Salinastroika: Less than Meets the Eye

Salinastroika: Less than Meets the Eye

Mini Teaser: President Carlos Salinas de Gortari took office in 1988 after an election most Mexicans believe he lost.

by Author(s): Douglas W. Payne

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari took office in 1988 after an election most Mexicans believe he lost. Despite systematic fraud and enormous expenditures of state resources, the electoral alchemists of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were able to conjure but a bare majority of votes for Salinas, according to official results. He was confirmed by the PRI-controlled Congress amid fisticuffs and raucous demonstrations by opposition legislators, while sealed packets of uninspected ballots from around the country lay strewn in the basement under armed guard. Never opened, they were eventually destroyed.

The legitimacy of the PRI, the party of the Mexican Revolution, in power since 1929, had been severely damaged. With the country mired in a prolonged economic crisis, a number of observers questioned whether Mexico, once considered a model of stability and civilian rule in Latin America, was on the verge of upheaval.

Salinas forged ahead, promising both "democracy and modernization with growth." But his accomplishments have been primarily on the economic front. Salinas has wielded the enormous power of the Mexican presidency to impose a remarkable overhaul and radical opening of the economy. The question is whether his intention has been to use renewed economic growth to lay the groundwork for a transition to democracy, or to refinance, retool, and preserve the PRI's domination of the country.

After five years, the basic structures of the traditional state-party system are still intact. Modest political liberalization under Salinas has been designed primarily to quiet opposition protests and international criticism. Despite somewhat improved electoral laws, the Federal Electoral Institute which must enforce them remains answerable to the Interior Ministry, the president's principal instrument for controlling national politics.
As Salinas enters the final year of his term, it is evident that whatever ideas he may have once had about serious political reform, the priority now is to maintain political control during the presidential succession. As he stated in September when touting the latest electoral reforms, the new laws would ensure "political civility" and reduce the "perspective of tension" in the presidential elections next August.

Salinas is angling to avoid a repetition of the trauma of 1988. But while economic modernization seems to have instilled a measure of optimism among many Mexicans, his political maneuvering has not resolved the crisis of legitimacy at the root of the PRI's near collapse. Recent opinion polls indicate that barely a third of the electorate believes the 1994 vote will be clean. Last July, after a poor turnout in two state elections won by the PRI, the joke among Mexicans was that the televised soccer match between Mexico and Argentina the same day had been a better draw because the outcome was not known in advance.

In August a ranking PRI official assured a forum on democracy in Latin America that the PRI not only would win next year's election, it would "win legitimacy, too." But legitimacy will not be attained simply by engineering a less dirty election. It must be achieved by establishing a system of checks and balances through which citizens can hold their government accountable--in short, a democratic rule of law.

That will not be Salinas's legacy. What he will be remembered for is creating a climate that has quickened the impulse toward democratization in Mexican society. Breaking down commercial barriers has meant the erosion of psychological barriers to modernity which are rooted in Spanish colonialism and have sustained Mexico's authoritarian traditions. Along with investment dollars have come democratic values and ideas about modern civil society that are fueling the demand for more independent and meaningful political expression.

The process will be difficult to reverse because the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) virtually guarantees that Mexico will remain open to the world. Salinas therefore will be handing on the challenge of political modernization to his hand-picked successor. However, the next president will also be beholden, as his predecessors have been, to the political system that has brought him to power. Although the genie of democracy is out of the bottle, the urge to preserve rather than transform that system will remain strong.

Rule by Power Rather than Law

On paper Mexico's political framework is not unlike that of the United States. The Mexican Constitution of 1917 provides for an elected bicameral congress, a supreme court, and a president elected for a six-year term. It defines citizens' rights in a similar, although much broader way than the U.S. Constitution. Governors and legislative bodies of the thirty-one states are elected as are municipal governments, with the exception of the Federal District (Mexico City) whose chief executive is appointed by the president.

But the nature of power in Mexico and how it functions do not correspond to the Constitution. The violent turmoil of the 1910-17 Revolution did not end with its implementation, as revolutionary generals fought for power in a series of civil wars, mutinies and revolts that lasted nearly through the 1920s. One of those generals, Plutarco Elías Calles, finally put an end to the fratricide in "the revolutionary family" by founding the National Revolutionary Party, later renamed the Institutional Revolutionary Party, in 1929.

While the Constitution of 1917 drew on the U.S. and French revolutionary experience, in creating the PRI Calles adapted the concepts of centralism and political party fronts that were then taking hold in Europe. The potential of these ideas was later demonstrated in the extreme in the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain.

For Calles, however, who had become president in 1924, the need was not to achieve power, but to consolidate it. He therefore established the PRI as an all-embracing party of the state, imposing membership on government officials, bureaucratic sectors, intellectuals, judges, the hundreds of parties and movements spawned by the Revolution, and the army. It was an authoritarian, top-down structure held together through cooptation, corruption and, when those failed, repression.

Calles wrapped the PRI in the national colors of green, white and red, and declared the party's allegiance to the "ideals of the Mexican Revolution." But its real allegiance was to monopoly power and stability. The democratic framework enshrined in the Constitution was reduced to trappings, elections to ritual formalities. The separation of powers would exist only on paper, the gloss on a pyramid of power headed by the president in the personalistic tradition that dates back to the Aztec empire of Moctezuma and the Spanish Conquest by Hernán Cortés.

One "ideal" enshrined in the Constitution that Calles could not subvert was the principle of "No reelection," the rallying cry against the former dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.

Although Calles managed to control the government from behind the scenes for a number of years, he was eventually forced to give way to Gen. Lázaro Cárdenas, a popular young governor from the state of Michoacán.

Cárdenas is best remembered for nationalizing the oil industry and carrying out a major land reform. But he is also responsible for institutionalizing a distinctly corporatist structure within the rough-hewn state-party system created by Calles. Under Cárdenas, the country's political forces were organized into four sectors--labor, agricultural (peasant), "popular" or middle class, and military--extending the PRI's reach into virtually the entire life of the country. (The army was later removed from the party to become, in effect, a silent partner of the state.) The party, equipped with an executive committee headed by a presidential appointee, had been made into a powerful instrument of the presidency and the electoral arm of the state--what is still referred to today as the "PRI machine."

It is within the state-party machine that the formal business of governing Mexico takes place, secretly and with little legal foundation. Policy emanates from the president and is rubber-stamped by the congress. The Supreme Court, subservient to the president, has never struck down a federal law on constitutional grounds.

The oil and glue of the machine is provided by a complex system of patronage, graft, and nepotism in which success in climbing the ladder is determined more by loyalty to higher-ups and the ability to broker deals than honesty or merit. Its equilibrium is based on an informal consensus among PRI elites that political competition and differences over economic or other policies will be settled internally and without jeopardizing the system. Its longevity is abetted by the ritual six-year turnover of the presidency, which allows new blood to rise through the system as the next president installs his own governing team.

For decades, the PRI machine ran relatively smoothly. Cárdenas's successors, in an informal alliance with the private sector and foreign capital, effectively applied a statist economic model that produced growth of more than 6 percent a year through the 1970s. The so-called "Mexican miracle" provided the resources needed to sustain the state-party system and the juice with which to coopt the media, intellectuals, student radicals, fledgling opposition parties, and any others who might threaten it. When the economy nose-dived in 1982, the machine nearly ran out of fuel.


During the 1970s, as the world economy became more interdependent, Mexico's protectionist, state-led economic model began to display signs of obsolescence--rising unemployment, a sagging agricultural sector, and a widening budget deficit. President José López Portillo (1976-82) bet the store on huge new oil discoveries, borrowing wildly from abroad against future sales, and spending heavily to maintain economic expansion. As world oil prices plummeted in 1982 amid global recession, Mexico went bankrupt.
When President Miguel de la Madrid took office in 1982, the economy was in steep decline, the budget deficit was 16.5 percent of GDP, inflation was nearly 100 percent, and Mexico was unable to pay the interest on its more than $80 billion foreign debt. Foreign investment had stalled and the private sector, angered and alarmed by López Portillo's nationalization of the banks, was taking billions of dollars out of the country in capital flight.

De la Madrid put together a cabinet of proficient técnicos, or technocrats, like himself and concentrated on renegotiating the debt and stabilizing the economy by steering toward a more market-oriented system. A key role was played by his minister of budget and planning, Carlos Salinas, who, like de la Madrid, was a product of Harvard.
However, as de la Madrid and his team attended to the economy, the PRI machine was breaking down for lack of resources. Inflation, a two-thirds drop in the purchasing power of the minimum wage, and unemployment of over 20 percent, eroded the PRI's three-pillared support base--workers, peasants, and the middle class.

Moreover, the country appeared to have outgrown the system. The "Mexican miracle," coupled with rapid population growth, had fundamentally changed the nature of Mexican society. At the time of the Revolution, Mexico was a poor and primarily rural nation of less than 20 million people. In less than six decades it had become a largely urban, mostly literate nation of 80 million people enthralled by consumer goods and modern communications. The old myths and revolutionary rhetoric of the PRI rang hollow. For the middle class that had expanded to nearly 25 percent of the population but was now sliding back toward poverty, the PRI machine had become an anachronism and, with rumors of runaway corruption, something to be scorned.

Mexican society has long tolerated the idea of self-enrichment through political office. But there are limits, and the López Portillo administration shattered them. López Portillo and his entourage, including the Mexico City police chief, the infamous Arturo Durazo Moreno, retired to palatial mansions after absconding with an estimated $3-5 billion. Upon taking office, de la Madrid initiated an anti-corruption campaign, and a few heads rolled. But the effort failed to placate the public. When the campaign stagnated toward the end of de la Madrid's term, anticorruption sentiment increased, fueled by a series of scandals involving Mexico's notoriously corrupt police.

Then, in late 1987, the PRI suffered its first rupture. During the decade, differences over economic policy had widened between técnicos, like de la Madrid and Salinas, and políticos who advocated a return to statist and populist traditions and less subservience to international creditors. When de la Madrid chose Salinas to be the PRI's presidential candidate in the 1988 election, the traditional consensus among the PRI elite fractured. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, governor of Michoacán and son of the revered former President, left the party and announced he would run against Salinas. Former labor minister Porfirio Muñoz Ledo also bolted, and the two began fashioning a left-wing populist movement to support Cárdenas's candidacy.

There was also a problem developing on the right. The conservative National Action Party (pan), relatively tame since its founding in 1939 by businessmen and Catholic intellectuals, had been hotly contesting elections in northern states since 1982. With the backing of small business and industrialists alienated by the PRI, the pan tapped into mounting popular discontent and turned election fraud into a volatile issue. In the mid-1980s unprecedented protests erupted in numerous states where the PRI had rigged the vote. The focal point was Chihuahua, where pan supporters blocked bridges to the United States and clashed violently with police.

In 1988 the pan nominated Manuel Clouthier, an entrepreneur and fiery campaigner, and looked to expand its appeal beyond its northern strongholds. But the wild card was Cárdenas. He wrapped himself in the image of his father and charged the PRI with betraying the nationalist traditions of the Revolution.

President de la Madrid had won 74 percent of the vote in the 1982 elections, the lowest percentage ever despite the inflated official results. To ensure against the unthinkable in 1988, the PRI dug deep into state coffers to promote Salinas. Backed by the mostly coopted Mexican media, Salinas campaigned tirelessly, promising political and economic modernization.

Mexico voted on July 6, 1988. Most Mexicans believed the PRI would win by hook or by crook and, in fact, fraud was blatant and systematic. The PRI machine cranked into gear as members of its myriad organizations were trucked in "carousels" from poll to poll to stuff "tacos" (wads of ballots) into the boxes. Other practices included doctored registration lists, duplicate credentials and voter intimidation. It wasn't enough.

Manuel Bartlett Díaz, the interior minister at the time and the president's overseer of the federal electoral commission, had promised election results within twenty-four hours thanks to a new computerized system. But the night of the election, he announced that the computers had failed. At first he claimed that high turnout and overloaded circuits were the reasons, then laid the blame on "atmospheric conditions."

After one of the longest weeks in Mexican history, the results were finally announced--50.36 percent for Salinas, 31.12 percent for Cárdenas, 17.07 percent for Clouthier. The losers were irate. In the weeks that followed Cárdenas rallied a quarter-million protestors in Mexico City, while the panistas blocked highways and bridges in six states. The protests finally tapered off after Salinas's victory was confirmed by the PRI-dominated Congress two months later. But in the eyes of most Mexicans, the PRI had been deeply wounded.


It will never be known whether Cárdenas actually won the election or not. But Salinas, taking office with the weakest mandate of any PRI leader before him, understood that the election had been a political disaster. The 41-year-old technocrat determined that the answer to the political problem lay in fixing the economy.

After assembling a cabinet that included a number of young, Ivy League-educated economic specialists like himself, Salinas initiated a stunning overhaul. By slashing tariffs, privatizing money-losing state enterprises, and cutting back the bloated bureaucracy, he lowered inflation substantially, reduced the gaping budget deficit, and renewed economic growth.

But interest payments on the foreign debt and the cost of the growing trade imbalance as imports flooded the country continued to eat up dollar earnings from manufacturing and oil. It was soon apparent that the economic reform package would not generate enough capital to fund Salinas's political agenda of rebuilding the constituencies lost by the PRI in the 1980s--workers, the poor, and especially the middle class. Greater levels of foreign investment were required. That is why Salinas announced in May 1990 that Mexico was seeking a free-trade agreement with the United States.

In the wake of the 1988 fiasco, and with the NAFTA debate bringing greater attention to Mexico's lack of democracy, Salinas was forced to operate in a complex political minefield with both domestic and international dimensions. First, in order to undertake his economic program, he had to dispel the image of a cautious technocrat and establish the authority of his presidency.

He did so quickly and in spectacular fashion by deploying the army to arrest Joaquín Hernández Galicia, the powerful oil workers chief who had turned the union into a personal fiefdom. The arrest was the start of an anti-corruption campaign designed to improve the PRI's image both at home and abroad. But more important, the ouster of Hernández, whose support for Cárdenas in 1988 was an open secret, was a clear message to every PRI kingpin that insubordination would not be tolerated.

Salinas also further concentrated the already formidable powers of the presidency, giving himself more direct hands-on control of the nation. Shortly after taking office, he created a technical cabinet, headed by José Córdoba, his chief of staff. It has five departments--international relations, the economy, social welfare, agriculture, and national security. The latter incorporates the military, the Interior Ministry (a combination FBI, CIA, and NSA), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the attorney general. National security policy and political and media control are now run directly out of the president's office. For the first time since the days of the generals the army has been integrated into the political decision-making process.

Despite the numerous instruments at his disposal, Salinas has still not found it easy to command the political landscape. He has had to contend with the pan and Cardenas's Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in dozens of state and local elections and in the mid-term congressional elections in 1991. And he has had to do it with the international community and NAFTA critics watching closely.

In 1989 he allowed the pan to win an election in the state of Baja California Norte, the first time the PRI had lost a governorship in its history. The maneuver had three objectives that have remained constant throughout Salinas's term: One, to temper the demands for political reform by the pan, already feeling a bit more comfortable with the PRI because of Salinas's market economic reforms. Two, to diminish the likelihood of the PAN and the PRD uniting around a pro-democracy platform, the PRI's nightmare. And three, to help establish Salinas's credentials as a political reformer abroad.

Salinas conceded another governorship to the pan in the state of Chihuahua in 1992. But in between 1989 and then, the electoral scene proved more difficult to manage. A number of state and local elections were marked by blatant fraud and violent crackdowns against opposition protests. As the international press homed in, the PRI resorted to more sophisticated election engineering--heavier campaign spending even by traditional PRI standards, and more extensive use of the compliant media. The Mexican media, although nominally independent, are largely controlled by the government through regulatory bodies, dependence on the government for advertising revenue, and operating costs and, frequently, outright intimidation.

Prior to the 1991 mid-term congressional elections Salinas touted a proposal for modest electoral reforms. The PRI made enough modifications, including the elaboration of a new voter registration list, to get the pan to endorse the package, to the dismay of the prd. But even with the reforms, the elections were inherently unfair and tainted by fraud. The PRI vastly outspent the opposition, but because there was no independent audit it was impossible to know by how much or exactly where the resources came from.

The PRI retained its overwhelming majority in the congress, but its celebration of a "landslide" victory was cut short when mounting opposition protests over fraud drew a critical response from the major U.S. media. A number of state elections were held at the same time as the congressional vote and anti-fraud protests were especially fierce in the central states of Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí. A sharply worded New York Times editorial (August 26, 1991) was followed by a Wall Street Journal editorial (August 29, 1991) that expressly called for the Guanajuato vote to be overturned.

The day of the Journal editorial, Salinas ordered the PRI's governor-elect in Guanajuato to decline the office. He clearly was concerned by the potentially damaging effects of the fraud on the government's image abroad during the NAFTA debate. But he had also established a dangerous precedent. The opposition realized that a loss on election day could be overturned later in the streets, and Salinas has since removed at least two more governors under similar conditions.

These maneuvers confirmed the president's final authority in electoral matters and the subservient role of the national electoral commission, and were a stunning reminder that the rule of law in Mexico exists more on paper than in practice. Both the Times and the Journal have been staunch advocates of NAFTA. Is the PRI counting on their editorialists to be less critical if a similar electoral scenario arises on a national scale in 1994?

Public Distrust

Salinas's acrobatic stage-managing of Mexico's political arena under an ever brighter international spotlight appears to have left Mexicans no less distrustful of the government than they were in 1988. As mentioned earlier, opinion polls conducted last summer indicate that only a third believe the 1994 election will be clean. Moreover, a series of incidents in the last two years may have weakened even further whatever trust in the PRI still remains.

In April 1992 a major gas explosion killed more than 200 people in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city. Salinas publicly demanded that those responsible be identified within seventy-two hours. More than a year later the government issued a report blaming a leaky pipe. Most people in Guadalajara, however, believe the explosion was caused by local managers of Pemex, the government petroleum monopoly, siphoning off gas to sell illegally on the side.

Last June 29 a Norwegian tanker ran aground off Mexico's western coast a few hundred miles north of Acapulco. It was carrying a cargo of 4,400 tons of sulfuric acid. The government, evidently anxious over criticism in the U.S. about Mexico's environmental safeguards, assured that the entire cargo remained safely on board. As local fisherman displayed dead fish and seabirds, a Florida-based salvage company hired to remove the cargo reported the tanker had already emptied into the sea.

On November 1, 1992, Salinas, in his fourth state-of-the-nation address, promised new electoral reforms and called upon all political parties to make "transparent" their sources of income. The following March, word leaked out about a secret fund-raising dinner attended by Salinas on February 23, during which about thirty of Mexico's wealthiest business executives, most of whom had been beneficiaries of Salinas's privatization program, had been asked and agreed to contribute at least $25 million apiece to the PRI.
On May 24, Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, Archbishop of Guadalajara, was gunned down in the parking lot of Guadalajara's international airport. Two months later the government issued a report saying the Cardinal had been caught in a crossfire between two rival drug gangs. It did not explain why police at the airport ordered a passenger jet delayed for twenty minutes after the shooting, enabling eight of the gunmen to board the plane and escape, or why the gunmen were not apprehended when the plane landed in Tijuana.

The popular Cardinal, who had spoken out against the rampant use of Mexico's second largest city as a drug-trafficking base, was widely perceived as the only remaining authority figure in town not to be cooperating with the dealers. In a local survey, few city residents said they believed the killing was accidental and many thought the Cardinal had been murdered as a warning to the government to back off from its anti-drug campaign.
Average Mexicans live daily with corruption, from the mordida, or bribe, demanded by underpaid traffic cops, judges, and low-level government functionaries, to the payoffs for government contracts and licenses that result in shoddy building construction. After high-profile anti-corruption campaigns by both the de la Madrid and Salinas governments, incidents like those recounted above give Mexicans the impression, again confirmed by opinion polls, that either the PRI is not serious about the problem, or that nothing can be done about it.

Salinas's anti-corruption effort has been more intensive than that of his predecessors, not only because he has had to mind Mexico's image with NAFTA in the balance but, more important, because pervasive corruption undermines Mexico's ability to compete as a trade-dependent nation in the global economy. Corruption exists and will continue to exist in the world's industrialized nations, but most enjoy a democratic rule of law through which it can be curbed.

Mexico's culture of corruption dates back to long before the PRI. But the way the PRI was established and the way the party rules not only reflect that culture, they have reinforced it. Salinas has fired numerous officials, including attorney generals and police chiefs, and replaced them with apparently well-intentioned people. But simply switching heads will not transform the guts of an entrenched 64-year-old system.

The vast and labyrinthian network of patronage, payoffs, graft, and illegal transactions makes the Mexican political system especially vulnerable to penetration by the hemispheric drug trade. Up to 70 percent of all cocaine that enters the United States now comes through Mexico. There are numerous competing Mexican cartels, but with the possible exception of the killing of the Cardinal, the traffickers haven't taken on the state, Colombian-style--targeting politicians, judges, and the media. It is not unreasonable to think that despite the government's anti-drug efforts, the state is so naturally accommodating the traffickers don't have to resort to such measures.

Salinas himself probably understands that to establish a rule of law in Mexico would require an overhaul of the state-party system to match his overhaul of the economy. But rare is the leader who is willing to dismantle the structures upon which his power is based.

When confronted by criticism in the United States about the continued lack of democracy in Mexico, Salinas frequently cites the chaos of the former Soviet Union as the result of pushing political reform in advance of economic restructuring. The stability card has been an effective retort in the debate over NAFTA. However, in another sense, Salinas is echoing the traditional concerns of his predecessors. For the PRI was established not only as a vehicle for monopolizing power, but as a system for stabilizing the nation after the Mexican Revolution. On a more personal level, though, Salinas cannot have envied the fate of Gorbachev.

Engineering the Transition

For over a year Salinas has been working to ensure an orderly presidential transition. Last January he appointed Patrocinio González Garrido, the governor of the southern state of Chiapas, as Interior Minister. González has been labeled a reactionary by the prd for his repressive tactics against left-wing peasant groups. But within the PRI, he stands out for his strong personal loyalty to the President, indicating that Salinas plans to stage-manage the 1994 election in the same hands-on fashion as he did the others.

NAFTA has helped to keep the pan and the PRD apart. The pan is generally for it, the PRD against it. But the "Millionaires Banquet" last February sparked renewed demands from both parties for electoral reform, particularly to guarantee fairer competition, and the PRI responded with a new reform package last summer.

Its modest measures included regulations on political-party financing, campaign spending limits, and more access for opposition parties to the media. Even though the new laws will still have to be enforced by a PRI-controlled electoral body under the authority of the Interior Ministry, the pan agreed to endorse them. The PRD did not, but Cárdenas is running for president again anyway.

Another change doubles the number of seats in the Senate, which might result in more opposition representation but will not threaten the PRI's majority (the PRI currently holds 63 of 64 seats). The measure reflects traditional PRI cooptation techniques, dating back to the implementation in the 1970s of proportional representation for a segment of the currently 500-member Chamber of Deputies.

Both the PRD and the pan have suffered from internal dissent and neither has been able to build a strong national organization. Cárdenas again is a wild card, but it appears he no longer has the cachet he had in 1988. The pan candidate looks to be Diego Fernández de Cevallos, the party's most prominent congressman, who has been frequently criticized for being too accommodating toward Salinas.

The surge in foreign investment that is expected to follow the approval of NAFTA may enable the PRI to go on a spending spree and simply overpower the opposition in next year's election. Moreover, Salinas has available billions of dollars to help boost the PRI candidate, over and above what the party has at its disposal. Last January, the congress passed Salinas's budget which included about $11 billion for the discretionary use of the office of the presidency. It was announced that $2.5 billion would go to the Solidarity anti-poverty program.

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