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Mexico's on the Move, Why Does It Stand Still?

August 28, 1994|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation" (Viking)

SAN FRANCISCO — At a time of great change and national confusion, after a season of violence and rumor, Mexicans voted for the political party that promised them least. Ernesto Zedillo, of Mexico's antiquated Institutional Revolution ary Party, was elected president.

The PRI, as the ruling party is popularly called, is as truly a Mexican invention as the taco or machismo. It has ruled Mexico for most of this century; it owes its endurance to a Mexican fear of chaos and a yearning for orden .

Polls last week indicated that the older the voter, the more likely he or she was to vote for the PRI. The old in Mexico remember the early decades of this century--the blood and the bodies--as Mexican killed Mexican, and the victors romantically proclaimed the civil war to be "la Revolucion."

After the Revolution, the PRI gave Mexico the stability of compromise. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, as its name implies, sought to reconcile institutional pragmatism with revolutionary rhetoric. Its genius was as go-between, mediating among competing Mexicos--business and labor, land owners and peasants. Mexicans tolerated the PRI's corruption and mischief in exchange for orden . Though after extraordinary corruption in the presidential palace and the near-collapse of the economy in the early '80s, Mexicans wondered if the PRI was an invention appropriate to the age of steam.

Last week, flush with victory, Zedillo offered to "dialogue" with the opposition parties. The PRI was thus again trying to play its role as mediator. In recent years, however, the ruling party has been torn by internal conflicts, pitting party bosses ("dinosaurs") against Ivy League "technocrats." Rumors persist that PRI bosses were behind the assassination earlier this year of their own party's candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, in Tijuana.

For the moment, the PRI represents an odd marriage of Tammany Hall politicos and Ivy League graduates. Yale-educated Zedillo replaces Harvard-educated Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Many Americans say they will miss Salinas. People sigh: "At last, Mexico had a president who spoke our language." But Salinas was preceded to the United States by peasants who journeyed north looking for work after the Revolution. Decades before Salinas introduced microeconomics to Mexico, Mexican peasants returned from the United States with rumors of dollars and Frank Sinatra records.

In Mexico City today, there are fancy new hotels and international boutiques to cater to business executives from all over the world. But all over Mexico, the poor are on the move. And the poor in Mexico are getting younger and younger--the average age is 15. Half of Mexico has yet to reach puberty. Half of Mexico wasn't of age to vote this time around.

Zedillo is not the face of future Mexico. Mexico is a teen-age girl. She has acne, but is just beginning to date. She wears a T-shirt that reads "HARD ROCK CAFE." Mexico is looking for a job. Mexico is on the move, leaving the village for the city, leaving custom for possibility, leaving home for Monterrey, Mexico, or for Monterey, Calif.

We Americans, of course, are terrified of teen-aged Mexico. We much prefer Mexicans with Harvard degrees. During the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, not a few in the United States wondered: How are we ever going to compete with a teen-ager who is willing to earn in a day what we pay ourselves for an hour?

For decades, cynics in Mexico noted the way the PRI "points to the left and then moves to the right." The rhetoric of the party was fiery and leftist; the interest of the party was power, held tightly from on top--an oligarchy of media billionaires, police chiefs with mansions and presidential relatives with millions invested in tourist hotels.

This year, what distinguished the presidential elections was the presence of two true opposition parties--one on each flank of the PRI.

On the left stood Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party. The last time around, six years ago, Cardenas came close enough to winning the presidential race to require massive fraud by the PRI. This year, the rhetoric and the revolutionary agenda--the old nationalism and state-development model--were soundly defeated. After an Indian rebellion in Chiapas and the kidnaping of millionaires in Mexico City, Mexicans were wary of the rhetoric that had romanced their grandfathers.

On the right, coming in second, was the National Action Party's candidate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos. The PAN is pro-business, friendly to the Catholic Church, friendly as well to U.S. business interests. It emerged from the elections as the party of Mexico's middle class--something new in Mexico's history.

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