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The Salinas Solution : Can President Carlos Salinas, With His Harvard Ph.D. and His Free-Market Ideas, Make Mexico Work?

November 25, 1990|MARJORIE MILLER | Marjorie Miller, a Times staff writer, is the paper's Mexico City bureau chief

WAVING red-white-and-green placards, hundreds of patriotic supporters gather under a searing midday sun to welcome President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to Acapulco's Juan N. Alvarez International Airport. They are taxi drivers and government workers, housewives and street vendors, all chanting "PRI! PRI!"--the initials of the mighty Institutional Revolutionary Party that has ruled Mexico for more than six decades.

The president has declared this National Solidarity Week, and Acapulco is his next stop on a grueling 13-state tour to inaugurate public works projects. Today, he will lead a caravan of officials through neighborhoods of dirt streets and wooden shacks, waving to the poor who live in the shadow of glitzy tourist hotels. He will hand out land titles, launch neighborhood electricity and waterworks programs and open a dispensary that sells milk at a subsidized price.

"We are working so that there are not two Acapulcos--one for the tourists and another for those who work," Salinas will say to the cheers of residents. "We want the conditions to exist so that, thanks to the efforts of all, you can find a better horizon for yourselves and for your families."

But first, as the airport crowd awaits the president's arrival, a different kind of commotion breaks out. A PRI member is handing out white T-shirts emblazoned with the word Solidarity in red, and there aren't enough to go around. Two teen-age women have grabbed the same shirt, and neither will relent.

"I got it! It's mine!" shouts one.

"No, it's mine!" barks the other.

A coin toss finally resolves their dispute. But the loser, 18-year-old Florentina Chino, is more than glum. This, it turns out, is only the latest in a string of disappointments. Two months earlier, Chino's family was one of 45 evicted from their houses and promised other shelter; so far, they have received nothing and are living with relatives. More recently, the government forced her and other street vendors off the beaches and sidewalks near the hotels.

No home, no work and, now, no T-shirt--and not much love for the president either. You know, she says, getting worked up in the summer heat, Salinas didn't even win the presidential election in 1988; the vote was a fraud. As far as she is concerned, Salinas is just as bad as the presidents before him.

So why is she here, carrying a banner to greet him? She looks surprised by the question.

"Because he's the president," Chino says. "Who else can help us?"

Mexicans have long regarded their presidents with such ambivalence--blind faith tempered with dark misgivings. They lived through an oil boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s that brought a huge foreign debt rather than prosperity. They discovered that President Jose Lopez Portillo's administration plundered the treasury before leaving office in 1982. Then, President Miguel de la Madrid's six-year austerity program ate painfully away at half their salaries.

Now the 42-year-old Salinas, a career technocrat from a politically well-connected family, stands at the apex of Latin America's oldest political pyramid. He, too, has his critics. Not only has he been accused of stealing the election, but he also has been called a democrat in name only, out of step at a time when one-party states are crumbling around the world. He is the architect of a neo-liberal economic program that he believes will propel Mexico out of a prolonged crisis and into the 21st Century. But his opponents charge that he is doing little to end the poverty that afflicts half of Mexico's 81 million people.

Despite his many detractors, however, Salinas remains determined to carry out his ambitious program to dismantle the huge government that emerged from the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Thus, two years into his six-year term, El Senor Presidente still finds himself on the campaign trail, selling his presidential vision and seeking legitimacy and popular support.

BEFORE BECOMING President de la Madrid's hand-picked successor, Salinas spent years toiling as Treasury secretary and Planning and Budget secretary but never held public office. To campaign as he does now, he has had to overcome his natural reserve and button-down manner.

The slight, bald, Harvard-educated economist has demonstrated surprising political savvy on the stump. He has learned to raise his voice and his arms during political rallies. He even elicits an occasional embrace from the suspicious women in braids and aprons who come to hear him speak.

Salinas is unabashedly pro-American in a country where not long ago that was a political liability. He speaks fluent, lightly accented English and does so in public--something his predecessors never dared to do. He also has invited the United States to sign a free-trade agreement, which he will discuss with President Bush during their sixth meeting, scheduled to start tomorrow in Monterrey, Mexico.

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