Salinas' Grip On Mexico Is So Strong, He Even Wins When He Loses

Early in his presidency, Carlos Salinas de Gortari held a weak hand. The left wing of his ruling party had broken off, creating an oppostion coalition that threatened to block economic reforms, including free trade with the U.S. But the Mexican President knew that if he directed his Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri) to crack down too hard on the left, stealing elections, that would give ammunition to U.S. congressional opponents of free trade.

Salinas could have allowed the left to gain some electoral power to satisfy his U.S. critics. But he chose a more clever solution. Co-opting enemies and forging alliances, he has rebuilt the pri that was tottering when he took power in 1988. The effect has been to strengthen his party's monopoly on power. Now, elections in Mexico are increasingly irrelevant. The only opposition candidates who win are de facto allies of Salinas, including the victor on July 12 in the Chihuahua state elections, Francisco Barrio of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

The bolstering of Mexico's one-party system is convenient for George Bush. With only token opposition in the Mexican Congress, courts, and media, Salinas can steer his country toward free trade with nary a bump. But the rule of an all-powerful President also brings risks. Salinas' successor in 1994 may not get along as well with his U.S. counterpart. Or he may be less skilled than Salinas at holding together the one-party system, forcing him to resort to force.

BROAD SUPPORT. For now, Salinas has few worries. His appeal to the right is no surprise. He has won it over with his economic reforms and by embracing two longtime villains of Mexico's nationalist, anticlerical state: the Roman Catholic Church and the U.S. "He has appropriated our platform," says Luis Felipe Bravo Mena, a pan leader.

But Salinas has also been shockingly successful at winning over leftists. Nearly every week, Salinas flies by helicopter to remote pueblos, where he gives speeches lifted almost verbatim from the leftists. He talks about empowering the poor. But unlike his cash-strapped leftist opponents, Salinas backs up his rhetoric with money. Through his massive Solidarity program, which he funds by selling off state companies, the President channels money to build schools, roads, and sewers throughout Mexico. Meanwhile, he blankets the country with slick Solidarity ads.

Salinas brings leftists into his government to run these programs. Gustavo Gordillo, for example, who organized peasants against the government in the 1970s, is now a key agriculture official. Other former firebrands hold the top posts in state television and the government peasant union, and they dominate Solidarity. By recruiting leftists, Salinas plugs into their power base in the countryside. At the same time, he divides the coalition that rocked the PRI in 1988. "Most of Mexico's Maoists now work in Solidarity," observes Marco Rascn, head of the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party in Mexico City.

For former communists and guerrillas, Solidarity provides vast funding for community organizing, but at a price: They must toe Salinas' free-market line. Investors, meanwhile, applaud the rural programs. Solidarity stabilizes the countryside, and its roads and bridges open up Mexico's hinterland for agro-investment.

So Salinas has politics well under control at home. Indeed, the only election he needs to fear will take place north of the border. With Bush looking weak and the Democrats and Ross Perot skeptical about free trade, Salinas had better build some more bridges for insurance north.

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