Mexico Politicians Pioneer $25-Million-a-Plate Fund-Raiser


The dinner had been superb.

As the servants poured the brandy and coffee, the 30 multimillionaires leaned back in their chairs. This was to be an historic moment for Mexico.

At the head of the table was President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. He, more than any modern Mexico president, had transformed the nation and in the process had made the dinner guests richer than ever.

Just how rich immediately became apparent when the point of the dinner was delicately broached by the host, a man married to the president's aunt.

Each magnate was to contribute $25 million to a new political fund for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The 30 guests, in other words, would give $750 million.

The number was astounding. It was more than twice the $300 million spent by the Clinton-Bush-Perot presidential campaigns. It was more than the $450 million Mexico had pledged to clean up the pollution along the border with the United States.

But for the 30 rich men it was a ripple in their vast pools of wealth. They were the beneficiaries of Mr. Salinas' "modernization" program to rid the country of wasteful state industries, archaic agriculture programs and utopian labor laws.

One guest, a multi-billionaire media magnate, had gained a state-owned TV channel; another was the principal investor in the state telephone monopoly privatized by Mr. Salinas. Yet another won control of the nation's largest bank after the Salinas government sold its shares.

But the true significance of the dinner was that it and subsequent fund-raisers would liberate the presidency from the PRI's quasi-government coalition of labor, government bureaucrats and peasants. The 1994 presidential and congressional elections would be financed by individual campaign contributions and not be dependent on the mass organizations that have kept the PRI in power since 1929.

Since his election in 1988, Mr. Salinas has undermined the old party by emasculating its union allies, by firing thousands of PRI government workers and by destroying the agriculture system that kept millions of peasants in semi-bondage to the party.

At the same time, he created an organization that dispensed more than $10 billion in pork barrel projects, pointedly cutting out PRI middle men accustomed to skimming. The program provided funds to millions of ordinary Mexicans willing to trade their labor to build a school, install a water pipe or pave a street.

Yet the self-help program is run out of the presidency. The Mexican Congress has no say where the money is going. In most states, the program's agent is more powerful than a governor.

It is no accident that one of the front runners to replace Mr. Salinas as president is Luis Donaldo Colosio, the former party chief and senator who now heads the self-help program.

From the perspective of the magnates at the dinner table, Mr. Salinas had accomplished a veritable miracle in attracting new foreign investments and reducing the nation's triple digit inflation to the low teens.

The president also had reversed the PRI's historic antipathies toward the Roman Catholic Church, toward foreign capital, especially if it came from north of the border, and toward Mexico's wealthy industrial elite.

Thanks to him the country is poised to enter the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and the United States, an act that would have deep symbolic significance through out Latin America.

And so it was the wealthy dinner guests were filled with self-satisfaction. Why not publicly announce the creation of their $750 million dollar fund? The disclosure would be in keeping with president's announced policy of making public the names of all contributors.

The diners obviously believed that the nation would applaud the openness about the trust fund and hail it as a major step toward political reform.

But in a country where they typical worker earns less than $10 a day, the concept of 30 men coming up with $750 million over dinner is a cynical confirmation of everything many Mexicans believe about a government routinely called "the Mafia."

For the average Mexican the accumulation of such wealth has meant little in terms of jobs or better pay.

Labor experts say the number of wage earners stopped growing in 1991 as new jobs created by increased foreign investment were offset by layoffs in government companies that were closed or were bought by investors.

And so when the trust fund was announced, the ensuing public outcry shocked the presidency. The PRI immediately backtracked, saying it would limit individual contributions to $330,000 and refuse to accept corporate donations. Mr. Salinas applauded the change.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect about the rich man's affair is that it unmasked the arrogance at the heart of the Mexican presidency. The dinner showed the president to be profoundly out of touch.

Within a few months, Mr. Salinas is expected to name his successor. By that time, the U.S. Congress may have rejected the free trade agreement and the Mexican government may no longer be able to support its overvalued currency.

The PRI presidential candidate would be heading into an election nightmare, without the jobs promised by the free trade agreement, with inflation sharply on the rise, and with millions of

disaffected party members vowing to do him in.

John McClintock, a copy editor for The Sun, was The Sun's Mexico City correspondent from 1987 until last June.

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