High hopes, baffling uncertainty: Mexico nears the millennium

articles History & People

Jim Tuck

The election that brought Miguel de la Madrid’s successor to power was clearly fraudulent. On July 6, 1988, when the first results began to arrive at the interior ministry’s office on Avenida Bucareli, a shockingly high proportion was marked for the main opposition candidate. He was Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, son of former President Lázaro Cárdenas, the most left-wing and, along with Benito Juárez, the most honest president in Mexican history.

In a panic move that in the end proved effective, a computer glitch was created, one long enough to manipulate results in favor of the government candidate, who was declared the winner.

That candidate was a forty-year-old technocrat named Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Like de la Madrid, he was a Harvard graduate. He also resembled his predecessor in having little practical political experience. Though he had served in de la Madrid’s cabinet as minister of planning and budget, he never held elective office.

Things did not look good as the new president took office. Along with the economic crisis, there was a marked decline of public confidence in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Where the PRI percentage of votes in presidential elections had been 90 percent for López Mateos and almost to 100 percent for López Portillo, it declined to 72 percent for de la Madrid and barely 50 percent for Salinas — and that in a blatantly fraudulent election.

Then Salinas’s fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better. As the Berlin Wall tumbled and former socialist countries now decided that capitalism was the wave of the future, Salinas made a bold move: he effectively canceled the Mexican Revolution.

His rejection of revolutionary principles, known by press pundits as salinastroika, took place in several areas — political, economic, even religious. Where anticlericalism had long been a leading principle of the Mexican Revolution, Salinas completely reversed course. Nuns and priests could once more appear publicly in clerical garb, they could vote, the Church could own property, diplomatic relations were re-established with the Vatican, and religious schools were once more authorized.

Salinas also struck at the hitherto all-powerful unions. The measure was generally popular because the main target was a clique of labor bosses who had become virtually a law unto themselves. The most powerful of these was Joaquín Hernández Galicia (” La Quina“), head of the oil workers union. Though the ostensible reason was fraud and corruption, Salinas had a strong personal reason for arresting and jailing La Quina. During the presidential campaign the union had distributed leaflets accusing Salinas of murder. This referred to an incident that took place when the president was a little boy. In the course of a war game in which she was an unwilling participant, he had shot and killed a teenage servant girl. What followed was a depressingly typical case of social injustice. The Salinas family was powerful and the victim was a poor Indian girl from the slums. So little Carlos got off with counseling. Salinas also went after the heads of the Veracruz dock workers union and the Journeymen and Industrial Workers Union. The latter was charged with tax evasion — on the eve of calling a strike against thirty-three maquiladora plants owned mainly by North American interests.

Another act in the drama of a Revolution reversed took place in the countryside. For a long time a sacred tenet of the Revolution had been support for the ejido system of agricultural cooperatives. The ejidos were at the center of the land reform program and to attack them was something like coming out against Motherhood and the Flag. But now Salinas did exactly that. “In the past,” he declared in a 1992 speech, “land distribution was a path of justice; today it is unproductive and impoverishing.” Technically, this represented an advance because the campesinos (peasant farmers) were now free to rent, sell, trade or mortgage their lands. But, predictably, it was the wealthy who bought up all the land that had become available.

Privatization was also a leading priority in the new president’s program. State control was out and by early 1992, 85 percent of companies formerly owned by the government had been sold to the private sector. Among major companies privatized were Banco Nacional de Mexico (BANAMEX), Banco de Comercio (BANCOMER) and Telefonos de Mexico (TELMEX).

There is no doubt that these measures paid off. By 1993 inflation had been lowered to 10 percent and the foreign debt reduced by some $25 billion. This set the stage for fulfillment of Salinas’s most cherished dream: inclusion of Mexico into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The old revolutionaries (whom Salinas dubbed “the new reactionaries”) believed that NAFTA would strike a crippling blow to Mexico’s lower-middle class, wiping out Mom and Pop establishments all over the country as the WalMarts, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chickens proliferated.

Salinas partisans countered that NAFTA would attract more capital investment and result in more well-paying jobs for Mexicans. The president’s dream was realized on November 17, 1993, as the U.S. Congress approved NAFTA. Within a week Salinas revealed his choice to succeed him as president in 1994: a handsome, articulate Northwestern graduate and fellow economist named Luis Donaldo Colosio.

Salinas’s prestige had never been higher. He was only forty-four and a brilliant future was predicted for him — in the international arena. Having achieved an economic miracle in Mexico, who would be better suited to become president of the World Trade Organization?

On the opening day of 1994 everything fell apart. Santayana wrote that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. When Echeverria’s term ended, everybody hailed López Portillo as a savior. With the end of the disastrous Echeverria-López Portillo-de la Madrid cycle, it looked for a while like Salinas would be the new Moses. History was about to teach the Mexican people another harsh lesson.

It began on January 1, 1994, with an Indian revolt in Chiapas. With Salinas’s version of agrarian “reform,” with the implementation of NAFTA, the campesinos in Chiapas had reached a nadir of despair. No longer protected by the ejido system, their lands were being taken over by creditors and landlords. And how could they possibly compete with their new international “partners,” the farmers of America’s prosperous Middle West? So they sold whatever they had, bought guns, and took to the hills. Their leader, who called himself Subcomandante Marcos, was a white, upper-middle-class furniture magnate’s son from Tampico who had absorbed French-style Marxism at UNAM and served with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Though fighting gave way to negotiation within a week, and remains at this stage today, Marcos has won one propaganda victory after another over his foes in Mexico City. In defeating Napoleon and Hitler, the Russians had an indispensable ally in General Winter. With Marcos, it is Generals Fax and the Internet that have made him a global Robin Hood — along with his own skills as a media manipulator. The ski-masked Zapatista leader has hosted international conferences in his jungle retreat and appeared on such programs as “Sixty Minutes,” getting his message across in accented but highly articulate English.

As the Salinas myth continued to wane, the president now faced a snag in his relations with the Church. In the revolutionary past, the Church had always been associated with the generals, the landowners and big business. But a considerable segment of the Catholic clergy has embraced liberation theology — and many churchmen now oppose the government from the left. Most prominent of these mavericks is Samuel Ruiz García, bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, capital of Chiapas. Though Ruiz has served as a negotiator in that troubled state, it is clear that his sympathies are with the downtrodden Indians.

Then came a cycle of high profile political murders.

In March 1994 Luis Donaldo Colosio, who surely would have been the next president of Mexico, was shot to death in Tijuana. Two weeks earlier, on March 6, he had made a speech that distanced him from the Salinas government. Stating that Mexico was still a Third World country, he pledged to implement political reform and to separate the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) from the government. Though a half-crazed young man, instantly labeled as “the lone gunman,” was arrested for the shooting, Mexicans are still asking themselves whether or not this was a political execution. As presidential candidate, Colosio was replaced by Ernesto Zedillo, who had been his campaign manager. The son of a poor family who once shined shoes but proved sufficiently upwardly mobile to get an education at Yale, Zedillo won in what was considered by international observers to be a fair election. A competent and intelligent technocrat, honest but colorless, Zedillo has been referred to by political satirists as “Nerdedillo.”

In September 1994 there was another high-level political assassination that tarnished the prestige of the Salinas family. The victim was PRI secretary general José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, Salinas’s former brother-in-law. The marriage to the president’s sister had terminated in a bitter divorce. Charged with masterminding the murder was Raill Salinas, the president’s older brother. (He was recently found guilty of the crime and sentenced to fifty years in prison.)

Raul Salinas proved to be a detriment to his brother in more ways than one. It was discovered that he was at the center of a vast web of corruption and influence peddling and that the Salinas economic “miracle” consisted more in creating twenty-one new billionaires than in raising the general standard of living.

The Salinas reputation continued to slide as the end of 1994 was marked by another of those disastrous devaluations Mexicans hate so much. Worst of all, the devaluation was performed in a singularly clumsy manner by the new finance minister, Jaime Serra Puche, coming when nobody was expecting it.

Two other blights on the national scene have been an increase in violent crime and in the influence of powerful drug dealers. Mexico City, once considered safe, has been hit with a wave of kidnappings — some of the victims have been millionaires and high level foreign executives, but also some ordinary tourists. Foreigners coming to Mexico have been warned never to take any but authorized taxis that are at a sitio (cab stand) or which can be summoned by telephone. There have been too many cases of tourists being picked up by freelance taxis (mostly VWs) and having the cab boarded by the driver’s confederates at a designated spot. The tourist is then forced to cough up his/her credit card to the kidnappers and to authorize outrageous charges (This type of kidnapping is called an “Express Kidnapp”). There have also been assaults on intercity buses, with instances of female tourists being raped as well as robbed.

The most disturbing aspect about the drug trade is the way it has reached into political life. Governors, including a potential PRI candidate for president in 2000, are regularly accused of being on the drug lords’ payroll. These accusations have gone as high as a general who was appointed to be Mexico’s drug czar. All this has induced tremendous cynicism among ordinary citizens. Should drug king “A” be arrested, it is widely believed that he was set up by his rival, drug king “B,” and a compliant political leader who can then masquerade as an anti-drug crusader. The baneful influence of the drug lords has provided fuel to enemies of NAFTA. Under the agreement, Mexican trucks can cross the border to destinations within the U.S. NAFTA critics claim that many of these vehicles carry drugs and that inspection by U.S. border officials is deplorably lax. Some even suggest that this laxity is deliberate and that the enormously wealthy narco dealers may have gotten to the inspectors.

Today, the Salinas family is in total disgrace, with Raul beginning his fifty-year prison term and Carlos a political exile in Ireland. Though the former president is surely not hurting financially, gone are all dreams of becoming president of a prestigious international monetary association or of a professorship at Harvard.

On the bright side is what may be the emergence of a multi-party system. The relatively conservative National Action Party (PAN) holds several governors’ seats and the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has installed its standard bearer, Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, as mayor of Mexico City.

As Mexico closes in on the millenium, what we are looking at is not answers, but a series of baffling questions.
Will dialogue continue in Chiapas?
Or will the government compensate for its defeats in the propaganda war by waging a long postponed campaign of extermination against the Zapatistas?
Does PAN have a chance in 2000 to unseat a party that will have been in power over seventy years?
Or will PRI again rig the election?
Will street crime and assaults on tourists be brought under control?
Will there be serious and effective action against the drug kingpins?
Or will Mexico risk becoming “Colombianized”?

In 1917, Winston Churchill described Russia as a riddle in a mystery wrapped inside an enigma. He could have been talking about Mexico in 1999.

Published or Updated on: May 1, 1999 by Jim Tuck © 1999


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