Retired from politics for nearly four years, former Mexican President Vicente Fox remains an imposing figure in Mexico. His 2000 election ended the iron-fisted, 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
The tall, trim rancher and former CEO of Coca-Cola Mexico was a towering presence Friday morning at the fifth annual Westmont President’s Breakfast. Surprisingly soft-spoken and modest for such a charismatic and historic leader, Fox kept the nearly 800 guests at rapt attention as he strolled the stage and spoke without notes for nearly 40 minutes at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort.
Fox used his speech — titled “The Future of the Americas: Immigration, Globalization and Free Trade” — to spell out the reasons why the United States is so important to the hemisphere and why the hemisphere is so important to the United States.
Boldly wading in to the immigration debate that has roiled the United States for years, Fox noted that immigrants have always “come here to this land of hope, looking for their part of the American dream.”
“I don’t understand why this nation is building walls,” he said. “What’s the fear? We’re neighbors, we’re friends, we’re family.
“God did not build walls,” he added. “What we need to do is build bridges.”
As an example of a successful bridge, both Fox and Westmont President Gayle Beebe praised the Westmont in Mexico program founded in 2006 by professors Mary Docter, Laura Montgomery and Ray Rosentrater. The program offers students a chance to explore Christian ministry while immersing themselves in Mexican culture through home stays and education.
That cross-cultural experience, Fox emphasized, is vital for building trust, respect and partnerships among citizens of each country. Fox’s own family tree embodies the concept: His paternal grandfather was born in Cincinnati to German Catholic immigrants, he wrote in his memoir, Revolution of Hope. As a youth, Fox himself attended a Jesuit boarding school in Wisconsin.
What’s more, he said, the United States’ example of freedom and democracy inspired a revolution that swept Latin America.
“We got rid of the dictators in the 1980s and the ‘90s, and we changed our political systems,” he said. “Before, governments would own the economy, the faith and the will of the people.”
Fox had a front-row seat for the transformation. As the presidential candidate of the National Action Party, he defeated PRI candidate Francisco Labastida in 2000. It was the first election in seven decades in which the PRI candidate did not win. Limited by the Mexican constitution to one six-year term, Fox then founded the Vicente Fox Center to promote presidential history and leadership.
Fox said Latin America had made great strides in reducing poverty and increasing opportunity over the last 20 years, but that the economic downturn that started in the United States has accelerated as it moved south, especially in Mexico.
“We hope to grow, to branch out and to recuperate,” he said. “Mexicans want to stay home, but we come here because the opportunity is better.”
To change that dynamic, Fox said the United States, Canada and Mexico — the three partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA — must work together or risk losing more jobs to Asia. “We must have performance with purpose,” he said.
“Unfortunately,” he was quick to add, “NAFTA is dormant. But trade and open markets really are the way to go … I hope this current administration understands this.”
Fox said he can understand why the United States felt it was necessary to take on so much debt but he clearly was uneasy about the magnitude. On Thursday, the Federal Reserve reported that foreign central banks’ combined holdings of U.S. treasuries and agency securities had risen this week by $1.5 billion, to nearly $3 trillion.
“I don’t think this nation can afford more indebtedness than it has,” Fox said. “Where is that money going to come from?”
Fox saved his most pointed remarks for the issue of drugs, which has been at the center of a fierce debate in Santa Barbara over medical marijuana dispensaries.
“We must get together on this issue,” he pleaded, “because Mexico is caught between the drug producers (in Central America) and the largest market for illegal drugs in the world (the United States).”
He said he has seen a ripple effect as the United States has stiffened its trafficking enforcement. “By restraining the drug trade here, the cartels turn to Mexico to distribute their drugs,” he said. “And now Mexico has become a consumer nation, too.”
Using that cause and effect as a catalyst, Fox seemed to suggest the opportunity was at hand for California and the United States to debate the legalization of some drugs.
“I know it’s tough, but the violence in Chicago during Prohibition ended with legalization,” he said to a smattering of applause. “The question that must be considered is whether it is better to separate the health issue from the violence.”
After the breakfast, Fox accompanied Beebe back to campus, where he participated in convocation and a Q&A session with students. Not only was he a big draw for college kids and the hundreds of well-dressed attendees who turned out for the Westmont Foundation-sponsored affair, Fox enthusiastically posed for pictures with the DoubleTree staff as well as Westmont’s physical plant employees.
For his part, Beebe provided the morning’s biggest laugh when, in introducing Fox at the breakfast, he said he “felt a little like a corpse at a funeral.”
“I’m a necessary part of the proceedings but you’re always surprised when I start talking,” he said to roars.
— Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk.