It started from the coincidence between arguments I set out in Utopia Unarmed and ideas that Roberto Unger had been developing for a long time, synthesized in his trilogy Politics, which came out in 1988. We were thinking and writing along very parallel lines, though we didn’t know each other at the time. It wasn’t until mid or late 1994 that we sought each other out, and we first began to meet regularly in early 95, when I was teaching at Dartmouth, which is close by Cambridge, where Roberto teaches at MIT. We quickly saw how similar many of our ideas were: on the kind of tax reform our countries needed, on the relations between ‘vanguard’ and ‘rearguard’ sectors of our economies, on the urgency of democratizing or ‘energizing’ our democracies, as Roberto would put it—building a ‘high-intensity politics’, in his terms. We agreed there was a clear paradigmatic vacuum, a void of new proposals in Latin America, and came to the conclusion that among the contacts, friendships and students he and I had developed over the years, we could probably bring together a group of people sufficiently representative and noteworthy to talk to some effect about these issues. Of course, for that we needed money. So we obtained funding from the governance budget of the United Nations Development Programme to assemble a set of Latin American politicians and intellectuals—but more politicians than intellectuals—to talk about these matters.

Then we began putting the group together, by picking people from the main countries who we thought would be most receptive to the project. Typically, they were figures from the left or extreme left moving towards the centre, without always knowing very clearly why, or people from the centre, or even right of centre, moving for their own reasons towards the left. Once we had formed the group, we organized a series of discussions over the next four years, helped by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Particular individuals entered or left, but there was a core group that worked more or less continuously through the seven or eight meetings we held—some large, some smaller ones. The fruit of all this was the document we made public at the end of 1998, which came to be called the Buenos Aires Consensus, since it was released at our meeting there, which was subsequently commented upon by many different people in different places.

I had been in touch with him since 1991, when he first ran for governor in Guanajuato. At that time I was active in Citizens’ Vote Defence Groups that watched over the conduct of provincial elections in Mexico, and went to Guanajuato, where I played a small role in helping him declare a victory when the election was stolen from him by the PRI. We became friendly, and thereafter would meet every five or six months to talk things over. We got much closer during the 94 presidential contest, when Fox contemplated the possibility of throwing his support to Cárdenas and breaking with the PAN.footnote1 That finally didn’t happen, but he was certainly considering that option. At that time, fearing the likelihood of fraud in the 94 elections, I founded the Grupo San Angel as a kind of civic monitor, cutting across party lines, in case serious problems arose—it included people from the PRI, the PAN, the PRD, independents and trade-union leaders, and Fox was one of its earliest members. In the event, 1994 turned out to be a terrible year for Mexico, with every kind of problem, except electoral ones. So the group ended up being somewhat redundant. But before it dissolved, it had a major public impact—because it was really the first time, in a very polarized country, that so many people from different parts of the political and social spectrum came together and talked to each other. Fox was an active participant. So by the end of 94 he and I had a fairly solid relationship.

Fox began meeting with Roberto Unger on his own, in late 94 and early 95, travelling to Boston to talk to him. I don’t recall who originally put them in touch. It wasn’t me the first time, but perhaps only the second or third time. Then when we organized the first meeting of our Latin American group in Mexico City in February 1996, we invited Fox to the garden lunch to launch it. By then he was Governor of Guanajuato. Like most such lunches in Mexico it lasted for three or four hours, and in some ways was more important than the meeting itself. There Fox asked me, and Adolfo Aguilar and Roberto as well, why are you just inviting me to the lunch—why not to be a full-fledged member of this exercise? I’m very interested in this group or initiative, whatever the hell it is, it’s just what I’m looking for.footnote2 So we replied—great: we weren’t sure you’d be interested, but if you are, that’s fantastic. From then on he attended all of the meetings assiduously. In fact, Fox became a part of the core group, made up of Unger and myself, Ciro Gomes of Brazil, Carlos Ominami of Chile, Dante Caputo and Rodolfo Terragno of Argentina, and Fox.footnote3 We met several other times, in other places—small meetings to draft documents and discuss initiatives, how to handle the press, and so on. From what I can tell, Fox seems to have found the experience very useful.

Yes, he arrived at politics quite late. But his background is also strange for a politician in our part of the world. He comes from an upper-middle class family in Guanajuato—small landowners who were not poor by any standards, but never did particularly well: a far cry from oligarchs with huge estates, they were prosperous, but not always out of difficulty. His parents were pious Catholics, and sent him to both a Jesuit high school and the Jesuit University in Mexico City. Of course, you should remember that thirty years ago this was not a normal Catholic education in Mexico: Jesuit training was more sophisticated. After graduating, he entered Coca-Cola. This wasn’t a lateral move into the top; he worked his way up the ladder from the bottom, literally handing down crates of the stuff from delivery trucks. He did very well there, rising right through the ranks to the highest level you can get for a Mexican executive in the local organization. Then he left it to go into business on his own, but none of his ventures—selling boots, exporting vegetables—has been terribly successful. He was better as a Coca-Cola executive, where he was part of an enormous international company with all the modern techniques of marketing, than as an independent entrepreneur. He knows the difficulties of small business at first hand.

In the eighties he entered politics, joining the PAN at a time when it was attracting quite a lot of new recruits. But from the very beginning he didn’t share much of the traditional culture of the PAN. There was enough overlap for it to be a logical option for him—he was Catholic, pro-business and pro-American in background, like the PAN itself. But the main common ground between him and the party was antipathy to the system of PRI rule. Otherwise, he remained quite distant from many of the core instincts of the party, if only because at forty-five you’re not going to become much of a convert to something that you have never otherwise been particularly close to. He’s not a party man, and he’s not an ideologue. He is immensely charismatic—that’s much more typical of Latin American politicians, of course. He is also unusually receptive to others, to ideas from different areas of public activity or political alignment. All these traits make him a somewhat peculiar figure by Latin American standards: there’s not a lot of people you could compare him with.

There might be some similarities, but Fujimori entered politics straight at the top—running for the first time as President. Fox started at a regional level.