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Salinas repeals the revolution; Mexico's free traders.

On May 1 Mexico's Central Plaza--known as the Zocalo--was draped in banners and covered in confetti in celebration of international workers' day. For four hours, 1 million Mexican workers filed under the balcony of the presidential palace to receive the benediction of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mexico's champion of the free market. In March Salinas had toured the United States with finely crafted arguments to rally support for his free-trade proposals, but at home he relied on cruder means.

Despite the fact that Salinas has cut governmental jobs, held a tight clamp on the minimum wage of under $4 a day and allowed prices of basic food staples to rise 50 percent by pulling out subsidies, workers doffed their caps or greeted the President with a friendly wave as they passed by the reviewing stand. Through the political alchemy typical of the sixty-two-year-old Mexican regime, what used to be a day for the President to honor the workers has been converted into a day for the workers to honor the President.

The parade seemed to mark the full recovery of Mexico's hegemonic political system from its low point three years ago. The 1988 election, which brought Salinas to power, was the closest, most contentious election in postrevolution Mexico, and it was in large part the urban workers, battered by a ten-year economic slide, who rose up against the government. But in his two and a half years in power, Salinas has quelled the rebellion and consolidated his political program. Even though Salina's economic reforms have produced the most profound transformation of Mexican society since the revolution, organized opposition to his politics and programs has virtually disappeared.

For Salinas supporters the lack of protest is easy to explain. They point out that after years of negative growth, the Salinas administration has brought two years of economic expansion. After a decade of austerity implemented in order to allow Mexico to make payments on its $95 billion debt, the country is getting ready to cash in its chips. Mexico's comparative advantage is its low wages--artificially suppressed for four years through an accord with labor leaders. The free-trade agreement with the United States will bring an avalanche of investment and jobs, say government officials.

"Free trade will bring new factories, new jobs and better salaries," asserted Fidel Velasquez, the 91-year-old leader of the government-allied Confederation of Mexican Workers, during a workers' day interview. "I am confident that Mexico would never sign any treaty that is in conflict with its interests."

But the workers who showed up for the labor-day parade were not necessarily there because they supported free trade; many came because their unions would have docked their pay if they stayed home. In order to keep protesters who disagreed with the government line away from the festivities, all downtown Metro stops were closed and the streets leading to the Zocalo were barricaded by police.

Meanwhile, counterdemonstrations organized by various dissident, independent unions were outnumbered by riot police. Leaders who had signed an agreement with the authorities not to begin their march to the Zocalo until 3 P.M., when the official parade ended, were widely accused of taking money from the government. Instead of fighting the government, most of the unions spend the day fighting one another, including one embarrassing struggle over a microphone.

Through a careful combination of coercion, co-optation and repression, Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) employed its age-old formula to bring out a display of public support for a policy that had been determined by the leadership to be in the people's best interests. The May Day parade, noted the prominent author and columnist Carlos Monsivais, was not a celebration of the alliance between the state and the workers but rather a public display of workers' submission and obedience to the will of the state. "When workers are exploited and humiliated but they don't protest, that is the end of my capacity to comment on the future of this country or to speak in the name of the Mexican people," said Monsivias. "I understood what happened in '88 but I don't understand this. I'm at a moment of confusion."

Monsivais could have been speaking for his own party--the Party of the Democratic Revolution (P.R.D.), which seems equally baffled by the rapid changes un Mexico's political climate [see Paco Ignacio Taibo II, "Cardenismo in Mexico: A New Politics With Deep Roots," December 17, 1990].

The P.R.D. was formed in the wake of the 1988 presidential elections by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, governor of the state of Michoacan from 1980 to 1986 and son of Mexico's most beloved President, Gen. Lazaro Cardenas. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas's campaign for president nearly ended the PRI's decades-long stranglehold on power. Cardenas, who quit the PRI in 1986 to protest a lack of internal democracy in the ruling party, became the alternative for a population fed up with economic stagnation, corruption and undemocratic rule. Fraud was widely reported in 1988 election, and Cardenas still insists he was the rightful victor.

The information of the P.R.D. after the elections seemed to mark the beginning of an era of competitive politics in Mexico. In municipal elections in Cardenas's home state of Michoacan and in the nearby state of Guerrero in December 1989, the P.R.D. earned widespread support. Tired of the PRI's corrupt regional bosses and angry that the end of government price supports had made farming unprofitable, many threw their support behind the P.R.D. The government sent in the army to dislodge protesters who occupied town halls to protest vote fraud.

But in the past two years, the P.R.D. has lost ground to the PRI and Cardenas has lost his political luster. Stung by high-level desertions, by the lack of grass-roots organization and a clear political platform, and by constant defamation by the PRI, the P.R.D. has been unable to turn the popular discontent of 1988 into a political movement.

The P.R.D.'s declining political fortunes were evident during state elections in Morelos in March. Cardenas was able to draw only 200 supporters in each town he visited when he campaigned on behalf of local P.R.D. candidates a week before the election. In the town of La Lagunilla, a Cardenas rally was outdrawn by a march to honor the town beauty queen. That celebration, ostensibly nonpolitical, was organized by local PRI officials. Despite the fact that Cardenas won about 55 percent in Morelos in the 1988 presidential elections, the P.R.D. was badly embarrassed on Election Day. The PRI took thirty-two of thirty-three mayoral slots and all twelve seats in the state assembly. In some instances the PRI used intimidation and fraud but the P.R.D. was unable to organize to secure a fair vote.

The collapse of the P.R.D. represents more than a political victory for Salinas--it marks the success of his plan to reform Mexican political culture and to wean the PRI away from its revolutionary roots. Such a radical transformation is necessary in order for Salinas to implement his free-trade program, which contradicts the founding ideals of his party and the historic principles of Mexican national identity. For fifty-nine years, from its founding in 1929 by Plutarco Calles until the election of Salinas, the PRI presented itself as the party of the Mexican revolution. But Salinas talks little of the revolution; it does not provide a flattering mirror for his administration.

While previous presidents justified their programs of economic nationalism, protectionism, pro-Third World foreign policy and anti-U.S. bluster in the name of the revolution, Salinas's economic program most closely resembles that of Porfirio Diaz, the dictator who was overthrown in the 1910 uprising. Like Salinas, Diaz believed that foreign investment would bring Mexico into the developed world.

It is Cardenas, then, who has taken up the banner of the revolution relinquished by Salinas and who has sought to exploit the parallel to Diaz. This is not surprising, since Cardenas's father, a general in the revolutionary army, instituted Mexico's most extensive land reform and nationalized the country's oil industry when he was President from 1934 to 1940. "Salinas is destroying the laws and institutions of the revolution one by one," said Cardenas in a recent interview.

In small towns Cardenas speaks of protecting the gains of agrarian reform. He opposes Salinas's privatization of state companies and pledges to fight to insure that the oil his father nationalized remains Mexican forever. Cardenas has, however, modified his position on the free-trade agreement from outright opposition to modified support. He now says he would back a treaty as long as it is part of a social contract that includes immigration reforms, guarantees of investment in Mexican infrastructure and compensation for displaced workers.

The problem is that by constantly invoking the revolution to justify his program, Cardenas is relying on a version of history invented and propagated by the PRI for its own purposes. The Mexican revolution did not, as the PRI's official version of history maintains, liberate the country from foreign domination and save the poor from oblivion. In addition to a struggle for national liberation, the revolution was also a regional power struggle, and it was the moderates, not the radicals like Emiliano Zapata, who triumphed.

Many of the revolutionary leaders out of whom the PRI has created a national pantheon were mortal enemies of one another. Zapata, whose statue graces many a Mexican plaza, was murdered on the orders of Venustiano Carranza, who appears on the 100-peso coin. Carranza, who defeated Pancho Villa in battle, may have later had him assassinated as well. Carranza in turn was murdered-perhaps on the orders of his successor, Alvaro Obregon, another official hero.

But Salinas no longer justifies his policies in the name of the revolution and has no need to romanticize it. He has, in fact, sold off or undermined the very symbols of the revolution, from privatizing the Cananea copper mine (where a key strike of the revolution occurred) to exploring relations with the Vatican (the revolution had a strong anticlerical thrust) to pursuing free trade with the gringos.

While the P.R.D. still clings to the revolutionary rhetoric abandoned by the PRI, it seems to hold little appeal for a population that has heard the PRI talk the same way--and do nothing--for sixty-three years. Meanwhile, Salinas has neutralized the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN), which has long called for free trade, by taking over its political program. The PAN has strong regional support but represents little threat to the PRI on a national level.

The extent to which Mexicans have diverged from their revolutionary roots is indicated by a recent poll published in a new magazine called Este Pais (This Country). The roll reported that only 54 percent of Mexicans were "very proud" of their nationality (as compared with 73 percent of Americans), 59 percent would be willing to form one country with the United States if this would improve their quality of life and 87 percent favor free trade (77 percent favor it if no jobs will be lost).

Such changes in attitude can be attributed in part to Mexico's ten-year economic crisis and to greater contact with the United States through movies, television and immigration. It's also best to keep in mind that polls are often unreliable in a society whose population fears publicly dissenting from the government. But while the numbers seem to indicate a vote of confidence, Salinas isn't taking any changes. He continues to rely on the PRI's traditional mechanisms, for example, to bring a million people to the Zocalo on May Day.

Salinas still relies on coercion and repression--but it is clear he also has genuine support. And while here and there Salinas's opponents still contend that massive foreign investment will lead to a repeat of the 1910 revolution, he is more worried that, after all the promises he has made, free trade will not in fact bring a tidal wave of foreign investment and growth. The success of his program, as Salinas well knows, depends less on the backing of his own people than on financial support from U.S. investors. That is why Salinas is pitching free trade not to Mexico but to Washington.
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Title Annotation:Carlos Salinas de Gortari
Author:Simon, Joel
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jun 24, 1991
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