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The Year of Living Dangerously in Mexico

March 06, 1994|Carlos Fuentes | Carlos Fuentes is the author, among other books, of "Return to Mexico: Journeys Behind the Mask" (Norton).

MEXICO CITY — 1994 will be the crucial year for Mexican democracy. The Party of Revolutionary Institutions (PRI) has no viable answers for the heart of Mexico's problem--its social, eco nomic and cultural realities no lon ger coincide with its political structures. This was Spain's problem when Francisco Franco died. The Spanish transition to democracy is, in many ways, a model that Mexico can follow.

In Mexico, four factors will determine the nature of this year's transition: the electoral year, negotiations in Chiapas, which have now produced a tentative agreement, negotiations in Mexico City and the president himself.

On Aug. 21, Mexicans will elect a new president, a new Congress and various governorships. But the black bean in the white rice, as we say in Mexico, is that our elections are burdened with the dubious prestige of a good whorehouse: They work, but are they virtuous?

Today, there is a general impression that Mexico's elections have never been virtuous and no longer work. If the prolonged regency of the PRI once sustained itself on the party's offer of internal peace along with economic development, the rebellion in Chiapas has destroyed that image. The country is nervous, unsatisfied. Too many people have been left behind, and macroeconomic successes can no longer hide or resolve microeconomic realities. But then, as the unorthodox candidate to the Chilean presidency in last year's election, Manfred Max Neff, told me in Santiago, "No one lives in the macroeconomy."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 13, 1994 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Column 2 Op Ed Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
The title of Carlos Fuentes' most recent book is "The Orange Tree" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The title given last week was incorrect.

This is not to say that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's economic measures do not deserve praise. Stabilizing an economy that had almost hit rock-bottom, controlling inflation, trimming the fat of the state, amassing currency reserves, attracting foreign capital, managing debt and opening up the sealed, protectionist economy to free trade and global integration--all have been largely successful policies, even as they create problems.

But the Salinas government was convinced that economic reform at the top would: a) make people's lives better at the bottom and b) banish, or at least postpone, demands for democratic reform. The Soviet example was constantly invoked in government circles. You can't have perestroika and glasnost at the same time, we were told.

Obviously, too many Mexicans thought otherwise. Each gubernatorial election since 1989 has been marred by fraud, post-electoral conflict, the deaths of opposition partisans and the naming of interim governors by the president. Right now, of 32 Mexican states, 17 are ruled by interim governors. This means that more than half the country's 90 million people are governed by people they did not elect.

Credible elections thus impinge on another urgent Mexican reform. We need a working federalism, but creating an effective system means establishing a true balance of powers, a freely elected Congress and an independent judiciary. All this, in turn, requires checks and balances, accountability and credible elections. A large menu for any country with Mexico's authoritarian tradition.

The high-handed electoral reforms of the Salinas government gave the PRI automatic majorities in the name of "governability" and left the electoral institutions in the hands of the government and, thus of its electoral hook, the PRI. Demands for electoral reform began last year but got nowhere until Chiapas.

The Chiapas rebellion has been the detonator. Even the wooden rifles used by the rebels hit their targets: the inequality of the country is just too great, the conspiracy between local exploiters and local authorities indecent. Wrongs cannot be righted without local democracy in Chiapas, meaning the rights of the peasant and Indian communities to elect their own leaders. But you cannot have democracy in Chiapas without democracy in Mexico, or democracy in Mexico without democracy in Chiapas.

The local problems of Chiapas and the national problems of democracy are intimately linked. The people of Chiapas have realized that a brutal change is about to take place. From being simply exploited over the centuries, they were about to become marginalized for the next millennium in a macroeconomic, technocratic, global village. Millions like them exist in other Mexican states. A signal from Subcommandante Marcos, the rebel leader in Chiapas, could set dozens of Chiapas-like rebellions on the march.

Salinas has said he is trying to correct things that had gone wrong, and he has set the stage for the ongoing political negotiations headed, in Mexico City, by the secretary of the interior, human-rights advocate Jorge Carpizo MacGregor. No Mexican president before him has admitted to any mistakes.

But now, this young, energetic and intelligent president has his task cut out for him. Mexican presidents are known for one thing. Lazaro Cardenas means Oil. Miguel Aleman, Industrialization. Diaz Ordaz, the Tlatelolco massacre. Jose Lopez Portillo, Debt. They are historically labeled.

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