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Mexico's new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, has made big promises in a country with a mixed record. (AP)

High Expectations Welcome Mexico's New President

Dec 1, 2012 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Reported by

Carrie Kahn

It's Inauguration Day in Mexico, and 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, many say, to the outgoing head of state.

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 of the video 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 too bad, says George Grayson, an expert on Mexico at the College of William and Mary. He says expectations were high when Calderon took office but the president 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 with his 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 Calderon couldn't. 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," Grayson 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. He 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 past century.

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

A Long Way To Fall

Carlos Ramirez, a political risk strategist with the Eurasia Group, says despite the mixed picture, 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," he 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 still faces enormous challenges, including entrenched corruption and virtual monopolies in key economic sectors such as 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," Ramirez says.

And he notes pessimistically that it wouldn't be the first time a Mexican president fell short of expectations.

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