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Mexican president defends 'arduous' reform plan

| Monday, Sept. 2, 2013, 9:27 p.m.

MEXICO CITY — Despite street protests that forced him to change the venue of his first state of the nation speech, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto used the occasion on Monday to defend his ambitious reform agenda, pledging to forge ahead with what he called the “grand transformation” that his country requires.

“It's a demanding, arduous road that requires of us great strength, but it's the only one that will bring us the Mexico that we want to build,” Pena Nieto said.

In an apparent reference to the street protests — which forced him to delay the speech, and move it from the National Palace to Los Pinos, the presidential residence, a few miles away — he said that resistance was “a natural consequence when one carries out great transformations. The important thing is to not lose sight of the objective, to move forward and not stop.”

The hourlong speech was delivered nine months after the telegenic 47-year-old's inauguration, a moment that marked the return to power of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had ruled Mexico as a virtual one-party state for much of the 20th century. Pena Nieto ran on a promise that he and his party “know how to govern,” and his reform package seeks to improve the economy, reduce crime and overhaul Mexico's underperforming schools, tax collection systems and state-run oil company.

His ambitions have been complicated, however, by recent bad news and a surge of vigorous political opposition. The national economy has stalled, and in some states “self-defense” groups have taken up arms to defend their towns against organized criminals. Meanwhile, thousands of members of a radical teachers union have taken over downtown Mexico City to protest the president's education reform package, and proposed tax and oil-sector reforms could bring even more opponents into the streets in the coming days.

But Pena Nieto's clear, straightforward speaking style tends to focus on positive achievements and the building of momentum. Monday's speech noted that sugar cane production was up, and praised Mexican athletes' recent successes on the world stage as examples of good news.

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