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COLUMN ONE

Its Own Transition Grips Mexico

Friday's presidential inauguration will signal the demise of one-party rule. The next era could nourish democracy--or chaos.

November 28, 2000|MARY BETH SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — A new Mexican revolution is brewing.

When President-elect Vicente Fox is sworn in Friday, the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, will come to a close--and so will a system that defined Mexico for most of the 20th century.

What could change in Mexico's new era? Unions. Media. Congress. Governors. Peasant groups. The church. Once tightly controlled by a near-imperial president, they suddenly face new rules and freedoms.

Like the decline of Soviet-bloc communism, the new era could produce real democracy--or chaos. The outcome is of extreme importance to the United States, whose economy and criminal problems are increasingly intertwined with Mexico's.

Some predict that the very nature of Mexicans could change with the PRI's downfall.

"It's basically altering [their] psyche," said Roderic Ai Camp, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "They could become participatory citizens."

To glimpse the New Mexican Man, look no further than Delfino Toledano. For years, the 40-year-old farm veterinarian was a cog in the great PRI machine. As a member of the National Peasants Confederation, a giant PRI-affiliated union, he obediently organized fellow farmers to attend party election rallies. When the PRI government made decisions, the peasants toed the line.

"As my father always said, to go against the PRI was a sure loss. It was fighting in vain," declared Toledano, a tanned fireplug of a man.

The subservience paid off. The government allowed the Peasants Confederation to help distribute agriculture subsidies and gave its members tax breaks. To peasants like Toledano's father, a sorghum- and corn-grower with a first-grade education, the assistance was critical: He was able to send his son to college.

But Toledano's office in central Morelos state, where he heads the Peasants Confederation, suggests how the once-mighty group is now struggling. The clock is frozen at 1:55, and stuffing pops from the gold-upholstered chairs. The water has been cut off.

"Things are very different," a worried Toledano said.

Since July, when Fox won the presidency and his conservative National Action Party, or PAN, took the local governorship, official support for the peasant group has dried up. Worse still, the governor no longer seeks Toledano's input. Some peasants have already abandoned the union.

"The reaction when the people here saw we lost the presidency was of incredulity, of doubt about what will happen. How will they treat us?" said Toledano.

That question is on the minds of tens of thousands of members of PRI groups.

Imperial Presidency Already Extinct

In the PRI system that grew out of the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution, society was organized into groups that clustered around the president. He was the great negotiator and referee in a system in which laws were routinely disregarded. The president dealt with governors, peasant groups, union members, teachers, judges--nearly every facet of society. In exchange for his help, he got obedience.

But the imperial presidency, which had already been weakening, is now dead. Unlike most PRI presidents, Fox does not have a majority in Congress. And the PAN is not omnipresent like the PRI, able to carry out the president's whims around the country.

Sensing the loosening of controls, different groups are already beginning to act with greater independence--from judges, who have ruled against the president, to Roman Catholic bishops, who have disregarded restrictions on their making political pronouncements.

"It's like taking the spinal cord of the system out," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a top official in the Fox transition team. "The unions are there, the PRI governors are there, the structures of caciquismo [local power bosses] are there, the impunities, organized crime--all of the components of this old system that were articulated around the spinal cord of the presidency are still intact. But the spinal cord is gone."

Like many PRI members, Toledano is struggling to find his new role.

On a recent day, he joined a group of peasants meeting at an open-air distillery set amid fields of spiky blue-green agave cactuses in the town of Miacatlan.

The speaker was the new state agriculture secretary, ex-businessman Victor Sanchez. His message: The system has changed. No longer will authorities exchange assistance for political loyalty.

"I'm not interested in putting conditions on the aid. I'm interested in producing," the official told the men, who were wearing straw cowboy hats and clutching blue plastic cups of mescal, the liquor made from agave.

In his seat, Toledano slowly tore his cup into strips. What to do? On the one hand, he wants to woo the secretary of agriculture, to find solutions to his constituents' problems. On the other hand, he is emboldened by the idea that he longer needs to kowtow to the government.

"Before, we couldn't mobilize. Now, we can. And we're restless," he said.

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