It was not by chance that Vicente Fox selected the northern industrial city of Monterrey and the impoverished southern state of Oaxaca for official visits the day after his inauguration as Mexico’s first democratically elected president. Fox rose to power promising to build on the industrial north’s increasing linkage to the US economy through an expanded NAFTA, while closing the internal development gap between Mexico’s rural south and its relatively more prosperous northern region (itself divided by great disparities in wealth and well-being).

During the contest for Los Pinos (the Mexican White House), Fox described his governing philosophy as right wing if that means “enthusiasm for generating wealth” and left wing if the criteria are “redistributing income and solving problems of poverty, marginalization and human development.” As a former rancher and unabashed free-trader from the pro-business PAN party, Fox seemed convincing enough, if somewhat quixotic, in his call for European-style Common Market integration for North America. His bid as champion of the rural south, home to the highest population of indigenous peoples and the epicenter of peasant and indigenous rebellion, was less credibly received, evidenced by his inability to carry those states in the election. Fox must now match deeds to words, not only to make good on his promises to the south but to have any hope of success in his northern strategy.

According to data from the 2000 census, fully 75 percent of the population of Mexico lives in poverty today (with fully one-third of these in extreme poverty), as compared with 49 percent in 1981, before the imposition of the neoliberal regimen and, later, NAFTA. Meanwhile, the longstanding gap between the northern and southern regions, as manifested in poverty, infant mortality and malnutrition rates, has grown wider as the latter has borne the brunt of neoliberal adjustment policies. Chiapas, for example, produces more than half of Mexico’s hydroelectric power, an increasing portion of which flows north to the maquiladora zone on the Mexico-US border. Yet, even including its major cities of Tuxtla Gutiérrez and San Cristóbal de las Casas, only half of Chiapanecan households have electricity or running water. Additional water sources have been diverted to irrigate large landholdings devoted to export-oriented agriculture and commercial forestry, while peasant farmers have suffered reductions in water and other necessities as well as an end to land reform, even as they have endured a flood of US agribusiness exports that followed the NAFTA opening.

According to the Mexican government’s own official estimates, 15 million peasants will be forced to leave agriculture in the next one to two decades, many driven northward to face low-wage maquiladoras on one side of the border and high-tech militarization on the other. Any hope of an equitable North American economic zone and a relationship of open borders envisioned by Fox is inconceivable so long as subsistence farmers and small landowners are displaced in such numbers.

As he prepares to meet with US President George W. Bush on February 16, Fox must stay on point with the message he delivered in late January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he admonished the gathering of elites that “attempts to sugarcoat the present form of globalization with compensatory policies are…not nearly enough in the very divided and unequal societies that now occupy so much of the globe.” Fox will need to impress upon his ranch guest that the agenda for increasing cross-border trade cannot be divorced from the question of those left destitute and dispossessed in the south of Mexico by NAFTA. Moreover, he must mince no words in reminding Bush that he has inherited a bankrupt Clinton policy made for a PRI-era Mexico that no longer exists.

If Fox is to have a chance of success in his stated goals, the new Administration in Washington must confront the glaring contradictions between US publicly stated support for democratic enlargement and its antidemocratic actions. In the NAFTA era, US interests vis-à-vis Mexico have been defined largely in terms of moving capital and goods southward and stopping the blowback of people and drugs northward, as if the one had nothing to do with the other. As an example of one such contradiction, the January 22, 1998, issue of the Mexican daily El Financiero published US State Department and Pentagon documents revealing the leading role of the United States in directing the campaign against the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), including the record number of Mexican soldiers trained by the United States in low-intensity warfare. Congress looked the other way when weapons destined for drug interdiction found their way into counterinsurgency forays. Similarly, stepped-up militarization of the border since NAFTA has more than doubled the number of Border Patrol agents. Short of war, it is difficult to imagine a policy more hostile to a neighboring state’s democracy and development, or to Fox’s ability to govern a nation that elected him to fulfill promises to achieve both.

Fox’s foremost challenge, on which all else depends, is to end the virtual military occupation of the southern states, beginning with Chiapas. The intimidating presence of military roadblocks and patrols makes a mockery of constitutional rights of free transit and free expression, never mind indigenous autonomy and access to land or resources. The presence of paramilitaries, with the tacit support of official authorities, has instilled a climate of fear in a population already devastated by economic marginalization and dislocation.

The test of how far and how fast Fox would be willing to go was already in motion by the time he took the oath of office. Ever the master of timing, EZLN Subcomandante Marcos, the day before, had announced a press conference to be held in the remote Zapatista stronghold of La Realidad, breaking a silence that had endured since before Fox’s election. The newly minted president rose to the occasion only minutes after the ceremony by ordering military checkpoints closed in the surrounding area and announcing the beginning of troop reductions throughout Chiapas. The next day, simultaneous with the re-emergence of the Zapatistas onto the national political stage, Fox reiterated his campaign pledge of peace and justice in Oaxaca, proclaiming: “We’re saying goodbye to military logic and embracing political logic. The suffering of Mexican Indians is unacceptable. The need to change our policy toward these people is obvious.” Following through on his earlier stated promise, Fox then submitted the stalled measure on indigenous rights known as the San Andrés Accords to the Congress as his first legislative initiative.

Skeptical as he has become of the utterances of politicians, Marcos was impressed enough by Fox’s initial deeds, including his appointment of the respected democracy and human rights activist Luis Álvarez as the government’s point man on Chiapas, to announce that he would lead a delegation of Zapatista leaders to the capital of Mexico City for the purposes of addressing the new Congress on the matter of indigenous rights. Thus, in less than a week, the loquacious Fox, who once claimed he could end the Chiapas conflict in fifteen minutes, and the enigmatic Marcos, who had not been heard from in months, took the critical preliminary steps to reopen the dialogue that had been stalemated for more than three years after the government reneged on the San Andrés Accords and fell back on a policy of low-intensity warfare.

The EZLN established three “good faith” preconditions for restarting talks. The first, introduced in the form of a question by Marcos, read: “Is the government to commit itself to the path of dialogue and negotiation? If so, then it must demilitarize seven locations.” The bases in question (out of a total of 259 in the state of Chiapas) are located in sensitive areas around Zapatista communities where harassment by soldiers is common. Despite this quite modest request, Fox has ordered the closing of only four and said that he will not budge further until the rebels send a clear signal that they are ready to resume peace talks. Meanwhile, the remaining bases have seen an influx of new soldiers, and the general in command of one of them told the press that his orders were “to stay here, hold out and not withdraw.” And in another troubling sign, military checkpoints that closed on December 1 have reappeared on highways in several key regions of the conflict zone.

Toward meeting the second demand, for release of EZLN supporters currently serving prison terms for their alleged crimes, Pablo Salazar, the new reform governor of Chiapas, recently freed seventeen Zapatistas. On the other hand, the demand also includes Zapatista supporters in Querétaro, a more difficult matter to deliver given the entrenched PRI forces in power there, as well as in Tabasco, a state torn by deep political conflict, where any positive movement on this question is quite unlikely.

The third demand, regarding the San Andrés Accords on autonomy and indigenous rights, is perhaps the most difficult of all since it requires a constitutional change and must win the support of a fragmented and deeply divided Congress. While Fox won plaudits for sending the legislation to Congress as promised, now he will be judged on his willingness to use the bully pulpit over and against the recalcitrant lawmakers of the PRI and of his own PAN. In the latter instance, PAN deputy Carlos Raymundo Toledo has already publicly criticized Fox for “giving in too much to an intransigent Zapatista army,” and his colleague Armando Salinas Torre has declared that according to the law, “if Marcos leaves Chiapas he must be arrested.”

The bill currently under consideration, a watered-down version of the original that the EZLN and the government agreed to in 1996 before former president Ernesto Zedillo backed out, is a compromise designed to appeal across party lines. Insistence on still further concessions at this point would be certain to endanger the nascent steps taken toward peace. It would also only encourage the military in its own efforts to stonewall the demilitarization process, as well as provide an opening for sabotage by paramilitaries looking to scuttle negotiations.

The longer the matter festers, the more it becomes a question of Fox’s integrity, or worse, his powerlessness to direct the armed forces under his command. The new president’s control of the military can certainly not be assumed as a matter of course. Fox’s lack of any ties to the military has stirred anxiety within its leadership ranks. To make matters worse from the military point of view, Fox appointed an obscure military school dean from outside the high command’s inner circle to head the armed forces. He has also pledged to crack down on human rights abuses and end the impunity enjoyed by security forces. And, much to the consternation of the old guard, Fox has agreed to take up for review the celebrated case of Brig. Gen. José Francisco Gallardo, who earned the wrath of the generals by proposing that an independent ombudsman investigate military abuses. He was imprisoned for his troubles on what international observers agree were egregiously trumped-up charges. If all this were not enough, Fox is reportedly committed to ending the military’s central and lucrative role in combating (or, more accurately, coordinating and controlling) drug trafficking.

Thus Chiapas, and the south in general, where the military has enjoyed a free hand historically, may be chosen as the right place at the right time for the generals to make their stand if Fox deviates too far from their game plan. The military’s thinking can be gleaned from “Chiapas 2000,” a report prepared by several active generals for Fox’s consideration upon taking office. Leaked to the newsmagazine Milenio, it consists of a “hearts and minds” approach to counterinsurgency that bears an uncanny resemblance to the failed US strategy in Vietnam.

The US-sponsored war on drugs greatly complicates the calculus of military withdrawal and military-civilian relations. Already the Interior Secretary in the new reform government of Chiapas has stated that the comprehensive pullback envisioned by the Zapatistas is impossible because of drug traffickers and immigrant smugglers from across the border with Guatemala. Since antinarcotics counterinsurgency equipment and training are fungible and spill over easily and with regularity against political insurgents and their alleged sympathizers, its potential role in upending the peace process cannot be overestimated. Given the cozy security relationship between the United States and Mexico since NAFTA, and especially because of the largesse of helicopters, vehicles and weapons showered on the Mexican military under the guise of antinarcotics trafficking, US policy will weigh heavily on the prospects for peace. It is imperative, though perhaps unlikely, that the Bush Administration reverse approval of the use of antinarcotics equipment and weapons against insurgents, a practice that was revealed in 1996 as policy in a purloined State Department memo. The very least the United States should do, through Congressional oversight, is enforce the Leahy-Pelosi resolutions prohibiting US assistance to Mexican military units guilty of human rights abuses. More significantly, the Bush Administration could jettison the entire failed approach to narcotics trafficking, as Fox himself and other Latin American leaders have urged.

Assuming that the end of direct violence by the military and paramilitaries against the indigenous and rural communities of Chiapas can be accomplished, the most intractable obstacle to peace will remain the structural violence rooted in the rural political economy of Mexico. The EZLN emerged on the day NAFTA went into effect for a reason: The guerrillas condemned the trade agreement as the “death knell for indigenous people.” Its impact was indeed a triple whammy: First Mexico had to rescind land-reform measures that offered some meager protections for small farmers; second, the lifting of tariffs made it impossible for small producers to compete against US surplus grains; and third, the Mayan-descended “children of the corn,” as they call themselves, did not have the means to purchase the Iowa-grown export first cultivated by their ancestors. When they speak of autonomy and self-determination, uppermost in their minds is land–including the constitutional guarantee to live on it and work it in the traditional communal manner.

Fox’s second major challenge will be to accommodate the desires of the inhabitants of the southern states while making progress in overcoming the area’s poverty and marginalization. But here the new president must tread very carefully, avoiding the facile one-size-fits-all model of development that would turn the south into a caricature of the north with the sudden sprouting of maquiladoras in Chiapas and its neighboring states, a strategy favored by some acolytes of free trade, including business cronies of the president who are spearheading an economic initiative for the region known as Plan Puebla-Panama.

Fox will have to stand firm against those who can be counted on to piously decry indigenous autonomy as a threat to sovereignty; such people warn in ominous tones of a “domino effect” and a looming balkanization of Mexico. Among these will be the powerful voices of the hacendados (large landowners) and caciques (political bosses), who have traditionally ruled the south and now reap the rewards of state subsidies and the export boom in coffee, fruit, vegetables and livestock. Allied to these forces are the modernizing technocrats and transnational corporations, with their eyes on Chiapas’s bounty of forests, minerals and other natural resources. During peace negotiations in 1995, for example, International Paper sent a letter to the Mexican government voicing its concern about the “high political risk” posed by autonomy and laying down a series of conditions for continuing investment in a paper-pulp and lumber plantation project that would include the planting of 300,000 hectares of eucalyptus on indigenous and communal lands in Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas. All these demands were met in subsequent forestry legislation, a move that was eventually rewarded by the World Bank with a loan that furthered the development of commercial plantations.

Most of all, there are certain to be the rumblings from Wall Street and Washington, not least from the petro-corporate White House and its foreign policy team. The imperative in US-Mexican relations for each of these circles is secure and steady access to the reserves of oil and natural gas in Mexico’s south. As Oil and Gas Journal reported to its readership, “Political disturbances are more important than any geological factor” as an impediment to oil exploitation in Chiapas. Even now, American companies like Halliburton, where Dick Cheney served as CEO before his current post as Vice President, receive billions in contracts with Petróleos de Mexico (PEMEX), Mexico’s national oil company. Finally, it is no secret that the financial and corporate establishment on both sides of the border eagerly anticipates the full and complete privatization of PEMEX, and Mexico’s energy resources generally, in support of Cheney’s stated vision of a hemispheric energy policy that “looks at all of North America as one giant market.”

So how can the Fox forces successfully navigate the roiling waters that surround the deliberations on autonomy and land ownership? Perhaps the one idea least viable is the one to which the businessman-turned-president at times seems most inclined. Fox is known to wax rhapsodic about the virtues of small-business enterprise and to speak with evangelical zeal about the conversion of peasants into entrepreneurs and shoppers. But Horatio Alger individualism and Francis Fukuyama consumerism are not exactly what the indigenous or the landless have in mind for their future. In a pointed letter to Fox on the day he assumed the presidency, Subcomandante Marcos derided any possible plans to turn the indigenous into “mini-micro-impresarios” seeking credit to open a tiendita (mom and pop store), to purchase a tele (television) or to make installment payments on an automovil compacto (compact car). This is not to say that there is not a place for small business and rural markets. But these arteries of commerce must be built upon a sustainable agricultural and rural economic base rather than substitute for its presence. First comes a commitment to legal and land reform as the foundation for secure livelihood; public infrastructure improvements, including irrigation and drainage to raise the productivity of the land; technical assistance and tractors as well as access to credit and crop insurance for the cultivators; and roads that will connect local and regional markets. Even more fundamental are the requirements for investment in housing, education, health and nutrition, among other basic needs, in partnership with the rural communities themselves.

Indigenous autonomy and economic development need not be locked in contradiction, but no doubt its support will exact a steep expenditure of political capital on Fox’s part, including the renegotiation of several sections of NAFTA and a rollback on some of its restrictions. But a NAFTA II is not as unlikely as it sounds. The current version, for all its reputed macroeconomic virtues, is widely regarded as a disaster for humans and the environment north and south–not good for social peace and democracy. Moreover, there is historical precedent for what has been termed “social cohesion” planning in the European Union’s successful efforts at closing regional disparity gaps like that in Mexico, in this instance within Spain and Portugal as part of the larger plan for their economic integration with the rest of Europe.

Of course, this will require considerable public investment. But the funding need not be that burdensome and could be gained from a special tariff on NAFTA transactions or perhaps even from US royalties on oil exploration, which will go forward to some extent, like it or not. As Fox has suggested, something of the sort would be a worthy role for the nearly moribund North American Development Bank, which is attached to NAFTA. Stability in the south will stop the flow of the desperate northward, which in turn will allow for improving labor conditions in the borderland and for diversifying its industrial base from an unhealthy dependency on maquiladoras.

To be sure, all this is a tall order, even for the imposing figure of Vicente Fox. It will also require far more of “the vision thing,” to recall the stirring words of Bush Senior when he occupied the Oval Office, than we are likely to see from the team assembled by George W. Bush. But fortunately, neither the White House nor Capitol Hill is the only player in US politics, especially on questions concerning Mexico. NAFTA has not only facilitated the movement of capital and goods across the US-Mexico border but also given birth to US-based solidarity and Mexican diaspora networks that transcend national boundaries. Each has been lauded for its role in ending the PRI era, the former in the human rights campaign against violence in Chiapas, the latter in its vociferous opposition to the PRI in last year’s epochal July election. Fox has acknowledged as much, encouraging the international presence in the new democratic Mexico and welcoming Mexican citizens living and working in the United States as legitimate participants in the national political dialogue and the economic development of their home communities. Marcos has thanked international civil society for its support of the indigenous cause and invited the world to join him in Mexico City for the historic February encounter.

Up to now, solidarity and diaspora groups have worked with their counterparts in Mexican civil society to build a democratic base there in opposition to the antediluvian politics of the PRI. The election of Fox marked the second step in the transition to democracy. Success in the current consolidation phase will demand equal if not greater attention to outdated Washington politics as well as a wary eye against slippage in Mexico City. Vicente Fox can count on the support of these new transnational citizens if he is serious about confronting the obstacles to the changes he has promised. Bush/Cheney should feel plenty of heat from this emerging network, whether Fox is for real or not.