Mexico's new leader


IT IS TIME to take a careful look at Mexico's new president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon. Defying 65 years of one-party tradition, Mr. Zedillo last week appointed a leader of the rival PAN party, Antonio Lozano, as attorney general. This deed signals an unprecedented, apparently genuine commitment to real political and judicial reform.

Mr. Zedillo hopes that by the time his six-year term expires in December 2000, Mexico will have healed its internal wounds and burst upon the 21st century as one of the world's leading industrial powers.

To the degree that Mexico may actually accomplish that goal, our country will be a principal beneficiary. We cannot build an impenetrable wall along our 2,000-mile border. The only effective antidote to illegal immigration is the creation of jobs and opportunities in Mexico.

Our southern neighbor's recent economic progress is the envy of the developing world, and the United States has benefited measurably. As this hemisphere's 34 freely elected heads of state gather at the American Summit in Miami this weekend, most of them will relate more directly to Mexico's experience than to ours. Many will look to Mr. Zedillo and his country's recent record for inspiration.

During the past six years, responding to the leadership of outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mexicans have launched the most dramatic economic turnaround since Japan emerged from the cultural cocoon that so long restrained its national potential in the manner that bound feet once cramped the mobility of its female children.

In the brief time since Mr. Salinas took office, triple-digit inflation has been halted. The peso has become a stable currency. Runaway budget deficits have succumbed to three successive years of absolute balance. Public debt, as a percent of gross domestic product, has been cut by two-thirds. Interest rates have plummeted, and economic growth has proceeded at a fairly steady 3 percent.

Mr. Salinas didn't just conceive the North American Free Trade Agreement; his government independently cut tariffs and opened markets to U.S. goods. He reversed a 50-year ban on U.S. investments. He privatized Mexico's government-run banks. The runaway flight of rich Mexicans' deposits into foreign bank accounts has been stanched, and more than $100 billion of foreign risk capital has been plowed into Mexican business enterprises.

Impressive. But how do all of these statistics affect the average Mexican? Favorably, but not sufficiently so to evoke wild acclamation. Average wages have grown by about 20 percent in these six years. Sixteen million more Mexicans have safe drinking water. Thirteen million more are served by sanitary sewers, and 21 million more have electric power.

In a country of 92 million people, that's good -- but not good enough to satisfy those hopeless, homeless, jobless millions at the base of the economic pyramid who believe that they've been left completely out of their own country's vaunted economic "miracle." For the most part, these hapless ones are still without jobs, without skills, without any real hope.

Mr. Zedillo wants to build upon, and expand, his predecessor's record, which he helped craft. Where Mr. Salinas opened Mexico's long-sheltered economic system to competition and modernization, Mr. Zedillo plans to throw open the windows of his country's traditional one-party political structure. He wants fresh breezes of new ideas and open discussion to blow away the cobwebs of stale dogma.

Mr. Zedillo, the clear victor in the August election, now is conspicuously reaching out to opposition parties. Two days before taking the presidential sash, he surprisingly called congressional leaders of the PRD, Mexico's sometimes raucous left-leaning party, into his office for a long conversation that they later described as "cordial and respectful."

Mr. Zedillo, 42, is more reserved than Mr. Salinas. Beginning life as a shoeshine boy, he maintained a low public profile while climbing a Horatio Alger ladder. He made nothing but A's throughout his schooling and holds a doctorate in economics. Detractors sometimes describe him as bookwormish and colorless. But lack of flash denotes no lack of class. Mr. Zedillo interrupted a recent public appearance to shine a small boy's shoes. Don't count him out.

Jim Wright, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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