The Fall of Mexico's "Cactus Wall"

The Cactus Wall that has separated Mexico from the rest of North America is beginning to rot away. Seventy-one years of one-party rule will come to an abrupt end on December 1 when Vicente Fox becomes president. That day will also mark the first peaceful transfer of power between opposing parties in Mexican history. And the day all three parties to NAFTA will be certifiable democracies.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will not long endure as a major force in national politics. Though it won a third of the seats in Congress, it will begin to disintegrate.

Unlike the communist parties that governed behind the old Iron Curtain, the PRI has no real ideology to hold it together. It was formed in 1929 by President Plutarco Elias Calles as an extension of presidential authority. Its glue has been patronage, not the force of ideas or ideology. Take away that glue, and there is little left to hold it together.

The process of disintegration is already underway. The governors of Zacatecas, Tlaxcala and Baja California Sur are all former PRI politicians who only recently bolted to the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). As the spigot of federal patronage is shut off, left-leaning priistas will switch in droves to the PRD, and right-leaning priistas to the National Action Party, which has just captured the presidency and a congressional plurality.

The PRI may persist for awhile in some of the more rural states, where PRI governors still hold sway over patronage machines. But without control over the federal funds that have traditionally made up most of their budgets, the governors will have less patronage to dispense. With time, that will erode their political base.

Meanwhile, President Fox will be dismantling the PRI's other methods of social control. With control of supreme court appointments, he will form an independent judiciary. He will overhaul the corrupt federal police. The army, which has been patrolling much of southern Mexico to bolster authoritarian PRI governors, will likely be ordered to return to the barracks.

As democracy takes hold, and corruption and repression begin to recede, we can expect a much more stable Mexico. Fox, who is a former Coca-Cola executive, has pledged to focus on economic development, with a goal of 7 percent annual economic growth. Complementing the emphasis on economic development will be a substantial increase in investment in education.

Fox's long-range goal is to expand NAFTA into a common market similar to the European Union. By extending democracy to the Guatemalan border, enacting labor rights, and raising the standard of living closer to that of the United States and Canada, he envisions a future in which the United States could dispense with immigration controls.

Fox proposes to address the causes of immigration -- inadequate job and educational opportunities, generalized corruption, repression -- in order to make it more attractive for Mexicans to remain in the land of their birth. As the return of Kosovar exiles to their homeland has demonstrated, many immigrants will jump at the opportunity to return to their homeland, provided they have at least a reasonable expectation of a decent life.

Fox's model, though, is Spain. Once the poor boy of Europe after decades of stagnation under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Spain is now a prosperous member of the European Union. Spaniards no longer flock northward over the French border in search of freedom and a decent livelihood.

What made that possible was a two-way change. Spain became a democracy, bringing its judiciary and labor laws into synchrony with the rest of Western Europe. Western Europe responded by offering membership in the European Union, eliminating immigration controls and investing heavily in infrastructure in order to make the country attractive to business investment.

Vicente Fox's intention to convert Mexico into the Spain of North America is an even more ambitious undertaking. Yet he approaches it with a solid record of achievement as governor of the Mexican state of Guanajuato. Guanajuato has the second-highest rate of growth of any Mexican state and the lowest rate of unemployment.

It is in the interest of both Washington and Ottawa to respond to Fox's overture by offering a carrot of their own -- by committing to invest more heavily in Mexico as it becomes a genuine democracy, and to plan for an eventual economic union that will guarantee long-term stability and prosperity throughout the continent.

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