The jet pulled up to the Durango Airport terminal and Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len strode down the steps to the beat of a military band. The Mexican leader and his wife, Nilda, walked hand in hand to a white bus. The simple caravan, with an escort of just two police cars, drove off.
Arriving at the Durango Technological Institute to inaugurate a running track, Zedillo spotted some students who were being barred. Ignoring warnings from security agents, he yanked away the police barriers. "All students were invited to come--let them in," Zedillo ordered, unconcerned with the rushing crowd--even though Mexico has been plagued by assassinations.
IMAGE PROBLEM. What's going on here is the remaking of a Mexican President. After a hesitant, near-disastrous start, Zedillo is finally emerging from his cocoon, granting interviews and making bold political moves, such as ordering the arrest of the brother of his predecessor on murder conspiracy charges.
It's about time. Zedillo's penchant for holing up at his Los Pinos residence rather than going out and defending his policies contributed to the financial panic that has turned his first 100 days in office into a nightmare. He seems to realize that this reticence was a mistake. So with a tough, new austerity package in place, he is out selling it to the country. "His image was being handled badly," admits a senior aide charged with sprucing up Zedillo's public persona. "We're trying to change that."
Zedillo's new openness seems to be helping him shed the aloof and unpolished image that alienated many of his constituents. After weeks of rumors that Zedillo might be ousted, the President's polls now show that his approval rating has risen from 30% to about 60%.
At the university, he seemed to thrive on the students' enthusiasm. He happily donned a maroon-and-white school jacket with his name embroidered on one sleeve and leaped atop a waist-high wall to address students. "It's true that Mexico is facing grave economic problems," Zedillo told the crowd. "But when we, the Mexicans, are faced with difficulties, we don't stand there with our arms crossed. We go to work!" he shouted, to resounding sports-style cheers of "Zedillo, Zedillo, rah-rah-rah!"
The President uses each speech to remind Mexicans that he comes from a humble background, one very much like theirs. He was delighted when one college student handed him a laminated card that claimed, in colorful Mexican slang, to be a pocket-size repellent against the "suckers" that might try to screw up Zedillo's policies. Later, on the bus, he showed the card to his wife and wondered aloud which of his aides he should give it to. His wife shot back: "No, Ernesto, you keep it. You're the one who needs it the most."
POSTURING. Not everyone he encountered was full of warm wishes. A crowd of 100 or so Duranguenses, protesting the emergency hike of the value-added tax to 15%, blocked an entrance to the government palace where Zedillo was speaking. They hurled insults at the President, drowning out his words. "Where's the well-being for our families that Zedillo promised in his campaign?" yelled 40 year-old nurse Guadalupe Gaviln, pressing angrily against a police barricade. "All we've got are more taxes, hunger, and unemployment."
Zedillo later dismissed the incident as local posturing for upcoming state elections. But all over Mexico, growing numbers of the middle class, small business owners, farmers, and leftists have been protesting the harsh conditions of Zedillo's emergency economic program. They say the tight fiscal and monetary controls, hikes in gasoline and electricity prices, and wage ceilings are pushing the country into a long, deep recession.
But Zedillo, a Yale-trained economist, argues that his stern measures will shorten the hard times. In an interview on the presidential plane, he confidently argued that a quick if painful adjustment was better than the slow turnaround of previous crises. Zedillo says he expects the shock measures to pull the country out of recession by the end of the year.
Businesses are not so confident. Many think they could be wiped out before the recovery. "We've survived before," says Fernando Urquijo Leal, sales director of his family's aluminum-panel firm in Monterrey. "But now there's just no money." The company has already shifted to a four-day workweek.
Zedillo's plan to keep Mexico's economy from tanking is three-pronged: speed up the privatization program to raise billions in needed cash, introduce inflation-indexed facilities to bring the real cost of business and consumer loans down, and help companies increase their export capabilities to take advantage of the cheaper peso.
Already, the devaluation has had a dramatic effect on the trade balance: Mexico showed a $453 million surplus in February, its first in seven years. Most of that resulted from a sharp drop in imports, but a 34% increase in exports from manufacturers other than maquiladoras also contributed to the surplus. "The devaluation makes us much more competitive," says Industry & Commerce Secretary Herminio Blanco.
Officials are also rushing to complete $12 billion to $14 billion in privatizations begun under the previous government. "We're in the final stretch this month," says Communications & Transportation Secretary Carlos Ruiz Sacristn. "A lot of things will happen in April."
While it is questionable whether investors will snap up petrochemical plants and antiquated ports and railroads, there is a lot of confidence that satellite frequencies and telephone-service concessions will draw interest. Eight foreign companies, including AT&T and MCI Communications Corp., have linked up with local partners to bid for long-distance slots.
But even foreign investors echo the doubts of many Mexicans. "Tax increases are not the way to save the economy," says Franz Baumgartner, general director of BMW, which plans to roll out its first Mexican-assembled car in March. Then he lists what he would like to see: tax relief, job creation programs, efforts to control interest rates, and more support for business. The government says it will do all that, but no one seems to believe it. That's where Zedillo's newfound political skills could come in handy.
Zedillo's New Rescue Scheme: A Tough Sell
It's going to feel like major surgery without anesthetic
PROPOSAL Raise VAT from 10% to 15%. Tighten credit. Boost fuel prices
RISKS Could create deep recession, spark unrest
PROPOSAL $9.4 billion in help for restructuring bad loans, $3 billion for boosting bank capital
RISKS May not be enough to cover problem loans
PROPOSAL $245 million to create 550,000 jobs
RISKS Layoffs may be much higher
PROPOSAL Raise $12 billion to $14 billion through selling ports, railroads, petrochemical plants, telecom licenses
RISKS Investor interest may be weak