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The man Mexico loves to hate; Salinas: An exhibit of popular-culture items at a Mexico City museum illustrates the depth of the anger that many Mexicans feel for their former president.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MEXICO CITY -- One way or another, Carlos Salinas de Gortari was always good for business.

As president of Mexico, he was lauded worldwide as the promoter of free trade, the craftsman of Mexican economic openness, a Gorbachev-style reformist south of the border.

Then came four years of recession, plummeting buying power -- and a national fit of anger toward Salinas that has inspired a booming cottage industry in T-shirts, comic books, rubber masks, candy, figurines and a host of other baubles of popular culture vilifying Mexico's most hated former president.

Thanks to Vicente Razo, many of those baubles are on display in Mexico City. Three years ago, Razo, a 28-year-old Mexico City sculptor, began collecting Salinas trinkets -- buying them at markets or from vendors outside subway stations. At first, he wanted to use them in his own artwork.

"But they had such force that you didn't have to do anything with them," he says. "I thought they were important, and there was a danger that they'd wind up in the trash. I felt they had a place in the history and memory of the country."

Until recently, Razo's collection was on display in his bathroom, available for viewing by appointment. "I figured, why should I wait until a museum realizes this is important? It could be 50 years," he said.

He didn't have to wait that long. Organizers of the city's Downtown Festival got word of his collection. It's on display through Sunday at the Museum of Mexico City.

The exhibit demonstrates that no recent figure in Mexican life has inspired such a combination of rage and humor from his countrymen as Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

When the exhibit opened last month, long lines formed. Jesusa Rodriguez, a local actress who wrote and stars in a play skewering Salinas, arrived dressed as the former president and someone hit her in the head with a plastic bottle.

Razo's collection includes a statue of Salinas as Santa Anna, the hated 19th-century general who ruled Mexico and sold or lost huge portions of the country to the United States. In one market, Razo found three rubber pads, each showing Salinas behind bars, captioned "Every Mexican's Dream." A clay statue has Salinas lugging a huge bag of money -- "Dollars Headed to Switzerland."

There are Salinas lollipops, Salinas-head erasers and packets of gum with washable Salinas tattoos. Papier-mache statues of Salinas, known as "Judases," have been burned during recent Easter weeks. Rubber statues show Salinas as a "rat" -- Mexican slang for thief -- sitting atop bags of money.

In one plastic figure, an executioner labeled "Justice" holds up Salinas' head. Other statues picture Salinas as "the Matador," "the Omen" and Mickey Mouse.

By far, the most prevalent image is of Salinas as the "Chupacabras" -- the Goatsucker, a mythical beast with fangs and batwings that sucks blood and makes off with wives and children -- a metaphor for what Mexicans believe Salinas did to them and the country. "It's a lot like Dracula," says Razo. "Dracula was a count -- king or president, in other words -- and in legends he sucked blood. The images mix very well."

One T-shirt with Salinas as the Chupacabras describes "the country Salinas left us: devaluation, misery, crisis, violence, unemployment, hunger."

Carlos Salinas, living in unofficial exile, entered and left office in controversy. Many Mexicans believe that he used the government's election apparatus to steal the 1988 presidential election. His last year in office, 1994, saw a peasant insurrection and the assassinations of two top political figures close to him. Finally, three weeks after he left office, the peso underwent a devastating devaluation.

Two months later, his brother, Raul, was arrested and charged with money-laundering and murder; he was convicted of the latter charge in January.

During his term in office, Salinas' image expanded to awesome dimensions, even for a Mexican president. He was the darling of U.S. editorial pages. He privatized state-owned industries and reduced import tariffs.

"He made us believe that we'd grown as a country. He made the world believe we were fine economically," says Beatriz Garcia, a visitor to the exhibit.

Above all, he promised Mexicans that they were entering the First World. With the North American Free Trade Agreement, he assured his countrymen that they would enjoy stability of the peso and interest rates for the first time in more than a decade. They believed him and went heavily into debt -- only to have to repay the debt at towering interest rates after the devaluation.

"He was one of the biggest liars we've had as president," says Gilberto Ibanez, an exhibit visitor whose computer business failed in the recession after the 1994 devaluation.

Further anger has been fueled by discoveries of hundreds of millions of dollars in bank accounts in Switzerland, Britain and the United States, all allegedly owned by Raul Salinas.

Carlos Salinas "fooled us all," says Luis Manrique, a student at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. "He promised us that we were almost in the First World. When he left office is when we realized it was all false. He and his family stole so much."

For Manrique, the anger vented at Salinas is simply the flip side of Mexican political submissiveness. A president has always been treated as a king whose timid subjects follow him without question -- until he leaves office.

"When he was president, he was 'Senor Presidente,' and he was going to lead us forward. They put all their faith in him," Manrique says. "Now he's to blame for everything. We really like to complain about the government."

Previous presidents, too, are popularly believed to have stolen great sums of money, and several have led the country into economic crisis. But the authoritarian political system, based on the supreme power and untouchability of the president, extended also to ex-presidents and their families.

The government allowed no public mockery of them when they left office. The numerous jokes that circulated privately were the only way Mexicans had to get even.

But today, in part because of Carlos Salinas, Mexico is more open economically and politically. The government no longer has the same control over society or private enterprise. So, the trinkets in Razo's exhibition end up being emblems of Mexico's slow but steady movement toward an open society.

It remains difficult, however, to mock a sitting president. Masks of President Ernesto Zedillo were sold in markets last year. Then the Interior Ministry closed a mask-making factory in the state of Morelos. The supply of Zedillo masks has dried up since then.

Before the Salinas exhibition opened, Razo received a visit from administration officials who wanted to ensure that no Zedillo items were on display.

Razo doesn't envision a comparable outburst of popular anger when Zedillo leaves office next year.

"He's been more clumsy in managing his image," the sculptor says. "If it's true that the higher you climb, the harder you fall -- well, he hasn't climbed that high."

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