The System Falls Apart in Mexico


Mexico's ruling party has held power for 66 years by following unwritten rules, including: Never criticize the president in public, even if you're a former president. Never put a former president's relatives in prison, even if you're the current president.

Those rules were broken last week. Former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said publicly that, in effect, President Ernesto Zedillo had made a mess of devaluing the Mexican peso in December, touching off a financial panic.

And President Zedillo threw Mr. Salinas' brother, Raul, into a maximum-security prison as having masterminded the assassination last September of the ruling party's No. 2 official.

Those stunning developments were a sure sign that the oxymoronic Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI, was coming unglued. The PRI had long since stopped being revolutionary. Now it may no longer be institutional.

"We are living through the collapse of the Mexican political system, although the PRI does not believe it," Enrique Krauze, a Mexican historian, told a reporter.

President Zedillo's bold move against Raul Salinas was viewed as strengthening his 3-month-old presidency, which has been devalued at least as much as the peso.

But Mr. Zedillo faces a political Catch-22: Almost anything he does now to bolster his standing will have the equal and opposite effect of weakening the ruling party.

For decades, party and government in Mexico have been one, with the president holding unquestioned authority atop the political pyramid. Presidents ruled for one six-year term (no re-election allowed), hand-picked their successors, and departed the political scene (often much wealthier than when they entered it), never to make waves again.

But now President Salinas, blamed for saddling his successor with a financial disaster in the making, is the most hated man in Mexico, and his family honor is at stake. He has broken the code of silence.

On the peso devaluation, Mr. Salinas told one interviewer: "The errors made in December [after Mr. Zedillo became president] converted a problem into a crisis." On his brother's arrest, the former president phoned a radio station to term the charges against Raul Salinas "absurd."

Like any efficient machine, the PRI has maintained power by rewarding its friends with patronage jobs and contracts, and rigging elections. It has resorted to intimidation, violence and even torture to keep opponents in line.

Out of resources

But now the reservoir of patronage has run dry. After a few years of rising middle-class expectations, the shadow of recession again lies over the land. In the wake of the peso devaluation, jobs are being wiped out by the hundreds of thousands, bank credit isn't available for business and consumer interest rates have neared triple digits.

Prosperity is not in the offing.

But democracy could be. The Mexican people have had a few tastes of democracy over the past decade, and they hunger for more.

If he can control the PRI's hard-liners, Mr. Zedillo can offer more democracy. Already, on Feb. 12, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) handily defeated the PRI in state elections in Jalisco, home to Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city. The PRI faces likely defeats this spring in Guanajuato and Yucatan.

Mr. Zedillo can also offer successful prosecutions in the two political assassinations that shook Mexico last year. The PRI's charismatic presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was gunned down in Tijuana last March. Six months later, the party's secretary general, Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, was the victim of a gangland-style hit in Mexico City.

The Zedillo administration said last week that both murders were political conspiracies, PRI hard-liners plotting to kill party reformers. Raul Salinas was arrested in the Ruiz Massieu slaying. Two Colosio bodyguards with PRI ties were jailed in the presidential candidate's assassination.

The president's machismo alone will win points with the Mexican people, but at an untold cost to the PRI. Not only are all the suspected bad guys PRI hard-liners, but the avenging attorney general and special prosecutor in the cases are both members )) of the opposition PAN, appointed by the president.

Mr. Zedillo "is a puritan about the law and is profoundly ignorant of the Mexican political system," Raymundo Riva Palacio, a Mexican journalist, wrote last week. "That is to say he is the perfect combination to promote change.

"We will just have to wait, and not for long, to find out if he really knows what he is doing and, more importantly, if he has the strength to manage the unarmed political revolution he has unleashed," he wrote.

Of course, Mr. Zedillo has not been operating in a vacuum. There's nothing like money problems -- and murder -- to get your next-door neighbors' attention.

Despite the 2,000-mile border it shares with the United States, Mexico has often found its powerful northern neighbor with its back turned, gazing across the Atlantic to seemingly more pressing foreign-policy matters in Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Concentrating the mind

Now Mexico has come into focus for the United States. The prospect of political instability next door in a nation of 90 million mostly poor people is clearly unsettling.

President Clinton patched together a $50 billion rescue plan, including $20 billion in U.S. guarantees, in an effort to stabilize the peso. Even so, the U.S. trade surplus of $1.5 billion with Mexico last year is expected to become a $10 billion to $15 billion deficit this year as Mexicans eschew expensive American imports and Americans snap up cheap Mexican exports.

The Mexican economic slide will cost the United States 380,000 jobs over the next two years, a recent study estimated. With Mexico's minimum wage now the equivalent of $3 a day, more Mexicans will cross the U.S. border to find work that pays. If the Mexican crisis doesn't ease, the U.S. government says, illegal immigration could increase by 500,000.

There's an old Mexican saying: When the United States sneezes, Mexico catches a cold. And when the United States catches a cold, Mexico gets pneumonia.

Now there should be an American corollary: When Mexico gets pneumonia, the United States at least sneezes.

James Bock is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun and its former bureau chief in Mexico City.

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