new internationalist
issue 251 - January 1994

Left to right: Jose Angel Conchello National Action Party (PAN); Roberta Lajous Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); Ifigenia Martinez Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).
Illustration by ALAN HUGHES
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has been written off many times before.
But will Mexican voters really be the ones to decide in this summer’s
elections for the all-powerful presidency?

‘I like to tell my European friends,’ says Roberta Lajous, ‘that the Institutional Revolutionary Party is like two things. One is the Danish system.’ I nod and search in my mind for anything at all I know about the Danish system. ‘That is, the Party is inclusive,’ she continues, ‘a party of groups and alliances.’ I nod knowingly. ‘The other, because we represent continuity in Mexico, is the British Monarchy.’

I knock over my glass of mineral water. An institutional revolutionary party that resembles Good Queen Bess?

Roberta is a smart young woman in a sharp blue suit. Power rests easily on her shoulders. We are seated on a capacious leather sofa in her enormous office in the PRI headquarters in Mexico City. She is a member of the PRI’s National Executive and responsible for international affairs. Her assistant is crouched on the floor mopping up my mineral water.

Has Roberta then kept in touch with the state of royal affairs in Britain?

‘Oh yes,’ she says. ‘If I could move the whole of Mexico to Europe I would. In fact it would fit rather neatly into the Mediterranean Sea.’

Well, I say, before you do that there is the little matter of the 1988 presidential election. It is widely asserted that the PRI, and its candidate Carlos Salinas, lost the election and fixed the result.

‘Oh, 1988 was a good thing for us. It made us realize that we couldn’t just sit back and wait for people to come and vote for us. We had to get out there and knock on doors.’

The PRI’s policies today, I suggest, are less revolutionary than neo-liberal.

‘We do not use the word “neo-liberal”,’ she says sharply, a warning edge to her voice. ‘We call our policies “social liberal”.’

Surely the effect of such policies is divisive and generates widespread suffering. In Britain there has, I say, been a great deal of unhappiness as a result of our ‘social liberal’ experiment.

‘Unhappiness? Suffering? In Britain?’ Roberta looks genuinely sceptical. I mention unemployment.

‘Oh, we have not forgotten the poor in Mexico. Our Solidarity programme sees to that. We spend billions of pesos, yes billions, to compensate those who have been adversely affected by the modernization of Mexico.’

Since the Revolution most Mexican governments have felt it wise to remain at something of an arm’s length from the US. Yet now, with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), is Mexico finally getting into bed with Uncle Sam?

‘We have not put all our eggs in one basket,’ says Roberta. ‘Of course we want to have a good relationship with the US, and NAFTA will be a good thing for us. Besides, the influences are not all one-way. Many Mexicans live in the US. We also have a free-trade agreement with Chile, and are working on similar agreements with other Latin American countries... Mexico can compete with the world. Our industry is efficient and our education excellent. Illiteracy has been conquered in Mexico.’

All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds – but when a revolutionary party turns ‘social liberal’ this can have a disorientating effect on the conservative opposition. I go to the National Action Party (PAN) ready to meet hard-nosed young men in flashy suits. I find instead José Angel Conchello, an urbane and charming man in his fifties.

‘Unlike the right-wing parties who talk of private property as a “freedom”,’ he begins, ‘we have always referred to it as a responsibility. Business is a social responsibility. Capitalists have responsibilities to their workers and to society.’

So I am not about to be subjected to an extreme right-wing diatribe. PAN was founded because of what was perceived to be widespread electoral fraud in the 1930s – it’s a long-running issue here. ‘In Mexico the right to vote is not considered a human right,’ says José. ‘The Constitution, absurdly enough, says that voting in elections is a “privilege” for Mexicans. So there are no proper mechanisms for appeal against abuse.’

He has a radical view on NAFTA, not necessarily shared by his party. ‘After 30 years of protectionism, the Government virtually abolished trade tariffs with the US unilaterally and overnight. There was no preparation. This, together with the inequality of income distribution both within Mexico and between Mexico and the US, accounts for what is now an enormous trade deficit with North America.

‘People say there is a process of “globalization” going on. Quite the contrary. It is a process of “regionalization” making Mexico part of the US. There may be a temporary advantage for Mexico in NAFTA, attracting foreign businesses and investment. But it will last only so long as labour costs in Mexico are low. As soon as they begin to increase, these same businesses will go to Guatemala or Bangladesh.

‘For Mexico this is a situation of false prosperity. There may be more wealth, but not more well-being... There already is a big dose of unemployment and the Government shows no inclination to do anything at all about it. It is neo-liberal in the extreme... They say your Prince of Wales is president of a community business association or something of the kind. He understands what has to be done.’

PAN’s chief rival in opposition is the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). José accepts with a smile the common jibe that PAN has a good programme but no presidential candidate, while the PRD has a good presidential candidate but no programme.

That candidate is Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the son of Lázaro Cárdenas who was President of Mexico in the 1930s and is still widely revered as the man who did more than any other to consolidate the populist gains of the Revolution. Cuauhtémoc broke from the PRI to challenge for the presidency in 1988 and, against all expectations, probably won. Now he’s running again.

I am supposed to be meeting him, but since he’s campaigning hard already (the PRD is often said to be a ‘one-man party’) he’s difficult to track down and on the appointed day makes off for Chihuahua to talk with a defector from the PAN. I turn instead to Ifigenia Martínez, who runs the PRD’s research institute. She is a partisan, though respected and extremely articulate economist. I’m inclined to ask her about the British monarchy, but on second thoughts realize that both Roberta and José were probably just being courteous.

‘If what you’re looking for is the reduction of inflation and a surplus on the public accounts,’ she says, ‘why then Mexico is a resounding success. No other country in the whole world has a budget surplus like Mexico’s. But if what you’re looking for is the maximum possible development, fair distribution of resources and a balanced trading account with the outside world, then Mexican policy is no less of a resounding and overwhelming failure.’

According to Ifigenia the Mexican economy has grown at a very slow rate or not at all while foreign debt has actually increased at the end of a decade dedicated to reducing it. Meanwhile unemployment has soared and government spending on social priorities, which used to account for about 12 per cent of national income, has been slashed through the Solidarity programme to a mere 3 per cent of national income. Even this is not universal but has to be begged for like charity from the President himself.

NAFTA is, she says, ‘merely a key to close this model’. It leaves Mexico completely dependent upon the US. ‘The “international market” for Mexico now means the US. We have closed off the alternatives in an extremely dangerous way. Everything is wrapped up in something very, very rotten... Government policy, in a very practical way, serves the interests of the great transnational companies, leaving us without any means to regulate them.’

‘You know, all this is pretty ironic, considering that the US is the biggest debtor of them all. But the same requirements do not apply to them.’

‘Well, we live in a cruel world... The salvation for Mexico will be that it will prove impossible to continue with this rotten system. It’s a system that leads to authoritarianism. It is constructed to serve the interests of a very, very few people, and it simply cannot continue... Every country must make its own contribution in a world that is becoming progressively more interdependent.’

Much of political debate in Mexico is about democracy itself. There are two things that undermine it. One is the fact that the PRI still controls the electoral machinery. Even if it wins the presidential election – and many people in Mexico appear to believe that it will – no-one will know for certain whether it was the voters or the machinery that decided.

More to the point, whoever wins, in crucial areas it will not be the government that governs but the IMF, the World Bank and the ‘global economy’. Like the large number of Mexicans who don’t bother to vote at all, one is then left wondering what the point of the whole elaborate ritual really is.

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