The Larger Lessons of the Mexican Crisis

Mexico must reform a political system that allows presidents to manipulate public policy for their own ends

THE government crackdown on the Zapatista rebels over the weekend, spurring demonstrations in Mexico City and leading many observers there to question the judgment of President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, may have pushed the peso crisis off the front pages.

But the astute observation Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas made before the Clinton administration's loan guarantee was announced still should be heeded.

He said that Mexico started 1994 with its bucket full but ended the year with it empty. He wondered whether or not the administration had considered where the holes were before committing more funds to an obviously leaky bucket.

I am not saying that short-term assistance to Mexico isn't necessary right now; it is. But the United States must be careful not to prop up an outmoded political system that contributes to Mexico's continual economic crises. The main ''hole'' is the inflexible, almost-dictatorial powers wielded by Mexican presidents.

The blame for Mexico's financial crisis has centered on former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. What the finger-pointing shows is frustration with presidentialism gone wrong. The accusations, including the threat of a trial, charge that Mr. Salinas used his extraordinary powers as chief executive for personal gain and against the best interests of the Mexican people. Specifically, Salinas is said to have improperly depleted Mexico's dollar reserves in 1994 from approximately $30 billion to less than

$7 billion in a futile attempt to defend an overvalued peso. Why? So that his image as author of the ''Salinas economic miracle'' would remain untarnished at the end of his presidential term last Dec. 1 and he could be elected head of the new World Trade Organization.

Unfortunately, for a Mexican president to manipulate public policy for his own private ends and ego is nothing new. Almost 20 years ago, in November 1975, as President Luis Echeverria was nearing his last year in office, he thought it might be a nice career move to become secretary-general of the United Nations. To gain votes, he decided to join the Arabs, Communists, and many other third-world countries in backing the infamous UN resolution defining Zionism as ''a form of racism.'' Mr. Echeverria had t o have been aware that Mexico was quite dependent on tourism dollars and that a large proportion of those dollars came from Jewish tourists. Some apologists still insist that it did not occur to Echeverria that the US Jewish community might be so upset that they would boycott Mexican resorts. The consequent damage to Mexico was horrendous. We were in Acapulco the following month and the usually bustling resort was practically dead at what should have been the height of the season. The embarrassment, from ho tel managers to shopkeepers, was impressive. Never have we seen more gold Stars of David displayed on the shelves.

The tragedy is that nobody will tell a Mexican president that he is hurting the country until after the fact. Even when a president isn't acting for personal gain, the system of unilateral decisionmaking often leads to wrong, foolish, policy.

President Jose Lopez Portillo followed Echeverria. The first years of his administration were euphoric, given the news that untold reserves of petroleum had been recently discovered. The mood was so giddy that Mr. Lopez Portillo crowed about how Mexico would spend its riches -- and borrowed from first-world institutions all too eager to lend.

Then, oil prices started to fall. The head of Mexico's petroleum monopoly, Pemex, prepared to lower Mexico's rates accordingly. ''No,'' Lopez Portillo cried, ''Mexico will not reduce its prices!'' Of course, Mexico eventually had to give in, but the delay cost it billions of dollars, and perhaps caused the innumerable devaluations that followed.

Unfortunately, there are still no checks on the authoritarian rule of Mexican presidents. President Zedillo, in partnership with the legislature, should make the necessary changes so that the hole in the bucket will be permanently repaired.

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