MEXICO CITY -- After weeks in which Mexicans seemed to hold their anger at criticism of Mexico by opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the United States, they fairly exploded yesterday at their country's depiction by Ross Perot the night before.
"Last night, Mexico was the object of a long series of calumnies and lies," the government-owned newspaper El Nacional huffed in an editorial, and the accusation echoed by many others.
"He's never set foot here!" said Luis Estrada, a 50-year-old lawyer in a gray business suit who put down his sandwich at a downtown restaurant. "How is it possible that he can say everyone lives in poverty here? Before he opens his mouth, he ought to come down here and take a look."
Cristina Cueto, a graphic designer in the upscale neighborhood of Polanco, offered a series of off-color terms for Mr. Perot before settling on a mild epithet.
Relatively few Mexicans watched or heard the debate Tuesday night between Mr. Perot and Vice President Al Gore on the trade act, but angry newspaper editorials, outraged politicians and word-of-mouth seemed to carry what regular Mexican television programming had not.
And after weeks in which other U.S. opponents of the trade pact have been assailing Mexico as polluted, corrupt, destitute and undemocratic, there was some new evidence for the warnings of officials here that a backlash of anti-American feelings could ensue if the accord is rejected by the Congress.
What rankled Mexicans was that in the course of the 90-minute debate, Mr. Perot described Mexico as a destitute, authoritarian and unjust place where "36 families own over half the country," virtually everyone else lives in poverty and factory workers dream of one day having outhouses and running water.
"People who don't make anything cannot buy anything," he said.
Some of Mr. Perot's assertions were seen here as merely exaggerated, while others were denounced as patently untrue.
While poverty in Mexico is widespread, for instance, most
studies indicate that less than half of the population lives below the poverty line. Similarly, according to the latest Mexican government statistics, the richest tenth of Mexican households takes in 37.9 percent of the country's total household income. And whatever they might earn, Mexicans as a whole are the third-largest customer for exports from the United States.
Not all Mexicans seemed to wince at the rough-handed treatment. Some critics of the trade accord have viewed Washington's debate as a chance to voice their complaints about the political, environmental and human rights policies of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
They have joined enthusiastically in the attacks in the past, and at least some of them seemed to appreciate that Mr. Perot had gone so far in countering what they see as Mexican government propaganda.
Mexico's trade secretary, Jaime Serra Puche, sought to emphasize the positive. He called the debate a "fortunate" departure from the unanswered criticism with which Mexico and the agreement have sometimes been showered in the past.
There was also a good deal of rejoicing yesterday at the Mexico City stock exchange, based on a perception that Mr. Gore had smacked his opponent around and improved the prospects for the agreement's passage in Congress.
Values shot up 81.5 points, or 4.17 percent, which officials said they believed was the steepest one-day jump in the market's history. The jump left the Bolsa index at a record level of 2,035 points.