Mexico's `Dinosaurs' Aren't Extinct Yet

How the ruling party's old guard cultivates its grass roots

As his helicopter landed in a remote mountaintop schoolyard, Manuel Bartlett Diaz consulted a briefing book. "This is the third time we've visited Jopala in my three years in office," the governor of Puebla state says with satisfaction. "We've visited all but 12 of the state's 217 municipalities three times already, and we'll be back again." With that, the 58-year-old politician, a lifelong member of Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), hopped out of the chopper and climbed nimbly down a steep, slippery mud path to town, where women welcomed him with a garland of bright-pink unroasted coffee beans and flowers.

Then, he worked the crowd. At a gathering in Jopala's market, he handed out crop-subsidy checks from Procampo, a farm-support agency--getting political credit for the largesse even though Procampo is a federal agency--and distributed a half-dozen portable coffee-husking machines to peasant growers. He listened sympathetically to grievances about poor roads and teacher shortages. And he signed petitions and other legal-looking documents thrust in front of him by constituents, not bothering to read the papers.

PARTY CADRES. Whether the PRI is to remain a dominant force depends on men like Bartlett. Many Mexicans are angry at the PRI for the current economic crisis and revelations of official corruption. On Nov. 10, in balloting in three states, the PRI lost more than one-fourth of the city governments up for election. Three years ago, it dominated those states with up to 98% of the vote. But political scientist Luis Rubio thinks years of patronage have left the PRI with a loyal base of 38% of the electorate. With party cadres in every hamlet, the PRI stands a good chance of keeping its majority in next year's nationwide congressional elections.

Bartlett, former head of Mexico's Interior Ministry, is one of the PRI's most influential strategists and a likely strong voice in picking party candidates to the senate, governorships, and the presidency. Critics label as dinosaurs--a term Bartlett rejects--the old-guard party members who are seen as resisting the country's democratic, free-market modernization. As Interior Minister, Bartlett was widely suspected of manipulating vote-tallying computers to assure Carlos Salinas de Gortari's razor-thin victory in the 1988 presidential election.

Bartlett argues that many of the policies pursued by President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon and his recent predecessors are making poverty worse. "We believe there have to be intense social policies and real redistribution of wealth," he says. "Would you call that dinosaurish?" The PRI apparatus excels at providing Mexicans with personal attention at the grass roots. On one of his twice-weekly swings through the mountainous state, orchestrated by advance teams with sound systems and banners, Bartlett shows how.

BACKSLAPS. Wearing khaki pants, beige shirt, and brown leather jacket, Bartlett moves easily through the crowd on his first stop, in the village of El Ocotal, giving warm hugs and backslaps to men he recognizes and kissing women on the cheek. In Ocotal, 10% of the villagers speak only Nahuatl, not Spanish, and 35% are illiterate. The village has no running water, sewers, or telephones. But the clinic that Bartlett inaugurates, a hut with cardboard walls and a tin roof, has a two-way radio that nurse Gloria Marquez Galloso uses to call doctors in a city hospital miles away for advice on how to treat patients. "Thank you for this clinic, Governor Bartlett," Marquez says.

Bartlett, a lawyer by training who did postgraduate study in France and England, reflects on the changing times as he helicopters back to Puebla at the end of a day in which he shook hundreds of hands in five villages and lunched with townspeople on marrow soup and mutton tacos. Proof of the PRI's adaptability, he says, is that it agreed to far-reaching political reforms that reduced the PRI's clout. Next year, it is expected to lose the post of Mexico City mayor--held up to now by PRI presidential appointees--to the center-right National Action Party (PAN) or the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which have greater urban appeal. "You can't say the PRI is against modernization," Bartlett contends. It will prosper despite setbacks, he argues, precisely because it's not averse to change.

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