MEXICO CITY — Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mexico's 42-year-old president, has adopted a mission more heroic than merely ambitious: He wants to heave his nation of 82 million people from the Third World into the First World.
Salinas has wasted no time in moving toward this goal that would take well into the next century to accomplish. In a radical departure from the nationalistic stance of previous Mexican administrations, the route to that future for Salinas is through a North American free-trade area. Negotiations with the U.S. over a free-trade agreement will be at the top of the agenda when he meets President George Bush on Monday in Mexico.
Since much of Salinas' far-reaching program has involved privatization and restructuring of an inefficient, nationalized economy, his reforms are seen as a Mexican version of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's perestroika-- "Salinastroika."
Many critics have charged, however, that his bold moves in economic reform have not been matched by democratic political reforms. In a particularly stinging accusation recently, the Latin American novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called the Mexican system "a perfect dictatorship" where the all-powerful president manipulates the trappings of democracy to reaffirm his own authority and the one-party rule of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) that has not lost a national election since its founding in 1929.
The unlikely sweep by the PRI in key local legislative elections two weeks ago has again placed the issue of electoral fraud at center stage, prompting calls by the opposition parties for international supervision to assure fair elections.
Although the precise facts of the voting process in the state of Mexico remain murky, the outcome has made Salinas' reform strategy manifestly clear: Free trade, not free elections, is what Mexico needs most. Indeed, he seems to feel that this approach is the surest way to prevent "Salinastroika" from sliding toward the dark fate of Gorbachev's perestroika-- a dangerous disintegration of society due to economic failure.
Such a strategy is undoubtedly less than democratic, but in a country with so violent a history as Mexico it may not necessarily be unwise.
Unlike the formal and pretentious Mexican politicians of past generations, the personal style of the youthful Harvard-educated president is open and informal, a style that suits the farsighted vision of a man proud of the fact that his three teen-age children all attend a Japanese school in Mexico City.
Question: The Mexican poet Octavio Paz has said, "The precedent of European integration is very important for the future of our region." Having a common market and political community like the Europeans in 1992, he suggests, would be good for the Americas. Do you share this vision?
Answer: No. My vision stops at the free-trade area. Although we expect a positive outcome of the Uruguay Round of the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) talks (aimed at liberalizing global trade), it is nevertheless clear that world trade is concentrating in three huge blocs: the U.S. and Canada; Europe; Japan and the Pacific Asian countries.
Either you have access to the huge trading blocs or you are left out of the dynamics of development and growth. And, for a country of 82 million people--to which 10 million more will be added during my administration--growth is a necessity. So, I decided that it was time for Mexico to recognize this reality and belong to this future by building on the already very strong trade relations we have with the United States. Along with Canada, we can create the biggest free trading area in the world.
A common market and community goes beyond this. It implies a common currency, a common parliament and even a common army. It actually erases borders. That is not what we want here. Negotiation of the type of agreement that we seek to reach with the United States will not entail any topic that is not strictly limited to the sphere of trade . . . . We shall keep our autonomy in other areas intact.
Europe has other characteristics. We wish them well.
Q: Mexico has already gone a long way toward free trade--the average tariff five years ago of 100% has been reduced to 9%. Is Mexico more open to trade and investment than the U.S.?
A: That is absolutely true. Mexico is open at the border. The U.S. is closed at the border. Goods coming from the U.S. that arrive at our border can enter almost freely, but Mexican exporters do not have certainty of access to the American market and sometimes not even the possibility of access.
This is true in a range of areas, from textiles to cement to vegetables. There are many non-tariff administrative impediments and unilateral decisions.