Mexico: Mixed Reviews for First Couple

Marta Sahagún de Fox addresses the annual gathering of the Mexican Red Cross in 2003
Marta Sahagún de Fox addresses the Mexican Red Cross’ annual gathering in Mexico City, March 24, 2003 (Photo: Ariel Gutierrez/Notimex-AFP).

Two new unflattering biographies delving into the private and public life of Marta Sahagún de Fox have ignited a lively debate in the nation’s press over the high-profile and controversial role of Mexico’s first lady in the administration of her husband, President Vicente Fox. While critics offered mixed reviews of La Jefa (The Boss) by Olga Wornat and Marta by Rafael Loret de Mola, the books’ brisk sales upon release in May revealed a Mexican public hungry for more about Marta. The first couple’s protests that their privacy had been violated received little sympathy from press commentators.

Sara Sefchovich, an author who has devoted more than a decade to researching the wives of Mexico’s leaders, criticized the two books as part of a tradition of sensationalist exposés filled with gossip and so-called revelations about previous Mexican presidents and their families. “The difference,” she wrote in El Universal (May 22), “is that with the real freedom of expression that exists today in Mexico, it is no longer necessary to wait until the [presidential term] ends to publish them.”  While Sefchovich was critical of Sahagún’s “lack of clarity in terms of her limits and legitimacy, and her confusion between the public and the private,” Sefchovich emphasized that “no one deserves such an invasion of privacy and attack on their personal and family dignity.”    

Manuel Camacho Solís argued in El Universal (May 26) that Sahagún and Fox have exposed their private lives to public scrutiny precisely because they have frequently blurred the lines between private and public conduct, at times “exploiting aspects of their personal life, including their religious faith, to convert them into resources or even principles for their political action.”  The books pose a fundamental question, Camacho Solís wrote. “What is and what will be the political role of Marta? The president and his wife need to define once and for all what it is they want, before their ambiguity ends up seriously damaging the president, the first lady, their own party, and the democratic process....The perception exists...on the one hand that the president...has handed over to his wife a field of political responsibility for which he, and only he, was elected. On the other hand, it is perceived that both the president and his wife are considering the suitability of her candidacy for president in 2006,” when Fox’s term ends.

Speculation on Sahagún’s ambitions to succeed her husband has intensified scrutiny into the nongovernmental organization she heads,  Vamos México, which her critics charge has become a personal vehicle for advancing her conservative public-policy agenda. In Proceso (May 25), Jesusa Cervantes and José Gil Olmos noted that the foundation has been the target of three congressional investigations over the past year into allegations of diversion of public funds and use of social assistance and educational programs for political purposes. In a Reforma commentary (May 27) aptly titled “Circus,” Federico Reyes-Heroles lamented that the first couple’s apparent obsession with their public image, and the Mexican public’s insatiable appetite for gossip have proved a distraction from the multitude of serious policy issues confronting Mexico today. The real victim of the latest exposés is not Sahagún, Reyes-Heroles said, but “all of us Mexicans who are trapped in this circus.”