A Win for Reform in Mexico

November 22, 1993

The day after the U.S. House of Representatives approved the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari won a second vindication of his radical reforms. In Seattle, Mexico was inducted into the club of trans-Pacific trading powers known as APEC. Smart thing, too. Part of the economic relation that North America has with the Pacific Rim is going to be Mexico's. Thanks to NAFTA.

U.S. rejection would have been a humiliation for Mr. Salinas domestically, repudiating everything he has done in five years of governing Mexico.

Mr. Salinas has unilaterally lowered tariffs to let U.S. products into the country, pushing some inefficient Mexican producers out of business. He has started selling off state industry. He has welcomed foreign investment that, under the rhetoric of the 1911 Mexican revolution, had been kept out. He has even started to democratize the political process by installing right-wing opposition governors in three Mexican states (population: 15 million) after they "lost" in stolen elections.

All this has made Mexico a better country for the vast majority of Mexicans. It has made Mr. Salinas more popular. He could probably win re-election in a fair count next August were he eligible, which he is not. NAFTA is the logical culmination of all he has accomplished.

Once inside NAFTA, Mexico will come under more pressure to complete its reforms -- for democracy and against corruption, also for environmental clean-up -- than it would have outside. That ought to help Mr. Salinas decide whom to "unveil" as his chosen successor for next August's election, a ritual delayed until he knew whether Mexico was in NAFTA or out in the cold.

Now he knows what the next set of problems are, and who among his cronies in power can best resolve them. Mexicans are feeling good about the U.S., NAFTA and Mr. Salinas, and the candidate of his ruling party (PRI) is likely to win in a fair count.

House passage was a disaster for Cuahtemoc Cardenas, the left-wing opposition leader, who probably won the 1988 election before it was stolen, and is trying again next year. He had picked U.S. rejection of Mr. Salinas' achievement as his best campaign theme, and it failed to materialize. Next time, he is likely to lose in a fair count.

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