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Mexico's Human-Rights Image Taking a Beating : Reform: President Salinas' economic progress has not been matched by a more open political system--and the whole world is watching.

July 22, 1990|Jorge G. Castaneda | Jorge G. Castaneda is a graduate professor of political science at the National University of Mexico

MEXICO CITY — Growing human-rights violations in Mexico have begun to alter foreign perceptions of the country and its political system. The abuses have touched many sectors of society. Observers and analysts of Mexican society--including this writer--have suddenly become unwilling participants in Mexican politics.

The highly favorable foreign view of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari rested on a credible--yet false--premise. His administration, it was believed, had undertaken a bold economic modernization program that, unfortunately, had not yet been matched by a similar drive to reform the country's political system. In time, though, politics would open up.

Explanations in the foreign press for this unevenness varied. Some articles attributed it to the inertia common to an authoritarian system undergoing change. Others cited resistance within the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Still others blamed Salinas' ambition and thirst for power. But whatever the reason for the political-economic imbalance, the consensus abroad was that it would be worked out with time.

In fact, the foreign applause for the Mexican administration's economic policies was partly blind. If Salinas' program were generating the expected results--price stability, economic growth, greater competitiveness reflected in rising exports--it should produce the liberalizing effects that successful economic policies bring. Thus the enigma: If, thanks to a widely praised economic program, the economic and social welfare of most Mexicans is improving, there is no reason to keep on fearing democracy. If the economy is working, why not open up the political system and win across-the-board? Why is Salinas stubbornly unwilling to carry out true political reform and banish, once and for all, electoral fraud from Mexico?

Because the economy has not been performing the way it was expected, and thus the awaited political effects have not materialized. Any political opening would pave the way for an electoral debacle for the ruling party. Therefore, there is no true democratization in sight.

The big problem with Salinas' economic program is that its main justification lies more in the failure of previous policies than in its merits. The program requires huge amounts of external resources that are simply unavailable, a type of entrepreneurial elite that Mexico has never had and something that the Mexican president does not have--time. In the long run, his conservative economic program may work; in the short and medium terms, it doesn't look like it will.

Not that all is gloom and doom. There is no economic crisis on the horizon. Indeed, the Salinas term is looking more and more like an improved version of his predecessor's. Instead of the net zero economic growth during the administration of Miguel de la Madrid, the economy is expanding at a rate of 2% to 2.5%, roughly the equivalent of population growth. The Mexican economy can pay its foreign bills, but only keep pace with population increases. Or if it receives a much greater infusion of foreign funding to meet its debt service and trade gap, the economy can grow faster than the population.

In 1989, economic growth barely surpassed that of population growth. This year, it will probably fall behind--not because of error or accident but because of a deliberate cooling of the economy by the Salinas administration. It lacks the hard currency to finance a higher rate of expansion. The foreign trade figures for the first four months of this year were ominous: The trade deficit reached $874 million. At that rate, the yearly gap would be nearly $3 billion.

Meager economic growth and pressures to open up the political system have led to an atmosphere of domestic tension and external one-upmanship. The tension at home stems from continuing electoral fraud: In every vote, the PRI and the government, at all levels, do everything they can to win. They concede defeat only when faced with absolutely no alternative. The consequences: attrition, disenchantment and discredit not only for the government but also for the opposition, particularly the center-left.

The external one-upmanship is equally apparent. As the economy slows down and the influx of foreign funds tapers off, the Salinas administration feels forced to make greater concessions to and advances toward its chief benefactor--the United States. It proposes a free-trade agreement without weighing the consequences of using strategic economic policy instruments to solve short-term cash-flow problems. It pursues increasingly radical, supply-side economic policies that shift the government farther and farther from the political center. It launches an ill-conceived but much-vaunted war on drugs.

Tragically, anti-drug cooperation is one of the factors leading to the deteriorating human-rights situation in Mexico. As U.S. cooperation in obtaining funding becomes more and more decisive, Mexican cooperation in the war on drugs becomes ever more necessary.

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