy are becoming universal values, which is good. But also we have to respect diversity; it enriches humanity as a whole. Dialogue is the key word between peoples, countries and civilisations, within and without the United Nations. We all have the same basic goals, which are peace, stability and progress for our peoples.
How would you define Mexico's foreign policy agenda in the Middle East, especially with respect to such crucial issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq and Iran?
This year will be fundamental for the process in the Middle East. We have hope that the dialogue between Israel and Palestine will succeed. We appreciate, indeed, the important contribution of President Hosni Mubarak and his government in this effort; it is invaluable. They face a very big challenge, but it is really worth it; peace for the region, with two states, is a world goal. I decided to open an office of representation in Ramallah, in order to be closer to the process and to cooperate with it. Regarding Iraq, 2005 is also fundamental. We welcome the recent elections and expect that the process will be completed as planned, in order to have a sovereign and integral Iraq. You know that our Federal Electoral Institute, the one that I talked about at the beginning of our interview, cooperated, through the United Nations, in order to organise and hold the elections effectively. We also regret that the violence has not stopped in Iraq. About Iran, the world has to be convinced that the Iranian nuclear programme is not a military one. We hope that negotiations with European representatives succeed, for the benefit of all.
The level of cooperation and coordination between Mexico and OPEC members has been in a state of decline. What is your assessment of the current status of OPEC, and what needs to be done to make the group more effective?
Mexico is not a member of OPEC, though we cooperate intensively with the organisation because oil revenues are very important to my country. We don't want to have a policy of high oil prices, but stability in those prices. New challenges are coming like the strength of the Euro vis-ˆ-vis the American dollar, currency traditionally used in the oil markets, and the need to increase the oil production. I don't think coordination with OPEC is in decline, but the market has to achieve more stability.
Mexico pioneered the initiative to make Latin America a nuclear-free zone. Former Mexican Foreign Minister Alfonso Garc’a Robles has been hailed as the father of the 1967 Tlateloco Agreement, banning nuclear weapons in Latin America, and has campaigned for world nuclear disarmament. His efforts and commitment won him a Nobel Peace Prize. In the light of Mexico's record in this regard, how do you view President Mubarak's call for making the Middle East a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction?
Disarmament has been traditionally a cornerstone of our foreign policy. President Mubarak's initiative is extremely positive. Having the Middle East as a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction would be one of the highest achievements of our time. During 2005, Mexico will be holding a meeting between the different agencies that have worked to form nuclear- free zones in the world. I am sure that cooperation between those agencies will be a solid strategy in enhancing the nuclear disarmament agenda.
Egyptian-Mexican ties go back a long way. Yet the current level of economic and trade ties between the two countries do not seem to reflect this long heritage. What, in your view, should be done by both countries to bolster their relations on all levels?
Relations between Egypt and Mexico are important. We have mutual interests. Mexico recognises the significant role played by Egypt in the Middle East. The internal reforms that President Mubarak has proposed recently are very encouraging for the region. We expect to enhance our traditional ties of friendship and cooperation, and our ministries of foreign affairs are working on doing so.
Biography of Vicente Fox
Born in Mexico City on 2 July 1924 to a wealthy family of Irish-Spanish origin, Vicente Fox became president of Mexico on 1 December 2000. He was the first opposition leader to lead the country since President Francisco Madero, who was president from 1910 until his assassination in 1913.
The young Fox entered university but did not complete his studies. This did not hold him back. In the 1980s, he worked for the international Coca Cola Company, supervising its operations in Mexico and subsequently across Latin America.
In 1999, when he announced his intention of running for high office, many, including members of his own party, voiced reservations, cautioning that he was unknown in the American political sphere. Pressing ahead he quickly became popular with the Mexican population, principally for self- consciously standing as a Mexican citizen, not a politician -- politicians being among the least popular people in Mexico.
Fox took part in a close presidential race on 2 July 2000, the day of his birthday, taking the presidency with 43 per cent of the vote.
His tenure in office ends in 2006, given that the constitution limits each president's term to a maximum of six years.