MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.
Now it's time for Wisdom Watch, where we visit from some of our most respected leaders and thinkers to get their take on the issues of the day. Today we are speaking with Mexico's former president, Vicente Fox. He won the presidency in July of 2000 by pulling off a feat some considered impossible, ending the 72 year reign of Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary party. Since leaving office in 2006 the former president has remained in the public eye. He wrote a memoir and he recently opened the first presidential library in Mexico. We were able to visit with him on a recent trip to Washington where he came to address a group that promotes international education. Mr. President, thank you for speaking with us.
President VICENTE FOX (Mexico): A pleasure, a pleasure. And thank you for the opportunity.
MARTIN: Well, I'd like to start with why you are here. You came all this way to support people who give scholarships to study abroad. Why is that important to you?
President FOX: Well, I was invited to come as the main speaker for this global international conference that gathers around 8,000 people from all over the world. Experts, real experts in education which have built a net worldwide in order to facilitate students, either moving - going from United States to other nations for studying or vice versa, coming from any other nation to the States. Basically it's at the university level, very sophisticated and I am glad that the globalization is here to stay, especially when we speak about education because we all have something to learn from our neighbor. We have all something to teach to others. So, this exchange to me is very enriching, and this activity of generating thought also gives me the ammunition in ideas that I need to come to governments or to political parties for my responsibility as leader, co-chair of the CDI. This is the Center Democrat International which gathers all Christian Democrat parties of the world, so that's where I keep the dialogue going and where I bring in and present to different governments in Latin America, suggestions for public policy, especially on reducing poverty, spreading out opportunities to all people.
MARTIN: You studied in the U.S. Was that an important chapter in your life? What do you think you got from studying…
President FOX: It was for the first time, of course the main purpose was to learn English, but at the same time to learn about the culture, here, in the United States. My grandfather came from this great nation, back in 1895 as a migrant to Mexico without a penny in his pocket. So, my learning experience here was pretty good. I have to say, a lot of time there was quite a lot of discrimination, a Latin Hispanic Mexican in Wisconsin was not something that you would see every other day, and I remember how we were called, the greasy Mexicans, go home. I'm talking back in 1958, so long, long time ago. But that gave me a very deep impression of how we should always work for patience, for solidarity, for understanding each other. My learning here - experience was great.
MARTIN: You built the first presidential library in Mexico as I mentioned, the Central Fox. It's a multipurpose, and if you'd - I'd like to ask a couple things about the library. First, what made you decide to build it? In this country it's quite common, but not so common elsewhere.
President FOX: Not so common there. As a matter of fact, former presidents in Mexico would just disappear from the map. This was not a very democratic kind of behavior. So, today we decided, Martha and myself…
MARTIN: Forgive me. For those who don't know, Martha being your wife.
President FOX: Yes, my lovely wife. We decided that we should change those cultures, all cultures promoted by the former regime in Mexico. We was very authoritarian and undemocratic. And that's one side of the inspiration. Second, we had the opportunity to visit some presidential libraries here in the States, and again, getting part of the input and part of the inspiration also there. And by the way, the only secure way of changing the destiny of a nation in one generation, it's only through education. Education is the key factor to speed up the process of building human capital, to speed up the process of building a powerful social policy associated to a successful economy, and I would never repeat again as president of Mexico. First, because it's not allowed in Mexico. There's no reelection. But second, because I think you need new blood, new thinking, new generations to come in and take over.
MARTIN: But that seems to be sort of a contradictory point. On the one hand you're saying you only have six years as president, that's a very short time to create institutional change, on the other hand, it seems obvious that you're sounding the alarm about other leaders who seem to want to stay in office forever. What's the middle ground?
President FOX: Well, that I truly believe in democracy, alternation in power, I don't like the Hugo Chavez's, and I don't like those who change the constitution there to stay forever. I don't like those who are populist and demagogic that lie at the very end to people that give away the fish, and don't teach people how to fish, and they spend the budget only in sustaining their position in power. So that's a pretty worrying trend that today we have in Latin America, and part of the purpose of the center is to counterbalance this demagogic populist attitude with sound economic policies where there are strong democracies, and freedom with powerful social policies to really help the poor, and not do what they are doing, which is just making more and more poor every day.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with the former president of Mexico Vicente Fox. You've talked a lot about the link between immigration and poverty. Obviously those are related issues. Immigration is a key issue in this country as of course you know because I know you follow the news here. You're certainly aware that the president, most congressional leaders, all three of the remaining presidential candidates, all supported a path to citizenship for those currently in the U.S. illegally, but it failed miserably. What's your sense of why that happened?
President FOX: Well, first of all I would I say that, yes, there is a relationship between poverty and migration, but there is a stronger relationship between aspirations and this thing that we all have of human beings, which is leadership within ourselves, and which is fighting for a better life to us and our families. My grandfather moved down to Guanajuato. Not because he didn't have a job here. It's because he felt that he would do his dream in Guanajuato, Mexico. And same thing happens with immigrants that are coming here. Most of them mention that because they don't have a job. It's not because they are stomach empty. Most of them, I would say well over 95 percent of them, is because they have aspirations because they want a better life. Same as the hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens that move out from this great nation to other nations. We have tens of thousands of Americans working in Mexico. In China, there is thousands of Americans working, and in Europe, and in Asia, and in Bangladesh, and Brazil, and Argentina, everywhere. So migration is an old issue. I mean it started with Adam and Eve when they left paradise. They started migrating.
MARTIN: But what's your sense of why most Americans don't seem to have that view of immigration as a net positive at this point in time?
President FOX: They had it before September 11th. Two factors, one the economy was growing, and this economy needed more and more labor coming from abroad to take jobs that your citizens wouldn't take. And number two, September the 11th came. I remember I was here addressing both Houses of Congress back in September the 8th of that same year 2001, and we had it all done. Everybody was in agreement that we should launch this new profound immigration reform to bring order to the issue, and to administrate, and run the issue instead of it being open and disorder.
But fear came to this nation, and I understand September the 11th was a very sad day that should never repeat again, but I feel fear on U.S. citizens and public opinion, and this confusion of a Mexican immigrant with a terrorist is so foolish it's a shame. This building a wall, I mean this is incredible. The leading nation of openness, of globalization now surrenders and builds a wall. It's incredible. I am part of this nation. My grandfather was an American, but I have to say that loud and clear it's a big historical mistake. I wish that President Reagan was alive…
MARTIN: Why do you think it's a mistake?
President FOX: When he came to Berlin to shout to Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear off this wall.
MARTIN: But why do you think it's a mistake? I mean there's also another saying, good fences make good neighbors. You don't favor open immigration policy, you favor controlled immigration policy so...
President FOX: It will not serve the purpose. The Berlin Wall did not serve against freedom. The Chinese wall did not serve against their enemies. There are much better ways to use our talent, to use our comment sense, to sit down and discuss the issue because there is misinformation all around, starting with Lou Dobbs and the messages he spreads out. I mean he's a xenophobic. I mean he's always against Mexicans and Mexican immigrants without the right information.
MARTIN: You know his wife is Mexican-American? Are you aware of that?
President FOX: My purpose…
MARTIN: I'm sorry, Mr. President, you're aware of that?
President FOX: Yes, yes, OK.
MARTIN: So he says he could not possibly be xenophobic because his wife is Mexican-American.
President FOX: Well, I'm surprised. Please don't take me wrong, I'm not for open borders, but it's incredible that when this economy needs additional 500,000 workers every year, closes the border, who is going to pick up the apples in Washington state? Who is going to harvest the vegetables in California? Who is going to construct the homes of the families in the United States that rose, or even the wall itself. It's incredible, it's being built by Mexicans. So we can sit down, we are partners. Many people don't know that Mexico buys from the United States more goods and services than what Italy, France, Germany, and Britain do together. We're real partners. We buy from this economy over 200 billion U.S. dollars every year. That means hundreds of thousands of new jobs for U.S. citizens. So I mean let's think like neighbors. Let's think like friends. Let's think like partners. And let's bring compassion to this issue, not fear, not xenophobic thinking.
MARTIN: One of the things that contributes to, I would say a negative impression of Mexico is the ongoing violence connected to the drug war in Mexico, and I don't think any fair person would ignore the fact that the U.S. is also going through a spike right now in many American cities. So just let's establish that that is true. But many people look at that. There have been almost 1,400 people killed this year in drug related violence, including high ranking police officers and many people say, you know, why can't a great nation like Mexico get its hands around a problem like this?
President FOX: Yeah. You know what's part of the answer? The consumption of drugs in this nation, in the United States. The largest consumer market of drugs in the world which generates billions and billions of U.S. dollars that are used to bribe Mexican policemen, that are used to corrupt government officials, so it's part of the problem. I'm not blaming my neighbor, this nation. What I'm saying is there's a joint responsibility. Let me ask here a question to U.S. public opinion, and maybe to U.S. government. What happens with the drug once it crosses the border? Who moves it from El Paso to Chicago to New York to Washington, D.C.? I mean why we don't see that being solved here because Mexican criminals account, and have the responsibility across the border, but who takes over there with the drug? That's an interesting question that should be solved.
MARTIN: Well, that leads very logically to the question of NAFTA because as you know, also because I know you follow these matters closely, there's been a lot of discussion over the course of the presidential election about whether NAFTA needs to be revisited. One of the arguments that some are making for cancelling NAFTA or revising NAFTA is that they say that goods are flowing too freely now, and leading the way to criminal elements, to corrupt elements, to move goods now. Obviously you have a different point of view. I'd like to hear what it is.
President FOX: Number one, candidates behave like candidates, and I was a candidate several times in my life. And what you do there, what you propose, and then what you talk there, is many times not what you do when you assume the reasonability. In the case of NAFTA I heard the same things. That NAFTA will be open back again for revision. I mean it's a ten-year program, commitment, partnership that has been working extremely well.
MARTIN: Finally, I cannot let you go without asking your thoughts about the presidential campaign going on in the U.S. Does it give you any pangs to be back in it? Do you have a candidate that you particularly like? President FOX: No. It gives me a lot of hope that even a 200-year-old democracy can still have this kind of debate, this kind of intense, passionate participation. Sometimes I miss the leadership of United States today. I think a lot of things have to change. Foreign policy has to be reinvented. We must move from violence to diplomacy. We must move from unilateralism to multilateralism.
MARTIN: Does that mean that you feel that one or the other candidate would be a more effective leader in your personal opinion? Is there one in particular that you feel would be best? President FOX: Well, I don't believe that presidents today have that much to do with the destiny of a nation. I think the end result is product of the work of a people, and everybody is key part of success.
MARTIN: So you won't answer my question. You're not going to tell me if there's one in particular who you particularly favor?
President FOX: I love women. I love young men. I love old mature men. I love all three of them, and I wish them three the best, and to the American people my respect, my admiration, for what has been done, and please let's bring a little bit more compassion with thy neighbor in Mexico. Please bring much more understanding of who immigrants are. That they have a soul, they have a heart, they love their families, they are decent people, they are hard working people, they are here because they want to be better, and this economy benefits greatly from these migrants.
Former MARTIN: Vicente Fox is the former president of Mexico. We visited with him when he came to Washington, D.C. for a conference on international education. Mr. President, thank you so much for speaking with us.
President FOX: Muchas gracias... (Spanish Spoken).
MARTIN: Vicente Fox is the former president of Mexico. We spoke with him during his recent visit to Washington, D.C. To see pictures of his new library you can log onto our website at npr.org/tellmemore. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.