Small-town style works for Mexico's president Fund for local aid solidifies support


TIJUANA, Mexico -- Thousands of people gathered outside the municipal hall of this border town last week chanting before television cameras and waving petitions for drinking water, paved streets, adult education centers and the closing of a polluting electricity plant.

But it wasn't the mayor they wanted to see.

"The president can change things," says 38-year-old accountant Jose Cifras, holding an elaborately painted sheet-sign of the plant with a skeleton of death floating out of its smokestack. "Already, because the company knew he was coming to town, they changed the kind of fuel they use, and there is much less pollution today."

Around the world, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is known as a reserved intellectual who has initiated sweeping economic reforms in his country and negotiated a pending free-trade agreement with the United States and Canada.

But his own people think of him much more as they would a small-town mayor: someone who is as concerned about potholes and recreation centers as he is about decreasing the national deficit.

It's an image Mr. Salinas -- who had never run for elected office before becoming president four years ago -- has struggled successfully to perfect.

Like those of other Latin American countries, Mexico's economic reforms have plunged even more people into unemployment and poverty. However, Mr. Salinas has not had to confront the violent public protests or military coups that have wracked other Latin governments.

The centerpiece of his strategy is "Solidarity," a $5 billion fund derived from part of the proceeds from the sale of dozens of state-owned companies such as airlines, banks and the telephone company.

Some of the proceeds are used to pay off foreign debt. But the rest is used to pay for community projects throughout Mexico.

At least two days each week, Mr. Salinas puts away his blue suit and takes out his baggy khaki pants and hiking boots to travel to villages and towns throughout Mexico inaugurating new roads, basketball gymnasiums, low-cost housing projects or drinking water systems, all funded by Solidarity.

"I want you to know I have seen some of the petitions and signs that you have written," Mr. Salinas says, pointing to the raucous group at the Tijuana municipal hall. "There is a sign there from Rosarito and one there for water and drainage systems, education, land deeds. It is for those things that we will continue working together.

"I have come to tell you that in your work you are not going to be alone," Mr. Salinas says, raising his voice to inflame the crowd's enthusiasm. "You will always go with the support of your friend, the president of the republic."

Over the last four years, Mr. Salinas says, Solidarity has:

* Provided electricity to the homes of 13 million.

* Financed the development of 5 million acres of farmland.

* Rebuilt about 75,000 schools.

* Provided drinking water to more than 11 million people.

* Renovated about 70,000 schools.

* Paved more than 2,000 miles of roads.

* Made loans to 58,000 small and medium-sized businesses.

Leaders of opposition political parties grumble that Mr. Salinas' motives are strictly political, pointing to evidence that projects for improvement are heavily targeted to areas where the opposition is strongest.

The opposition groups say Mr. Salinas' Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) is desperate to regenerate the grass-roots support that has waned over its last six decades of rule, much of it gained through a widely acknowledged system of fraudulent elections.

On the night of presidential elections in 1988, the computer tabulating votes mysteriously broke down. Election officials eventually declared Mr. Salinas the victor with little more than 50 percent of the votes, the worst showing of any PRI presidential candidate.

Within months, the new president announced the implementation of Solidarity.

"The complaints by the opposition parties to me sound like sour grapes," said Federico Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. Evidence suggests that despite economic reforms in which hundreds of thousands of people have been laid off -- 90 of Mexico's top companies have cut their labor forces this year -- Mr. Salinas is more popular now than when he was elected.

In the western state of Michoacan, a stronghold of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), Mr. Salinas was defeated 3-to-1 in his 1988 bid for the presidency. However, in the gubernatorial election in July, the PRI candidate received 418,000 votes to 289,000 for his PRD opponent, who complained of vote fraud.

Last week, on Mr. Salinas' Solidarity tour through three cities in Baja California, one of three states controlled by an opposition party, there was no display of conflict or ill will.

"The people of Tijuana are proud of our president," said Tijuana Mayor Carlos Montejo Favela. "We are Salinistas by conviction."

Wherever he goes in the name of Solidarity, Mr. Salinas is met with rousing expressions of gratitude and urgent pleas for more assistance.

At the Solidarity rally in Tijuana, Miguel Moreno Ornelas fought his way through the crowd and stuffed into Mr. Salinas' hands an 8-by-10 photo of his chubby-cheeked 16-year-old son.

"I haven't seen him in 30 days," Mr. Ornelas said, explaining to a reporter that the boy had been kidnapped in front of the family home. "The president will help me. I have heard that he really reads the petitions. I have nowhere else to go."

Amid the shacks of a slum in Mexicali, about 150 miles east of Tijuana, resident Ignacia Barajas looked into Mr. Salinas eyes and thanked him for bringing electricity and a new school to her community.

"I am speaking for the hearts of the people here," Mrs. Barajas said on a stage surrounded by about 500 neighbors. "But more than anything, our hearts are with you because you are Mexico, and Mexico is you."

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