Moving for Reassurance, Mexico Loses Chance for Reform

April 03, 1994|By JAMES BOCK

The story of Mexico in the expansive 1970s was the oil boom. That spendthrift era lighted the fuse on the foreign debt bomb that menaced Mexico in the austere 1980s. Now, in the nervous 1990s, Mexico is threatened with a political explosion.

Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, the newly named presidential candidate of Mexico's ruling party, is a man of those times. He went to Yale University during the oil boom as a budding economist. Then he made his mark in Mexican politics by helping defuse the debt bomb.

The legacy of those watershed events -- the free-market, United States-oriented Mexican economy of today -- made Mr. Zedillo the predictable choice last week to replace the assassinated Luis Donaldo Colosio as candidate of the oxymoronic Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Faced with edgy investors and restless party members, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari moved quickly to reassure the world of Mexico's political stability. He did so by tapping Mr. Zedillo, an Ivy League-educated technocrat made in his own image.

But by hand-picking Mr. Zedillo in the traditionally secretive way, the Mexican president missed an unusual opportunity to accelerate Mexico's political reform. The selection was a disturbing reminder of how Mexico's "Salinastroika" has modernized the economy but failed to foster a similarly open and competitive political system.

"He's the best possible choice the market could have," a Wall Street investor said of Mr. Zedillo the day Mr. Salinas tapped the 42-year-old former education secretary.

However, the new candidate of the PRI (as the party is known by its Spanish initials) -- and the manner in which he was selected -- were probably not the best possible choices the Mexican people could have had.

Some 65 years of PRI authoritarianism and corruption (the party, widely accused of vote fraud, has never lost a presidential election) have made Mexicans deeply cynical about politics. But Mexicans are also a nationalistic and patriotic people, and the murder of an attractive young candidate -- even a PRI candidate -- touched them.

The Colosio assassination left Mexicans with a jumble of feelings: grief and anger over his death; tension and fear that Mexico's vaunted political stability might crumble; suspicion that Colosio's murder was the result of a plot; and grudging sympathy for the PRI.

Coming quickly, President Salinas' pick momentarily eased the tension and fear.

But the president gave ordinary Mexicans no voice in the process. As Mexicans' grief for the fallen candidate and sympathy for the party with a martyr subside between now and the Aug. 21 election, their anger and suspicion will likely grow.

The choice of Mr. Zedillo appeared aimed, above all else, to please foreign investors. Foreign capital has responded to the Salinaseconomic reforms by snapping up more than a quarter of Mexican stock market shares and nearly half the country's treasury bills.

Even in the best of circumstances, the Mexican presidential succession, known as the "destape" (or unveiling), is a strange, Aztec-like ritual. The rules are these:

* Any presidential "candidate" who outwardly shows interest in the job is automatically disqualified from consideration. Like the children of old, "los presidenciables" should be seen and not heard.

Political cartoonists portray the presidential hopefuls as ghostlike, little hooded figures who must remain under cover until the chosen one is unveiled. "He who moves," a grizzled veteran of Mexican politics once said, "does not appear in the photo."

* The president, after ritual consultation with PRI leaders, picks his successor. (Mexican presidents serve a six-year term and are constitutionally barred from re-election.) The president sacrifices himself atop the political pyramid so that the party-state may continue to live.

* Once the president's choice -- known as the "dedazo" (or, roughly, the big fingering) -- is made, party loyalists fall immediately in line. Anyone who even hints at questioning the president's pick is normally frozen out of political posts as a matter of PRI discipline. Power begins to flow to the newly anointed president-to-be.

The scene last week outside Los Pinos, the presidential residence in Mexico City, looked like business as usual. The Mexican versions of muldoons and b'hoys came and went. Silence and stoicism were the watchwords. They said nothing. They showed no emotion. Speculation was rampant. Then the president chose. And the loyalists fell in line.

The markets responded as Mr. Salinas must have intended. The peso stabilized. Telefonos de Mexico stock shot up on the New York exchange. The new candidate, after all, went to Yale. He was a key player in helping private Mexican companies restructure their foreign debt. He was an architect of Mexico's free-market reforms.

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