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Mexican 'Democracy' after NAFTA


Bolstered by U.S. congressional passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has moved promptly to assure continuity of policies that have opened up its traditionally closed economy. His hand-picked candidate to succeed him after elections next year is Luis Donaldo Colosio, a political ally so close to Mr. Salinas that Mexicans often refer to him as the president's "son."

Mr. Colosio managed Mr. Salinas' fraud-tainted victory in the 1988 election, then went on to run the party that has ruled Mexico since 1929 and head the social development agency. The post enabled him to travel the country, sprinkling government largess on hundreds of towns and villages.

Despite the entrenched power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party -- known as the PRI -- Mr. Colosio has quite a job to prove his anticipated victory is for real. While Mr. Salinas has been progressive on economics, his reforms in the political field have been more for show than substance. The PRI was suspected of && manipulating voting returns not only in the last presidential election but in the most recent state contest.

Because of NAFTA and its focus on shortcomings in Mexico's semi-democracy, Mr. Colosio must know the world will be watching his race against Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a leftist making his second bid for the presidency. Mr. Cardenas predictably denounced the traditional destape or unveiling, under which the incumbent president alone chose his successor. Ironically, it is a practice started in the 1930s by his father, a revered ex-president, and is not far removed from the way a U.S. presidential candidate chooses a running mate.

Working strongly in Mr. Colosio's favor is the economic revitalization wrought by Mr. Salinas. Inflation today is 8 percent, compared to 160 percent when he took office. Productivity has gone up 19 percent. Foreign investment has provided thousands of jobs, many at relatively high wages.

When Vice President Al Gore visited Mexico City last week to celebrate passage of NAFTA, he called for a summit next year in Washington of the "Western hemispheric community of democracies." It is inconceivable that Cuba would be invited or Mexico excluded. But in light of Mr. Gore's own past criticisms of Mexico's authoritarian, centralized, PRI-dominated political system, the summit will put further pressure on the Salinas-Colosio team to democratize and clean up their act in the next presidential election.

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