Mexico's Trial by Fire

Mexico's Trial by Fire

"Mexico’s Coming Backlash" by M. Delal Baer, in Foreign Affairs (July–Aug. 1999), 58 E. 68th St., New York, N.Y. 10021.

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"Mexico’s Coming Backlash" by M. Delal Baer, in Foreign Affairs (July–Aug. 1999), 58 E. 68th St., New York, N.Y. 10021.

As Mexico moves toward a presidential election next July, proponents of democracy can take satisfaction in the fact that for the first time in 70 years, the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) could lose. But they shouldn’t be too satisfied. So far, writes Baer, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, "more democracy has brought renewed political infighting, assassinations, and guerrilla violence." If a minority government comes to power, the result could be chaos.

Mexico, which had a history of succession by assassination until 1929, achieved stability then by opting for one-party rule by the PRI. Regional chieftains agreed to submit to a powerful presidency in return for a share of the political and economic action. "Only when this system of power sharing broke down was Mexican democracy born," notes Baer. In 1987, after President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado named Carlos Salinas de Gortari as his successor, a host of young, free-market tecnicos (technocrats) held sway in Mexico City, much to the dismay of old-line PRI politicians. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano then formed the dissident, centerleft Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) as a refuge for exiled PRI populists.

Today, Mexico essentially has a three-party system, with the PRI, the PRD, and the center-right National Action Party (PAN) vying for power. The winner next July possibly could draw less than 40 percent of the vote. Mexico "could become ungovernable," warns Baer.

"Mexico has spent billions of dollars creating technologically sophisticated and credible electoral institutions, revamping voter ID cards and registration lists, and establishing the nonpartisan, autonomous Federal

Electoral Institute," Baer says. "But the cultural values needed to underpin democratic governance— tolerance, compromise, and civic participation—remain weak."

"In their 11 years in power" under Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Léon, she notes, "Mexico’s young technocrats have led a restructuring that has produced the privatization of state-owned industries, fiscal discipline, and [the North

American Free Trade Agreement]. But a backlash is in the air." Mass protests erupted this year when President Zedillo proposed electricity privatization. To the public, Baer says, the shadow over the self-exiled former president Salinas, who has been linked with various shady dealings, "has made privatization synonymous with corruption."

The 1994 assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, which ended seven decades of peaceful presidential successions, still hangs over the political scene, Baer says. "The specter of political violence has become very real.... The post-Colosio landscape is populated with angry apparatchiks, ruthless drug traffickers, scheming palace politicians, and messianic guerrillas who have sprung up like poisonous mushrooms." Mexico’s big cities are also being "overwhelmed by crime." Some 1.5 million crimes were reported nationwide in 1997, but only 150,000 arrest warrants were issued. Police corruption is rife.

"As the capital sinks beneath a wave of crime, the provinces smolder, and drug lords send corruption creeping through the establishment," Baer writes, "Mexico’s rulers seem more interested in fighting one another than their common enemies. For the country to survive as a democracy, this will have to change—and soon."



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