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April 28, 2009 – Speaking Tuesday at the University of Virginia, Mexico's former president, Vicente Fox, had high praise for successor Felipe Calderón's handling of the current swine flu outbreak that has killed at least 149 people in Mexico.
Calderon, who served as energy secretary in Fox's cabinet, has been "moving fast" and "taking courageous decisions," Fox said, citing Calderon's decision Monday to close Mexican schools and most public places until at least May 6 to help curb the spread of the flu.
Mexico is the epicenter of the global outbreak, with thousands of cases reported there.
Other than making every personal effort to restrain the spread of the flu, people must wait for scientists to identify the virus and find an appropriate vaccine, Fox told a standing-room-only audience of nearly 500 at U.Va.'s Darden School of Business.
During Fox's presidency, from 2000 to 2006, he faced a similar challenge: an avian flu outbreak in 2005. In its wake, the Mexican government, in consultation with U.S. and Canadian experts, developed detailed emergency response procedures for similar situations.
Fox had to decide whether Mexico should build a high-capacity vaccine production facility or stockpile millions of existing flu vaccines. He opted to stockpile vaccines.
It's hard to judge whether that was the right call, Fox said, because scientists haven't yet determined whether the swine flu can be effectively fought using existing vaccines, or whether new vaccines must be developed and produced.
The world periodically faces flu pandemics, most recently in 1918 and 1976. After each pandemic passes, the threat of another seems far off in the future, so leaders may not have done enough to prepare for this outbreak, suggested Fox, whose talk was organized by the Latin American Student Association at Darden.
Latin America had a very bad 20th century, Fox said, with democracy and freedoms trampled by military dictators, authoritarian governments and messianic leaders like the Perrones in Argentina. But in the past 20 years, virtually all of Latin America has voted for fundamental change, he noted.
For instance, Fox's election in 2000 ended 71 years of one-party rule in Mexico. In this new era of democratic and free market reforms that are the foundation for a successful economy and wealth generation, the region's economies are growing at 6 percent annually — much higher growth than in the past, he said.
Fox acknowledged that some of these market reforms have been very harmful to the poor, and said there will always be a need for government policies that spread opportunity to all citizens and offset the inequity generated by free markets. Poverty and inequality must be combatted with government investment in education, health care and housing, he said.
But the people of Latin America are finally seeing that market reforms, coupled with powerful social policies, reduce poverty and distribute wealth.
Chile's reforms have done a miraculous job of reducing poverty and increased per capita purchasing power, Fox said. More recently, the two new exemplars of democratic reform and economic prosperity in Latin America are Mexico, under the centrist humanist rule begun by Fox and carried on by Calderon, and Brazil, under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's "smart socialist" rule.
The young Latin American democracies have not yet consolidated their democratic traditions, Fox warned. Without a substantial middle class to support democracy, they remain vulnerable to messianic leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who have undermined democratic foundations and threaten to return their countries to the troubles of the 20th century.
Fox praised the benefits of regional trading partnerships like North American Free Trade Agreement. He noted that Mexico was initially hesitant to open its doors to the "giant" to the north, fearing that the major companies of America like Coca-Cola, Ford and General Motors would conquer its domestic markets. But post-NAFTA, Mexico actually sells more to the U.S. than it buys, even while Mexico imports more U.S. goods and services (worth $250 billion annually) than all the rest of Latin America put together and more than Germany, Italy and France combined.
He called for expansion of NAFTA into a continent-wide trading bloc that could compete with other large regional trading groups in Europe and Asia.
"Today no single nation can accomplish its dreams by itself," Fox said. "We need help from others."
The European Union offers a model of the benefits of regional partnerships, he said, particularly for less wealthy member states like Spain and Ireland, which have seen their per-capita incomes increase tenfold over the past 30 years.
"What is better for the U.S. than having successful neighbor to the south?," Fox asked, noting that reducing cross-border income disparity could make the U.S.-Mexican border as benign as the border with Canada.
"We're getting there," he said, noting that in the northern regions of Mexico where NAFTA has had the largest impact, the gap in per-capita incomes between Americans and Mexicans is shrinking. Fifteen years ago, per-capita income in the U.S. was tenfold higher than in Mexico, but today the difference is fivefold in northern Mexico, compared to 7.5-fold in Mexico as a whole.
For the EU, trading was the first step toward more thorough regional integration, which has progressed to now include open borders, shared government and shared currency. While future partnerships between the U.S. and other countries of the Americas will be unique, they should be based on a successful model like the EU, Fox suggested.
He declined to respond to an audience question about whether NAFTA and successor agreements like the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America would similarly be a gateway to a single North American currency.
Since leaving office, Fox has created the Vicente Fox Center of Studies, Library and Museum, modeled on U.S. presidential libraries. The center works on four key issues, Fox said: democracy and freedom, market economies with responsibility, developing public policies to bring to Latin American governments, and supporting gender equity in Latin America.
He said he hopes "Centro Fox" will be doing student, faculty and study exchanges with U.Va. in the future.