The First Lady Is Crazy

Marta Sahagún
Mexican first lady Marta Sahagún (Photo: Frederico Guerrero/Notimex-AFP-Getty Images).

For weeks, Mexico has been abuzz with rumors that Marta Sahagún, Mexico’s first lady, might run for president in 2006. Here political scientist Denise Dresser, writing for Mexico City’s Reforma, urges her to refrain.

Unrestrained. Uncontrollable. Unstoppable. These are the words currently being used to describe Marta Sahagún, but they don’t do her justice. They stop short of capturing the real problem from which the first lady suffers: Sahagún has gone mad, plain and simple.

It’s not surprising that a couple of screws have come loose; it’s not surprising that she’s lost some of her marbles. Life in Los Pinos [the seat of the Mexican presidency] can do that to you—and actually encourages it. For three years [since her husband, Vicente Fox, became Mexico’s president] Sahagún has been breathing in an isolation tank, disconnected from reality. Between the presidential residence and the real world, there is an abyss that not even the helicopters of the presidential military guard can cross. The first lady lives in a place where everyone treats her as the first lady. She sees only the people she chooses to receive or invite there. She hears only what her fans have decided she should hear. She looks only in mirrors that make her look twice her size.

Perhaps it was inevitable. Ten years ago, Marta wasn’t anybody and now she’s the best-known woman in Mexico. Ten years ago, Marta didn’t have any power; now she exercises power. She was a Cinderella and now she’s a princess. She was the wife of a veterinarian and now she’s a pre-candidate for the presidency.

Surrounded by an entourage of sycophants, Sahagún doesn’t know how to measure the distance between who she is and who she believes she could be. Sealed off in Los Pinos, Sahagún doesn’t know how to measure the gap between legitimate ambition for power, and an illegitimate attempt to multiply it through marriage.

From all appearances, the madness is contagious. That’s the only way to explain how today the dedazo [a Mexican expression for the choosing of the next president by the outgoing president, as practiced for decades by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI] has been replaced by a kiss. That’s the only way to explain why Vicente Fox is encouraging his wife’s presidential aspirations instead of nipping them in the bud. She whispers in his ear that there’s a conspiracy against both of them, and he believes her. She tells him she hasn’t decided whether or not she wants to be president of Mexico, and he believes her. She tells him that the Financial Times only publishes libel, and he believes her. She tells him that she is only demonized because she’s successful, and he believes her. And in her own words, Sahagún has a life partner with whom she shares everything—from the presidency [Sahagún and Fox have been referred to as the “presidential couple” and some say she is his closest advisor] to the madness it engenders.

There are some pertinent questions for the president. Is he not stopping his wife because he can’t or doesn’t want to? Did he decide to give her free rein out of weakness or laziness? Is he a manipulated man or a politician who doesn’t want to be a politician anymore? Is he abdicating only because he believes in her, or because he doesn’t believe in himself anymore? Does he know that the invisible president is becoming the laughable president? Whatever the answers, the results speak for themselves: Fox is willing to die so Sahagún will live; he’s willing to play the role of Samson to his Delilah.

There’s no point in emphasizing to Sahagún the damage she is doing to her husband. She must have already lost her patience with him. She must have already decided that his presidency is a lost cause. And she must see herself as the only thing worth saving from his term in office.

Sahagún understands a thing or two about power. She knows it is amplified by the media; she knows that being on television every day produces it; she knows that you can obtain it by giving things away free. And that’s why she has inaugurated her own brand of salinism [referring to past Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari] and has substituted the “solidarity” program of the PRI [which ruled Mexico for 71 years before Fox was elected in 2000] with Fox’s “charity.” If Salinas wanted to be Gandhi, Sahagún wants to be Mother Teresa: sitting under a tree talking to battered women, coming down from helicopters to give speeches, stepping off the presidential airplane to give away bicycles. That’s why she wears blue jeans and gives away blankets, toothbrushes, stuffed animals, and kitchen utensils. In her case—just as all ambitious politicians before her—she creates a link between charity and popularity. The opinion polls reveal the obvious: Mexicans like their government to give them things, and that’s what she does.

But if she didn’t, she’d be just one more wife. If she didn’t have a pile of public resources within her reach, she’d only be a little, private woman. If she didn’t have the big television screen within her reach, she’d be just a little politician from Celaya. If she didn’t have the president’s ear within her reach, she wouldn’t have the complicity (or fear) of the business class on her side. Sahagún confuses where she is with who she is. She confuses—and this is a family weakness—popularity with capability.

She thinks that after living in a school called Los Pinos for three years, she can now govern a country like Mexico. She thinks she has what she needs to be an effective president because she’s been a popular first lady. She thinks she can and should be a presidential candidate because the people of Mexico have a real love for her. But that’s not enough and her husband’s failure proves it.

Sahagún doesn’t know how to achieve peace in Chiapas in 15 minutes [as Fox claimed in his presidential campaign], and she never will. Sahagún doesn’t know how to get PRI approval for structural reforms, and she never will. Sahagún doesn’t know how to obtain punishment for those responsible for the crimes of the past, and she never will. Sahagún doesn’t know how to increase Mexico’s productivity to confront China’s competitiveness, and she never will. Sahagún doesn’t know how to improve relations between the executive and legislative branches, and she never will. Sahagún doesn’t know how to reduce the insecurity that is devastating the country, and she never will. Sahagún doesn’t know how to deal with the deaths of women in Ciudad Juárez, and she never will. Electing Sahagún is equivalent to re-electing incompetence.

For all these reasons, the rumors, jokes, and activities related to her possible presidential candidacy should end. For all of these reasons, the flattering interviews that produce ambiguous answers should end. For all of these reasons, the first lady’s irresponsible and inadmissible ambition should not prosper. Paraphrasing Sigmund Freud: It’s not necessary to have patience with lunatics. What’s important is to put a stop to the damage they cause.