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A country in trouble looks for solutions

By Dennis VolmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 1985

Le'on, Mexico

The visit was going to be a routine one. The government public relations woman was bringing in a foreign journalist to see a prominent local businessman in this provincial town. The large, solidly built, middle-aged shoe manufacturer supported the ruling party. There was nothing about the interview, therefore, that promised the unexpected.

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But instead of singing the praises of the government, the manufacturer launched into a ripping attack on the ruling party's corruption, inefficiency, and inability to handle the economic crisis.

What then were his solutions to this sad state of affairs?

I don't know, he answered. I only know that the country is in trouble. Mexico's woes

The severe economic crisis afflicting Mexico since 1982 has brought on a mood of national introspection and questioning.

``No one is sure they have the answers anymore,'' says one young foreigner working with development projects in Mexico. ``The crisis has caused a new political opening. New voices, such as the private sector and the opposition parties, are participating in the debate. . . .

``When the crisis hit, it seemed that the old model fell apart. Today people are asking basic questions about which road Mexico should take.''

Mexico's huge $96 billion debt adds sobering immediacy to the debate. And making matters worse still for an oil-producer like Mexico is the latest round of oil price cuts.

Faced with these, Mexico will have the greatest difficulty paying interest on its debt, let alone beginning to pay back the principal.

As if that were not enough, September's earthquake caused what most experts believe is a minimum of $5 billion in damage. That, too, has somehow to be paid for.

But those who hoped Mexico's mood of anxious questioning would have an impact on the midyear elections were disappointed. Instead, the dominant note struck by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was business as usual -- with traditional Mexican electoral fraud widely regarded as having occurred yet again. The optimists have not given up hope of political reform.

Now that the PRI has made clear once again that it is fully in charge, these observers say, the party may yet attempt to come to an understanding with the main opposition party, the right-wing PAN (National Action Party), in order to keep it within the electoral system. The optimists stress that co-opting the opposition has been a traditional PRI tactic.

Meanwhile, the debate continues, centering on two issues:

1. Whether there should be changes in the political arrangements by which the PRI has ruled Mexico for more than 50 years.

2. What economic road to take out of the present debt-burdened slump. The political debate

Among the broad range of diplomats, politicians, academic analysts, and Mexicans-in-the-street interviewed for this series there was consensus: that in order to survive, the system evolved by the PRI must be adapted; that the PRI will have to give a much larger political voice to the opposition parties.

``PRI can, for the next five or 10 years, continue to be the dominant party,'' says a prominent Mexican political scientist, ``but in a time when it doesn't have many economic goodies to distribute, it can't be the only one [with any political power].''

As its name suggests, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) institutionalized the 1910 revolution, making it part of the establishment. Many of its critics charge that in doing so it ceased to represent the interests of the majority of the Mexican people, who are poor, and -- during the current economic crisis -- are getting poorer.

Few doubt that the PRI could win a presidential election if it were held now. But the party support is becoming increasingly apathetic.

Indeed, disenchantment with the PRI is almost universal.

It arises both from the economic crisis and from reports of massive high-level corruption in past administrations, and at least continuing lower-level corruption in this one.

People continue to vote for the PRI out of a combination of inertia, habit, and fear. They also feel a lingering sense of being incorporated into the system through membership in PRI-dominated labor unions, peasant movements, or community organizations. Most important, they vote for the PRI because they don't see the opposition as a viable alternative.