Politicos Replace Technocrats in Mexico Shakeup


Courtesy of EcoAmericas

Halfway through his six-year term, Mexican President Vicente Fox has gutted his environmental team.

On the night of Sept. 1, Fox gave his annual State of the Union speech, addressing government inefficiency and the fact that Mexico suffers from “serious environmental deterioration.” The next morning, he fired Víctor Lichtinger, head of the Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat), as well as José Ignacio Campillo, head of the Office of Attorney General for Environmental Protection (Profepa), and Raúl Arriaga, Semarnat’s Undersecretary for Management of Environmental Protection.

Fox named Alberto Cárdenas, head of the National Forestry Commission, as the new Semarnat secretary, and José Luis Luege, a former congressman, to the Profepa post. A replacement for Arriaga has yet to be selected.

Cárdenas quickly took hold of the president’s broom. On his second day on the job, he fired Rodolfo Lacy, Semarnat’s coordinator of consultants, and accepted resignations from Cassio Luiselli, the Undersecretary of Environmental Development and Regulation; Francisco Székely, Undersecretary of Planning and Environmental Policy; Olga Ojeda, head of the International Affairs Coordinating Unit; and Sergio Ampudia Mello, Semarnat’s legal coordinator. Luege, the new Profepa head, announced impending changes in his office as well.

The dramatic house cleaning has shocked Mexican environmental advocates. For them and for many other observers here, Fox effectively has replaced green-policy technocrats with pliant political operatives, draining the government of environmental expertise.

“Nobody is saying things were perfect beforehand,” says Gustavo Alanís, president of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Cemda), ticking off a long list of green concerns. “But the difference is that the previous team was experienced in environmental affairs and the new one isn’t.”

Lichtinger, who holds a Stanford PhD in agricultural economics, has worked in environmental policy for virtually his entire career. His replacement, apart from the past two years at the Forest Commission, is a lifelong politician. He previously was governor of Jalisco State, where he got poor marks for his environmental performance. Jalisco is best known in green circles for the worsening environmental nightmare that is Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest body of fresh water.

New prosecutor is not a lawyer

The experience gap is even wider at Profepa, which is charged with investigating and prosecuting environmental criminals. Outgoing Campillo is a lawyer with past experience in the health ministry and is credited with convictions in several illegal-logging cases. His successor, Luege, is not a lawyer and has never held posts related to the environment, instead serving as a congressman, city councilman and, most recently, party boss in Mexico City.

“Putting an engineer in a fundamentally legal posting shows how little the environment matters to the administration,” Alanís says.

To many environmental advocates, the changes seem purely political. Fox, whose National Action Party (Pan) lost to rival parties in July’s Congressional elections, has been under heavy fire. Wresting the presidency from the Institutional Revolutionary Party for the first time in seven decades, critics say, has been his only accomplishment, as disaccord with other parties and power struggles within the Pan have created a legislative logjam.

As a result, Fox has methodically replaced cabinet technocrats with politicians—Pan politicians. “For this second stage of my administration, I have decided to put politics at the center of all our actions,” he said in his Sept. 1 speech. In the past year, Fox has sacked or accepted resignations from six cabinet-level officials, including his foreign, energy and tourism secretaries, and in every case he has put in a member of his party.

“Fox got rid of Lichtinger because he wasn’t in the Pan,” says Homero Aridjis, president of the Group of 100, a leading environmental organization here. A day after his dismissal, Lichtinger made much the same point, telling reporters, “my party, during my entire career, has been and will continue to be Mexico and the environment.”

For some, change was a must

However, critics of the outgoing environmental-policy team argue that changes had to be made, pointing out that Semarnat had more than its share of infighting and political squabbles. Arriaga, who was number two in Semarnat, is being investigated on corruption charges related to the authorization of illegal hunting licenses and permits to import elephants and dolphins. He and Lichtinger also clashed frequently with the other (now unemployed) undersecretaries.

“There are serious institutional problems there,” says Gabriel Quadri, associate director of the Public Policy Center for Sustainable Development, a Mexico City think tank. “All the undersecretaries were at odds with one another. It hasn’t contributed to sufficient development.”

The Lichtinger team did indeed slow or block some development projects, from the highly ambitious Plan Puebla-Panama, which would develop a huge swath of southeast Mexico, to smaller initiatives, such as a 1,000-acre (400-hectare) shrimp farm on the Oaxaca coast. That pleased environmentalists, but irked business interests.

Not surprisingly, Mexico’s business community is applauding the recently announced changes. A member of the local American Chamber of Commerce’s environmental board, speaking anonymously, describes the reaction as “jubilation.” He adds: “Lichtinger favored green groups more than business.”

Greenpeace Mexico Executive Director Alejandro Calvillo says Lichtinger crossed swords with the agriculture and tourism secretaries over issues ranging from transgenic corn contamination to coastal hotel projects.

Fox’s new team appears eager to end such disagreements. Conducting his first meeting as the new head of Semarnat, Cárdenas conferred with the tourism secretary, who came flanked by 40 tourism investors.

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