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Dulce Maria Sauri

Sergio Munoz is a Times editorial writer

Imagine that the chairs of the U.S. Democratic and Republican parties were held by women, and that the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives was a woman. Add more women to the president’s Cabinet and consider that more than half of the most populous city’s mayoral cabinet are women. In Mexico, this phenomenon is a growing political reality.

Dulce Maria Sauri, president of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is one of the women who has risen to the top tier of political power. Among the others are: Rosario Robles, who just finished her term as mayor of Mexico City; Amalia Garcia, president of the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD; Rosario Green, secretary of foreign affairs in the Ernesto Zedillo administration; and Beatriz Paredes, leader of the PRI in Mexico’s lower house.

Sauri was twice elected to the Chamber of Deputies, Mexico’s lower house, and is now serving her second term in the Senate. She was governor of her native state of Yucatan, leading it through an economic diversification that ended its centuries-old dependency on the sisal industry. Before that, she worked for several years in the Mexican federal government, including a stint in the office for budget and planning.

Sauri serves as president of the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM), and was a founding member of the National Commission for Women of Mexico, a government agency that promotes public policies for the advancement of women.

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With her extensive experience in economics and women’s issues, Sauri is likely to play a key watchdog role in analyzing President Vicente Fox’s first budget. She has been quite outspoken in stressing the need for a more equitable distribution of federal resources to men and women and throughout Mexico’s diverse regions.

A sociology graduate from the Ibero-American University, Sauri, 49, met her husband, sociologist Jose Luis Sierra Villarreal, on her first day at the college campus in Mexico City. They have been married almost 29 years and have three children. Sauri was recently interviewed in Los Angeles.

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Question: Why are more women attaining positions of real power in Mexico?

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Answer: There are many changes taking place in Mexico, cultural changes forged by women and men. Yet, often we--the women of Mexico--wish change would pick up speed. We do recognize, however, that it is happening. The rise of powerful women is chiefly due to advances made by women in education and in the labor market.

Q: Is machismo finished in Mexico?

A: Machismo is in retreat. For instance, women make up more than 40% of the work force in the cities. In rural communities, though, the percentage is smaller, because when a woman works on the family parcel of land, her work is not registered as a job. Yet, if it is the man who works the land, then it is considered a job. We still have a culture that believes a woman’s role is in the family, not so much in public life.

Q: How do women affect the practice of politics in Mexico?

A: They change the focus. Let me give you an example. The Mexican Congress just approved the creation of the Institute for Women. This happened because a woman is the majority leader in the lower house, because I pushed for it in the Senate, because all congresswomen united to convince congressmen to support it. Women have a set of priorities that men can hardly have.

Q: Who inspired you to pursue politics as a career and what were their qualities.?

A: I admired women who were not scared to dream and did something to make their dreams come true. . . . Women like my grandmother who, at a time when Mexican women were told to stay home, had the courage to challenge those prejudices and even went abroad to work.

Q: Are you impressed by the number of women in President Vicente Fox’s Cabinet?

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A: Not at all. There were no gains for women in his cabinet, as compared with the last administration. I am also a bit concerned because the three women he appointed have no previous experience for their new jobs.

Q: From an ideological perspective, are you concerned that you lost the presidency to a center-right party like the National Action Party (PAN)?

A: As president of the PRI, I see it just as an opposition party. But as a citizen, as a Mexican and, most of all, as a woman, I do have some fears.

Q: What fears?

A: The PAN may try to impose the sectarian politics of exclusion.

Q: What do you mean?

A: The experience in states and municipalities where the PAN holds power indicates a narrow-minded, puritanical and exclusionary attitude toward those who do not think like it. I am not talking politics. I am talking cultural and social intolerance. For instance, oftentimes its attitude creates an environment in which any controversial artistic expressions could and will be vandalized or censored.

Q: What else worries you?

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A: I fear the PAN may push the idea that women’s place is in the home and attempt to exclude them from playing a role debating issues of public interest.

Q: How is the PAN promoting this role for women?

A: Promoting may not be the right word. The problem is, it is not actively seeking to promote the rights of women as individuals on health and education issues and in the workplace. Women should be able to participate in civic life without any restrictions.

Q: Some prominent members of the PAN would like to further restrict abortion, which is illegal in Mexico except under some extreme circumstances.

A: A few months ago, in the state of Guanajuato, there was an attempt by local PAN legislators to go beyond current law and penalize women who had been raped and chose to have an abortion. Fortunately, the initiative did not prosper, mostly because it was clear that public opinion in Mexico understands that under some very specific circumstances, women must have the right to choose.

Q: Should abortion be legalized in Mexico?

A: No, we are not calling for the legalization of abortion. What we are saying is that women who are raped should not be penalized for having an abortion.

Q: Is Fox off to a good start?

A: It is too early to tell. He just sent Congress next year’s budget, and I can tell you it doesn’t include many of the commitments and promises he made during his presidential campaign. We’ll have to see if the executive is capable of reaching an understanding with the opposition parties that would allow us all to move ahead.

Q: Why is the PRI out of power?

A: For many years, conventional wisdom was that the power of the PRI began where the pavement ended. Yet, it was successive PRI governments, especially those of the last 20 years, that not only practically paved the country but also built schools and brought running water, electricity and roads to the remotest communities. The progress the PRI brought to these communities transformed the lives of the people and raised their standards of living. Yet, the PRI was unable to communicate with two key groups within this emerging society: the urban middle class and young voters.

Q: Why would the Mexican middle class fail to recognize the good deeds of past PRI governments?

A: Because it held past PRI governments accountable for economic crises, particularly the 1994-95 crisis, which lowered the standard of life in the whole country but whose effects were more noticeable on the middle class.

Q: And young voters?

A: We failed to articulate a message of hope for the future, precisely, the message young people want to hear.

Q: How should the PRI behave as an opposition party in Congress?

A: The PRI should be conscious of its own political strength. After all, 13.5 million people voted for the PRI in the presidential election. We have more representation than any other party in both chambers of Congress, more governorships and lead more municipal governments. Yet, we must also be conscious that we need to be perceived by the citizenry as a real alternative. As an opposition party, we should act responsibly--we just can’t systematically oppose everything the other parties propose. That, I am afraid, seems to be the case now with the opposition parties.

Q: Will the PRI form an alliance for a common legislative agenda?

A: We’ll judge each specific proposal or project on its own merits.

Q: In the next five years, Mexico’s electricity industry will run into serious problems unless it receives a massive injection of money. How will the PRI tackle this issue?

A: We have been discussing it since 1998. President [Ernesto] Zedillo sent a bill to Congress calling for a reform in the constitution that would allow us to deal with the problem. But to reform the constitution, you need a two-thirds majority in Congress, and neither of the two other parties was willing to support his initiative. That will be one of the big issues for the next government.

Q: If Fox were to send an initiative similar to the one sent by Zedillo, would the PRI in Congress support it?

A: The PRI would certainly analyze it. Once the budget is clear, we’ll have to decide whether the investment should come from the private sector or whether we need foreign investment.

Q: Would the PRI support the privatization of Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission?

A: No. We are willing to study ways to allow some private investment in the electric industry.

Q: Would the PRI support the privatization of some operations within Pemex, the state monopoly on oil and its derivatives?

A: No. The PRI will not support the privatization of the Mexican Petroleum company, Pemex, or the CFE, the [Federal] Electricity Commission. They should remain a property of the Mexican state.

Q: Will President-elect George W. Bush be good for Mexico?

A: As an individual, he is close to Mexico. He understands and respects our traditions and our language. He has been the governor of a state that is key for Mexico. And regardless of whether the U.S. president is a Democrat or a Republican, the relationship between the two nations is not driven by partisan politics.

Q: When will there be a Mexican woman president?

A: Somehow, we seem to be going backward on this issue. There were no women candidates in this last election, whereas in 1988, there was one [minority party] woman candidate and one in 1994. I obviously believe there are many women who could do the job, but we have to do a lot of work in the next five years to build up a strong woman candidate. *


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