Changing the Life of Mexico's Poor Could Be Fox's Biggest Challenge

President Lazaro Cardenas gave him his land. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari gave him his farm aid. President Ernesto Zedillo gave him bags of food.

After living through seven decades of programs by Mexico's ruling party to end poverty, all Jose Ignacio Zaragosa has to show for it is a bone-thin cow nibbling on weeds next to his mud shack.

But for the first time in the Tarahumara Indian's life, an opposition president will take office Friday under the promise of revamping the country.

Changing the life of Zaragosa and more than 40 million other Mexicans who earn less than $2 a day could be Vicente Fox's biggest challenge, and one that leaders across Latin America have struggled for years to solve with only marginal success.

Yet Fox aims to do what almost no other president in the region has accomplished — reduce poverty by 30 percent in a single term.

Fox said Sunday that two of his top actions as president will be creating a national scholarship fund "to ensure that never again in this country a young person is denied the opportunity to attend college"; and starting a "social bank" with micro-lending programs and credit unions to give Mexico's poor, especially women, access to loans.

Upon announcing his Cabinet appointments in charge of such a task, Fox promised to "improve the life of every Mexican man and woman, of every family, and promote the intrinsic development of the communities that form this country."

Zaragosa, 70, has heard such promises time and again. But the frail man wearing a donated, pink girl's coat, finds himself year after year scrambling to feed his family.

His 2-year-old granddaughter suffers from severe malnutrition. His wife's leg, swollen with an infection, is nearly twice the size of the other, but there is no money for medicine.

"I voted for these colors hoping that it might make a difference," said the illiterate man, tapping a plastic shopping bag with the logo of Fox's National Action Party emblazoned across it. "But we don't know really if anything will ever change."

Fox has pledged to help Mexicans pull themselves up by their own bootstraps — a sharp contrast to the paternalistic attitude of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, whose programs were based on handouts and were often used by local political bosses to buy votes and benefit friends.

Fox says under his rule, Mexico's booming economy will trickle down to the poor. He has proposed channeling remittances from migrants into small-business ventures.

But key will be his "social bank," which will not only lend money but also provide consulting and training to millions of self-employed Mexicans from subway sellers to taco stand owners.

While a growing number of private-sector groups are offering small cash loans in Mexico, the federal government has until now stayed largely on the sidelines, instead channeling credit to bigger companies through such development banks as Nafin or Bancomext.

After years of frozen lending, banks are now offering some loans under conservative guidelines. But most are still cautious after the crisis sparked by the 1994 peso crash which led thousands of debtors to default on their loans.

Even in good years, none risked loaning money to people like Zaragosa, whose most valuable possession is his cow.

In 1996, during his term as governor of Guanajuato state, Fox launched Santa Fe de Guanajuato, a microlending organization that has granted $11 million in loans to more than 40,000 entrepreneurs over four years.

It remains to be seen how successful such a program would be on the national level. Santa Fe currently is losing money, but plans eventually to be self-sufficient.

Critics say a national program would require an army of collectors to keep tabs on the loans, which would be issued by not-for-profit organizations or private, micro-financing institutions.

Fox also faces finding a solution for hundreds of hardscrabble communities that are clinging to eroded lands, and which require more than just money and job training.

"What could microcredit do here when there is no water?" asked the Rev. Ricardo Herrera, a Jesuit priest who ministers in the Tarahumara region, which has been reeling from nine years of drought that some say has claimed as many as 3,000 lives.

"There is no easy solution to these problems that date back decades," he said.

The biggest challenge lies in getting such lofty ideas down into the rugged canyons to make a difference in communities like Zaragosa's, which has been cut off for centuries.

"Fox?" said a shy Inez Moreno, Zaragosa's neighbor, when asked about the new president's plans.

She picked up her newborn swaddled in blankets on her shack's mud floor.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I've never heard of him."