Introduction: The Year of Hidalgo
Rancho San Cristóbal
December 4, 2006
In Latin America, presidents generally do not retire to the farm to write their memoirs. Most flee abroad, to escape extradition. More than one has lived in house arrest.
Former chief executives of Mexico did not build presidential libraries, crusade against hunger, or run the United Nations. They generally caught the first plane to Europe, turning over power to a designated successor by pointing the dedazo, the "finger." The traditional cycle of our six-year presidential term, the sexenio, worked like this: A president used his first five years to spend the nation deep into debt. In his sixth year, known as the "Year of Hidalgo," he cut off the flow of money to the economy and diverted hundreds of millions of dollars from Mexico's oil revenues to fund the campaign of his successor. Then the incumbent handed the sash to the man to whom he'd "given the finger" and got the hell out of the country, before the economic crisis kicked in.
Memoirs would have been a bad idea. They might have been used as evidence.
With the advent of real democracy in Latin America, our part of the world is no longer the sole province of dictators, demagogues, and deadbeats. Now we have peacemakers like Nobel Prize winner Oscar Arias of Costa Rica; democratic socialists like Ricardo Lagos of Chile, Alejandro Toledo of Peru, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil. My own predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, who steered our country's transition to democracy and now teaches at Yale, made a bit of history himself: a Mexican ex-president so honest that he actually needed to work for a living.
Typically, Mexico's former presidents exiled themselves to Ireland, drew on their Swiss bank accounts, and hid from the world in walled suburban villas. The presidential palace of Los Pinos used to be the place where you couldn't go home again: If a former Mexican chief of state went out to a taco stand in his native village, people would boo and hiss. Our leaders were famous for spending their last year in the presidential palace systematically looting the building, taking with them furniture, paintings, antiques, even doorknobs and light fixtures. Imagine the president in his imperial sash, sneaking down the gilt-railed staircase with a malachite bedside clock in one hand and a Flemish tapestry rolled under his arm, like a hotel guest ducking the bill while stealing the shampoo bottles.
A Mexican president's final year in office is called the "Year of Hidalgo" to honor Miguel Hidalgo, the great priest who fought for Mexico's independence from Spain. But a century and a half of authoritarian rule turned the sixth year of our presidents into a sad old joke: ¡En el año de Hi-dalgo, chingue a su madre, el que deje algo! This translates politely as, "In the final year, the son of a bitch won't leave a thing!"
Three days ago, at the stroke of midnight, I handed the green, red, and white presidential sash of Mexico to my successor, Felipe Calderón. A brilliant and courageous young reformer, President Calderón defeated a dangerous ally of Hugo Chávez named Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, winning a razor-thin upset in the closest election in our nation's history. The mood was tense. AMLO had held our nation's capital hostage for months to defy the vote of the people in a contest hailed by international observers as one of the cleanest, fairest, and most accurate elections ever conducted in Latin America. The swearing-in of Felipe Calderón was a historic moment: the first time in Mexico's history that one freely elected president turned over power to another, officially bringing democracy to the land ruled for nearly a century by what Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called "the perfect dictatorship."
When I left Los Pinos, I took very little, determined to change Mexico's sexenio pattern of cronyism, corruption, and crisis. The first lady and I packed up my blue jeans and the vaquero belts with the big silver FOX buckle I wore on the campaign trail. We boxed them up with the proper suits and ties a president must wear to the United Nations, the White House, and the Vatican (in case anyone invites me back). For the mantel of my farmhouse, we brought a few photographs from my own inauguration day: Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa, personal heroes of democracy; Bill Gates and Fidel Castro, two of the more fascinating dinner companions of a life in the global village; my daughter Paulina, holding aloft the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe that caused such a stir in the secular world. For the presidential library that my first lady and I are building here at the ranch, I kept a copy of Mexico's First Freedom of Information Act; a thank-you note from a schoolboy in Chiapas, written on one of the computers that now connect every schoolhouse in Mexico to the Internet; a pottery bowl in vivid Mayan red and ocher, spun by the elderly hands of an indigenous woman in Chiapas with a loan from our microlending bank, inspired by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Muhammad Yunus.
Then I went home to the farm of my immigrant forefathers, who came to Mexico from Ohio and Spain in search of their American dream, to tell you the story of mine.
I sit here in the morning sun of our ranch near the exact geographic center of Mexico, literally confined to a rocking chair because I was struck by a bull last weekend; the doctors say the hairline fissure in my back will heal only if I stay very still.
This is difficult for me, this business of sitting still. The son and grand-son of restless pioneers, I've spent my life in constant motion: striving, competing, fighting, changing, sometimes losing, sometimes winning, but, like any son of immigrants, always on the move. My American grand-father, who despite half a century in Mexico spoke only English until the day he died, used to growl, "Vicente, you have a bug up your ass!"
My late mother, whom I loved above anyone I've ever known, would have cringed to see these earthy words in the first pages of my book. Scandalous! But Doña Mercedes was an elegant Spanish merchant's daughter from Colonia Roma and always was shocked by our coarse language on the farm, as were so many of the people I later encountered in public life. Once, after being called to account by the press for using a barnyard epithet, I began a speech warning parents in the audience, "Mothers and fathers, please cover the ears of your children! The governor of Guanajuato is about to speak."
It seems like I have been on the move since I was a boy. Racing my brothers to the barn to see who could lift the heaviest bale of wheat (I won, and if José wants to tell you different, then he can write his own book). Driving Coca-Cola trucks pell-mell across the Chihuahuan desert to deliver more cartons of Coke than our competitors (we won, making Coca-Cola number one again in what is now the world's largest per capita soft drink market). Leading mass protests for democracy at the golden Angel of Independence amid the blaring traffic of the Paseo de la Reforma in the second-largest metropolis on the planet. Riding in campaign caravans through the moonlit mesas of Sonora, the jaguar jungles of Yucatán, the fertile fields of Morelos. Until yesterday my life was a whirlwind of bumpy helicopter rides into the mountainous south to open a hospital for indígenas; bounding up to the stage in a crowded zócalo to fire up the crowd in the plaza; the smooth familiar lift of the Benito Juarez as the Mexican presidential 737 headed to the Forbidden City of Beijing; Number 10 Downing Street; Crawford, Texas; and the Kremlin (Putin kept me waiting the longest, as though the KGB had briefed him on my restlessness).
In Mexico, people say, "God has nothing but time, yet Fox is always in a hurry." Even now, just forty-eight hours out of office, I am ready to move on to my next challenge, my next dream for the Americas.
It is right to tell you my story here at San Cristóbal, surrounded by the half-timbered, white-plastered walls of the house I started drawing as a child with visions of becoming an architect. Sons and daughters of the Americas are like that, sketching the floor plan of the dream house on the kitchen table of the tenement, scribbling a business plan on the back of the envelope in the lunch box: always moving, dreaming, building, hoping. During my years at Coca-Cola, I collected old stones from ruined cathedrals and the oaken beams of demolished houses in Mexico City. Then I lugged them here in an old Ford pickup to plant this house at the far corner of my grandfather's farm, down the tree-lined lane from the two-hundred-year-old Spanish-style hacienda where I have eaten Sunday dinners as long as I can remember.
It is still a surprise to look down the table and realize that my mother is no longer there. It was Doña Mercedes who pointed out to me that my life was an unfinished book of five chapters. Chapter 1, farm boy and student. Chapter 2, Coca-Cola truck driver and corporate executive. Chapter 3, farmer and boot maker. Then my latest chapter, fifteen years in politics as democracy activist, opposition congressman, governor, president.
"What will you do with the next chapter, Vicente?" she asked not long before she died, her bright green eyes shining with hope. "Become a priest?"
As much as I admire the Jesuits, I think my first lady might object.
I went to mass yesterday and lit a candle for Doña Mercedes in the church whose steeple I can see from my front door. Then I walked to the town square to look my neighbors squarely in the eyes, knowing that I led my country with clean hands. This is perhaps because these hands were slapped hard and often by the wooden rulers of the priests as they schooled me to be a "man for others" like St. Ignatius Loyola. This, too, was my mother's teaching: that the highest calling was to serve your neighbors.
One night when I was ten, I watched her gentle hands press tight over the bubbling crimson of a ranch worker's bullet wound, as Doña Mercedes in turn watched me out of the corner of one eye to make sure I didn't pass out from the sight of blood. A well-loved woman of San Cristóbal, my mother tended the sick, educated the children of poor campesinos, and stood strong when pistol-waving invaders came to seize our farm. The people whose lives she touched sit now in pews beside me, boyhood friends grown to fathers and grandfathers, freshly scrubbed in their best Sunday suits after a rough week in the fields.
They, too, deserve to find their American dreams.
So do all of the poor and the hardworking, the restless and striving people of the inner cities and rural valleys and jungle plantations and native villages, from Coahuila to Canada, and from Harlem to Haiti. The American dream is not just the dream of wealthy and successful people of the United States. It is the dream of my campesino neighbors, of all people of the Americas, North and South.
Remember, America is more than the name the United States gives to itself. It is a fact little known around the world, but it drives people in Latin America, Canada and the Caribbean quietly mad when people in the United States, Europe, or Asia refer to the United States as "America," thus claiming for U.S. citizens the sole title of "Americans." South of the Rio Grande, which we call the Río Bravo, we consider the entire hemisphere to be the Americas. America is the New World, where ancient civilizations like the Maya and the Aztec mingled with the bold and the enslaved and the desperate from Europe, Arabia, and Asia. In this sense we are all Americans, and from Canada's Yukon to Argentina's Tierra del Fuego we all share the dream of a better life.
They also dream who live in the back alleys of Asia and the sands of sub-Saharan Africa. The poor and the sick and the hardworking of every continent yearn for the prosperity my grandparents found in the Americas. They are the simple dreams of every family: a home of your own, a doctor for your sick, a school for your children, a good job — perhaps, if you work very hard, a piece of land or a corner store. This dream of the Americas is the hope we all share, born of poor people who crossed oceans, deserts, and prairies with heads full of big ideas and nothing in their pockets but courage.
Some, the remarkable few, are the visionary pioneers, the Andrew Carnegies who stowed away in the holds of stinking ships, and they are still coming even today, from Mexico, China, Pakistan, Vietnam. Some — like Andrew Grove, the Hungarian-born founder of Intel Corporation, or Russian-born Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google — will found empires, heal millions, direct Hollywood movies, invent new cures.
But most are humbler people, like my family — and perhaps yours. They come to new lands even today, from Mexico to the United States, from Guatemala to Mexico, from Africa to Italy, from Cambodia to Australia: hungry and desperate, seeking refuge from disease, war, persecution, and poverty, the four horsemen of desperation who drive immigrants to the gates of hope. Their dreams belong to all of us, because needs that basic, values that common, and a hope that divine simply cannot be limited by borders. America is in this way not so much a country but an ideal. And with all its faults, this dream of the Americas remains the last, best hope of mankind on earth.
While I love my own country and will always be Mexican to the toes of my boots, I save a special place in my heart for the United States, the place where I was briefly exiled as a schoolboy to learn that America is a land of opportunity, where every child is raised to achieve anything he or she will earn, to say anything he or she believes, and pray to any god who will answer his or her brightest hopes. I believe that the dreams of the Americas are universal, not just because I witnessed them in the United States but because in my own life I have seen the same revolution of hope in Mexico. The ambitions of my German Irish American grandfather, who came from Ohio on horseback to marry the daughter of a French soldier and an indígena peasant, then worked his way up as a factory night watchman to buy the ranch where I tell you this story: These are American dreams.
The faith of my Catholic parents, who grew up among the bloody Cristero wars after the Mexican Revolution unleashed a wave of persecution against the church, a time when sacraments were forbidden, baptism meant jail, priests were murdered, and the Fox family worshipped at the chapel outside their front door: These are American dreams.
The hope of a Mexican farm boy to rise from truck driver to CEO of Coca-Cola Mexico, then topple the longest-running dictatorship of the twentieth century and become the first president of a true Mexican democracy: This was an American dream.
So, too, is my dream of a creating a great Union of the Americas to rival the European Union and the economic tigers of Asia, harnessing the power of the world's largest economy to lift people out of the shadowy borders of poverty and into the bright light of promise. This is my American dream. An America of bridges, not walls. An America where gates of love once again welcome those caught in the barbed wire of hate. An America of open hearts and open arms, where today, we find too many closed minds.
The world needs this dream of the Americas, now as never before. From Oaxaca to the South Bronx, from teeming Pakistan to the trouble spots of Darfur and Gaza, the world hungers for the original promise of the Americas: a New World of freedom, prosperity, and opportunity. Most of all we pray for a revolution of hope to restore the founding spirit of our hemisphere, where the Statue of Liberty once welcomed the eager dreams of the poorest, bravest, and most desperate people of the earth.
It was in this spirit that my family came from Europe and the United States to build our own earthly paradise here at Rancho San Cristóbal, with the sweat of our brows and God's hands on our aching shoulders, guided by the hope of a better life. Think about it: In the Americas almost every one of us — unless your ancestors were all truly indigenous, like my great-grandmother — are descended from immigrants. If we would stop fearing each other for a moment and remember the stories of our own family albums, we could join hands across our borders to restore the vision of our ancestors. Such a revolution of hope could help heal the north-south continental divide between the haves and the have-nots, between America and the rest of the world.
As president, I traveled the world to promote Mexico's new democracy. I watched fireworks on the White House lawn and wore the wrong shoes to see the king of Spain. I made dozens of state visits to Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia, in and out of the United Nations and the Vatican, slums and presidential palaces, Castro's dining room, Tony Blair's fire-side, the modest Houghton offices of Nelson Mandela. I've talked about the dream of the Americas to Chinese farmers, to Russian helicopter pilots, to Arab leftists, to an African woman threatened with death by stoning for her adultery.
And I am convinced that the naysayers are wrong. The world doesn't hate America. We love America. All around the planet, people admire the ideals of the Founding Fathers, the Statue of Liberty. We seek the revolution of hope that America once held up with that torch. And despite all that has happened, we still hold our breath in the hope that America will return to that promise. It is in this spirit that I write this book, because it is in this spirit that the world still looks to America to lead.
As a farm boy, I was an indifferent student, more interested in baling hay than studying mathematics. But history I loved, drinking in the stories of the great heroes of Mexico's struggle for independence, our revolution and the Cristero Rebellion, told to me around the fire by men who had fought for freedom in the early 1900s. I ignored my textbooks of grammar and science but devoured biographies of Napoleon and Genghis Khan, George Washington and El Cid. And if history proves nothing else, it is this:
Walls don't work.
The Great Wall of China didn't work. The Berlin Wall didn't work. The West Bank Barrier won't work. Walls never work. Walls are a medieval solution to a twenty-first-century problem. Mongols invade them. Escapees tunnel under them. Television beams over them. Palestinian car bombs explode them. Immigrants crawl through their barbed wire in the night, in search of a better life.
Today, as National Guard troops patrol the rivers from Arizona to Iraq, the United States isn't building a wall.
It is building a prison.
A wall of troops around the United States would suffocate the American dream. Inside the gilded cage of this new American hacienda envisioned by the isolationists, in a gated community surrounded by video cameras and guard dogs, the dream of the Americas would be forever hostage to fear, hate, greed, and indifference.
The America I love, the America of my grandfather, could never build that wall.
Instead we should return together to the spirit of San Cristóbal, the 2001 summit held here at our family's ranch, where George W. Bush came to meet my mother and made history by honoring Mexico with his first trip abroad. Now that Mexico is a democracy that puts computers in its schools and buys more products from the United States than all the greatest nations of Europe combined — a country with the rule of law, that retires its presidents to the farm to write books instead of letting them steal the silver — we should stop building walls between us and build a united continent instead.
If the notion of bringing our countries closer together unsettles North Americans, the idea is controversial here in Mexico, too. Our yanqui-go-home intellectual class resists ties with the United States and Canada, fear-ful of domination by the superpower that once took one third of our nation's territory in the U.S.–Mexico War. (The 1848 defeat of my presidential predecessor, the traitorous General Santa Anna, by the U.S. occupation forces resulted in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which handed over undisputed control of Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, and large parts of Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, to the U.S. government for $15 million. I would not have made that deal.) In Mexico the idea of foreign invasion is not a fantasy of xenophobes — yes, we have them, too — but the reality of our history, from the Spanish conquest of our ancient Aztecs and Mayans to the U.S. invasion of the 1840s, during which a young lieutenant named Ulysses S. Grant charged up Mexico City's Chapultepec Hill. In the 1860s the French invaded Mexico again and put the Austrian emperor Maximilian in Chapultepec Palace. During World War I, despite Mexico's rejection of German overtures in a famous telegram known as the Zimmermann Note, Woodrow Wilson drew up war plans to blockade Mexico's ports and send 250,000 U.S. troops to occupy our five northern states of Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Coahuila. Then the United States invaded Mexico twice again, within this past century, in my grandfather's time. In 1914, U.S. Marines occupied our largest seaport of Veracruz when our revolution threatened the interests of U.S. oil companies. In 1916, General John "Black Jack" Pershing invaded Mexico with an expeditionary force of three brigades of the U.S. Army, along with a squadron of airplanes and a young lieutenant named George S. Patton. They spent more than a year chasing the elusive Pancho Villa, the bandit-general hero of our revolution.
Little wonder that two nations who share the world's longest and most active land border (more than a million people cross it every day) seem perpetually at odds. Leaders on both sides, from our Congressional Palace of San Lázaro to Washington's Capitol Hill, can be expected to reject out of hand any vision of a united continent. Driven by fear or experience, hatred or history, common wisdom or common sense, politicians at the extremes in both countries will always seek to keep us forever "distant neighbors" — no matter how much we need each other.
But if my life proves anything, it is that we are not prisoners to our past.
Mexico was a dictatorship, it had always been a dictatorship, and it seemed that Mexico would always be a dictatorship — until people of courage stood up to change that. I think of the 1968 student demonstrators massacred by our government during that year of the Mexico City Olympic Games — of my hero Manuel Clouthier, who went on a hunger strike in 1988 to challenge the electoral fraud of Carlos Salinas — of the freedom fighters who stood beside me when the PRI men stuck a pistol in my belly and demanded a ballot box that was stuffed full of their forgeries. (I gave them back. We also burned a few.)
Mine is a good American story. There are love stories of hardy pioneers and defiant ranch women, rifle-toting bandits, elegant Latin beauties. As with any cowboy story, there are fistfights, gunfights, bullfights — even a football game. And like the best American stories, mine offers the hope that any farm boy can grow up to be president of a great democracy.
It is a dream that happens... only in the Americas.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from REVOLUTION OF HOPE by Vicente Fox and Rob Allyn. Copyright © 2007 by Viking.