The man Mexico loves to hate

SUN JOURNAL

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.

April 07, 1999|By SAM QUINONES | SAM QUINONES,SPECIAL TO THE 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.

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