MEXICO CITY — In a move that startled Mexicans, disgraced former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari returned briefly to his homeland Saturday after four years in self-exile but sought to dampen speculation that he will play a role in next year's presidential election.
Salinas, who won international acclaim for opening Mexico's economy but was vilified after he left office in 1994, told reporters that he was on a 24-hour "private visit." It was motivated mainly by a desire to see his ailing father, he said.
The visit roiled Mexico's political waters. Opposition politicians demanded that Salinas be arrested. Viewers bombarded a Mexican network, TV Azteca, with complaints after it broadcast an interview with the former leader. Outside a walled Salinas family home where he met with reporters, a handful of demonstrators marched with signs reading: "Get Out, Salinas! Criminal!"
Salinas left Mexico in March 1995 after an economic collapse tarnished his legacy as a reformer who had pledged to bring his country into the First World. Although Salinas has lived quietly since then, mainly in Ireland, he continues to be an object of fascination and abhorrence for Mexicans.
Speculation of Role in 2000 Campaign
Even after four years out of the country, Salinas is widely believed to wield immense power at home. Many Mexicans have speculated that he will be a player in the 2000 presidential campaign, already in full swing. His visit added fuel to such speculation.
But Salinas sought to dispel such ideas.
"I have decided to have no participation in, or opinion about, electoral matters," he told journalists, speaking from the stone porch of a sprawling family home in the leafy Mexico City suburb of Coyoacan.
He emphasized that his political career is over.
"I will not return again to the political trenches. I'll stay in the debate of ideas," he said, explaining that he plans to write articles and participate in conferences about issues such as globalization.
The former president said he had arrived Saturday morning on a private jet from Nassau, in the Bahamas, to visit his father and attend his son Emiliano's college graduation in Mexico City.
Salinas also spoke with his jailed brother, Raul. The former president's reputation has been frayed by the discovery that his brother had stashed more than $100 million in foreign bank accounts and by the latter's conviction in the 1994 murder of Francisco Ruiz Massieu, a top official of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
The former leader continued to insist that his brother is innocent of the murder--but added that Raul must explain his mysterious wealth.
"My brother's behavior hurt me a lot, and it hurt the Mexican people," Salinas told the news conference Saturday. In an earlier television interview, Salinas said he had been too busy in the six years he was president to notice his brother's activities.
"I should have paid more attention," he told TV Azteca. He would not say whether he spoke to Raul in jail or on the telephone Saturday.
Salinas, wearing a blue suit, light-blue shirt and green tie, appeared relaxed and happy.
Unpopularity Makes a Return Difficult
He emphasized that he was happy to be back in Mexico, which he said would always be his home. But he would not say when he would return, either for a visit or to take up permanent residence.
He acknowledged that returning would be difficult because of his enduring unpopularity. But when pressed about the widespread loathing for him, he blamed what he called a campaign of disinformation.
He suggested that senior government officials were behind the alleged campaign but declined to name them. Mexicans have speculated widely about a feud between Salinas and his successor and former ally, President Ernesto Zedillo. Salinas said he hadn't spoken to the president during his trip.
But Salinas appeared to leave the door open to some future collaboration with the government or political movements.
"No one, even someone who feels he's been treated badly, can stop contributing to the development of his country," he said. He said he would support any positive initiatives "as just one more citizen."