A Talk With Salinas: `There's No More Saying Manana

Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari spoke with BUSINESS WEEK's Mexico City bureau chief Geri Smith aboard his presidential plane on Nov. 19. He discussed the North American Free Trade Agreement and the sensitive political transition now at hand:

Q: What does NAFTA mean for Mexican business?

A: It means that we Mexicans, for the very first time, have a deadline for becoming efficient. The maximum is 15 years, but there are several sectors that will have to undergo a great microeconomic revolution before they can compete in an open maret. There is no more saying ma nana.

Q: But managers of small and midsize businesses say the government is not doing enough to help them.

A: My government has introduced a program called "Impulse" that has aided 250,000 small and medium-size companies. Next year's goal is 500,000. We help them with technical assistance, we help them join together in associations, and we offer risk capital.

Now, public and private banks also have agreed to reduce lending rates by two points. So now that we have much lower inflation and interest rates below 20%, the small businessmen must be very happy.

Q: Some analysts call your program economic Darwinism. Are more Mexican companies going to fail?

A: I am confident that by training workers to increase productivity, and by changing the mentality of businessmen, the companies can prepare themselves. It is true that it will be tough. But it's the only way to do it. If we are capable of competing with the imports already in our market, that means we can penetrate foreign markets as exporters. And that's the only way that Mexico will grow more than 3% to 4% a year.

Q: What do you think of the work President Clinton did to pass the treaty?

A: It was exceptional work politically, of great decision and determination.

Q: Will NAFTA stem the flow of Mexican immigrants to the U.S.?

A: We needed the treaty so that we no longer export people but rather export products. Now, Mexico will grow more, will create more jobs, and fewer Mexicans will migrate to the U.S.

Q: What did you think of the Gore-Perot debate?

A: Look, it was a debate by Americans for the United States. I disagree with many things that were said. What I can say is that much of the debate carried on by NAFTA opponents shows great ignorance about Mexico. I hope that with the treaty, we'll get to know each other better. In addition to [job] retraining in the U.S., they also need some reeducation about Mexico.

Q: Gore said Mexico's democracy is imperfect. Is that right?

A: I don't think there's a perfect democracy anywhere in the world. I think each country has the responsibility of building its own democratic system. We here in Mexico have a commitment to do that.

Q: Who will be the candidate to replace you as President?

A: I'm also very interested in finding out.

Q: Do you think the PRI will openly choose a new candidate in a nominating convention in the year 2000, as other Mexican parties do?

A: We'll see what they decide at that point. I will be a simple citizen by then.

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