Mexican Tragedy

March 14, 1995

What is happening in these times in the upper reaches of power in Mexico can rightly be described as tragedy. A president lauded not too long ago as the most innovative and successful in decades is today in exile, his brother charged with complicity in the murder of the former husband of his sister, his successor bitterly estranged, investigations continuing into the assassination of his first choice for the presidency, the economy in shambles and armed rebellion simmering in the south.

There is more: The brother of the first victim mentioned above is charged with covering up the case he himself was assigned to investigate. Meanwhile, drug money seems to have figured in much of the bloodletting.

One renowned Mexican author has said the drama unfolding exceeds anything fiction could have imagined. To some observers, especially among the leftist intelligentsia that has long hated the regime, all this smacks of soap opera. Yet it is more than that, far more.

Tragedy in its classical sense has many definitions. It involves matters of high seriousness, matters of life and death affecting the entire community. It involves heroic figures, often victims of their own overreach, flung from the heights to the depths. It involves clashes between good and evil, between suffering due to human weakness or, contrarily, imposed by an impersonal fate. Tragedy confronts jolting truth, teaches even as it instills pity and fear and, finally, according to Aristotle, should bring catharsis -- a cleansing, reconciliation or acceptance, a new beginning.

Mexico today is far from the latter stages. The nation is mesmerized as President Ernesto Zedillo, once a favored protege of the fallen Carlos Salinas, harshly attacks his predecessor and pushes ahead with murder investigations no matter where they lead. Once derided as a weak substitute for the martyred Luis Donald Colosio, Mr. Zedillo now vows to reform an unjust political system as surely as Mr. Salinas reformed an anachronistic economic system.

What is the world to make of these two men? Both are Ivy League-trained economists, both have displayed a willingness to introduce jarring innovations, both are the kind of Mexicans official Washington and the international financial community perceive as modernists who see the need to junk the old order. But they are also ensnarled by personal passions close to home and forces well beyond the control of any one individual.

How does one transform a feudal Third World Society into a First World economic powerhouse without unleashing upheaval? Mr. Salinas has discovered the costs to himself and his country. Mr. Zedillo will discover even more. But even as Mexico goes through terrible times, there really can be no turning back from the revolution in which they are reluctant leaders. As the nearest spectators, Americans should watch with the compassion and generosity true tragedy should invoke.

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