Mexico: Suddenly, Salinas Is Looking A Little Defensive

At a recent cocktail party in Mexico City, a new arrival from Brazil remarked to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari that Mexico seems a lot more stable than the Latin American giant, whose corrupt President has just been impeached. Salinas rolled his eyes heavenward, crossed his fingers, and quipped "Ojal" -- "God willing."

After sailing through his first four years in office, Salinas is finally starting to run into some flak -- just as he starts looking for a successor to continue his economic reforms. A mid-November election in the border state of Tamaulipas erupted in violent protests against alleged vote fraud. At the same time, the hot Mexican economy that has given Salinas license to ram through his reform program is starting to cool off.

SHARPER EYES. The 44-year-old Mexican leader was also stung by the defeat of his friend George Bush. Bush gave Salinas a virtual free ride by ignoring Mexico's internal affairs. True, President-elect Bill Clinton has conditionally endorsed the North American Free Trade Agreement that Salinas negotiated with Bush. But Mexicans think that Clinton may push Salinas to reform Mexico's authoritarian political and labor practices and clean up its environment -- if he wants to get NAFTA through the U.S. Congress. "The government is becoming vulnerable to criticism and pressure at home and abroad," says Sergio Aguayo, a political scientist.

Increasing scrutiny from up north has energized Mexico's grass-roots democratic movement, whose protests have forced Salinas to remove four provincial governors belonging to his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the last two years. The opposition is expected to turn up the heat in five fiercely contested gubernatorial elections next year.

The usually supremely confident Salinas is already looking a trifle defensive. He recently bowed to opposition demands by pledging to work toward limiting campaign expenditures and balancing media coverage of candidates. He also made a big deal of having his picture taken for the new voter registration cards aimed at thwarting repeat balloting. But he took the gloves off when he chucked 17 opposition leaders in jail on charges of inciting the election violence.

The heightened political tension might make it difficult for him to continue the fiscal austerity aimed at cutting the ballooning trade deficit and bringing down inflation -- now running at 12%. Economic growth has already dipped from 3.6% in 1991 to 2.7% this year. "1993 isn't going to be an easy year," observes Jonathan Heath, a leading Mexican economic analyst.

What occurs in the next few months will undoubtedly influence Salinas' thinking about his choice for the PRI's presidential candidate at the end of next year. If things go badly in Mexico or on nafta, he may feel pressure from PRI heavies not to pick another economic reformer such as Finance Secretary Pedro Aspe. Salinas might have to opt instead for a party insider such as Luis Donaldo Colosio, secretary of social development, or Manuel Camacho Sols, mayor of Mexico City.

While such a choice would probably make foreign investors nervous, it's not likely that Mexico can escape such growing pains. Following the model of Taiwan and South Korea, it put political reform on hold while it revolutionized its economy. Now those Asian countries are coming to grips with democracy. Mexico can't be too far behind.

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