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High Expectations Welcome Mexico's New President

NPR icon by Carrie Kahn
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It's Inauguration Day in Mexico, and new President Enrique Pena Nieto inherits a country with a mixed record.

Most of Mexico is embroiled in a deadly drug war that has claimed the lives of as many as 50,000 people, but Pena Nieto is also taking over an economy that is doing surprisingly well — thanks to the outgoing head of state, many say.

Calderon's Violent Legacy

In his final days in office, now-former President Felipe Calderon kept a low profile. He did announce he's taking a job at Harvard, and posted a farewell video on the president's official website.

Sitting behind his desk, his hair a little thinner and waistline wider than when he took office six years ago, the video shows Calderon writing a letter of thanks to the Mexican people.

The somber mood seems at times apologetic, but in the select few interviews Calderon has given, he staunchly defends his decision to go after the narco-traffickers with the full might of the country's military.

Unfortunately, the brutal violence and high death toll of that strategy will be Calderon's legacy.

That's unfortunate, says George Grayson, an expert on Mexico at the College of William and Mary. He says expectations were so high when Calderon took office, but he failed to tackle the tough issues facing the country.

"It turned out that he was unimaginative [and] that he surrounded himself with sycophants," Grayson says. "He never really configured a consistent strategy to fight the cartels."

Nieto's Promise

Unlike Calderon's strategy of eliminating narcotics kingpins, Pena Nieto has promised to combat the crime associated with the drug war: the murders, extortion and kidnapping. He's also proposed to build a new anti-drug force under the resurrected Interior Ministry and says he will cut the murder rate in half by the end of his administration.

Expectations are high that Pena Nieto can succeed where his predecessor failed. Grayson says the incoming president is a much different politician, and that he knows how to accept advice.

"He knows what he doesn't know ... a great asset in a politician," he says. "He is surrounding himself with individuals who complement his weaker areas."

Just who is backing Pena Nieto was a major issue in the hard-fought presidential campaign. Pena Nieto campaigned as the fresh face of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), more modern and democratic than his party's old apparatus, which ruled Mexico through corruption and vote-rigging for most of last century.

As Pena Nieto's cabinet was announced to a packed hotel ballroom Friday, however, a few of the so-called dinosaurs from past PRI administrations did appear in the line-up, alongside several young picks, all with impressive foreign degrees and experience.

A Long Way To Fall

Despite the mixed picture, Carlos Ramirez, a political risk strategist with the Eurasia Group, says U.S. investors like what they see in Pena Nieto and his advisers.

"There is probably the best political and economic environment of the past four or five administrations," Ramirez says.

Mexico's manufacturing exports are up, the country is more competitive than ever with China, and Pena Nieto has already shown some political muscle in helping get a new labor reform bill through the lame-duck congress.

Ramirez says Pena Nieto faces enormous challenges too, including entrenched corruption and virtual monopolies in key economic sectors, like oil and telecommunications. He says Pena Nieto has made some big promises.

"It could play in his favor, but at the same time it could backfire if he is not able to deliver," he says.

Ramirez says pessimistically, it wouldn't be the first time a Mexican president fell short of expectations.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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