Chiapas and Reform

WHEN domestic crises strike, politicians often have two responses: throw money at the problem and appoint a commission.

These appear to be two of the approaches - explicit and implicit - that Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is taking in trying to quell the crisis in the state of Chiapas. On Wednesday, he ordered the establishment of a commission to study and promote coordinated action to improve the life of Indians in Mexico. The commission reportedly will count among its ranks officials from 11 Cabinet ministries.

Better social services and economic aid will be unavoidable elements of any solution. But unless these are accompanied by genuine political reform, they are unlikely to ease the deep discontent that sparked this month's uprising. The unrest in Chiapas has as much to do with political corruption, rigged elections, a lack of empowerment, and discrimination as it does with issues of economics.

The government is heading in the right direction by seeking a negotiated settlement.

Mr. Salinas has selected the former Mexico City mayor and former foreign minister, Manuel Camacho Solis, to head a negotiating team that will try to end the rebellion. Mr. Camacho has earned a reputation for keeping open his channels to opponents of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The government's recognition of the rebels as a political and military force is a constructive step after several years of denying - at least publicly - that the rebels existed at all. So is the government's growing recognition that the uprising is home-grown and not externally generated.

It remains to be seen whether the government's response reflects a genuine commitment to improving the conditions in Chiapas and other parts of the country mired in poverty and political disillusionment, or whether the PRI is merely trying to get by through this August's presidential election.

One indicator will be how readily the government cooperates with nongovernmental organizations investigating alleged human rights abuses by the Army during the fighting in Chiapas - and how thoroughly those cases are pursued, even if they embarrass the PRI.

In a relatively few years, Mr. Salinas has taken his country a long way economically. But economics is more than digits on a spreadsheet.

Ignoring the need for significant, parallel political reforms to give meaningful voice to hopes, aspirations, and deep grievances helped set the stage for Chiapas. Responding to that need is an investment that Mexico can ill afford to delay any longer.

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