Gloria Steinem's Message for Mexico

By , an American who has lived in Mexico for 23 years, writes frequently on Mexican politics.

THE deep Mexican economic crisis has provoked considerable analysis concentrating on the proposed tightening of Mexican monetary policy, or on currency boards, or on the dollarization of the Mexican economy. Unfortunately, Mexico's economic problems can't be solved by fixing ''some discrete mistakes,'' as the Wall Street Journal indicated in a recent editorial.

Others talk about the urgency of settling the Chiapas Zapatista rebellion as a condition for attracting new foreign investors. Realistically, the indigenous population of Chiapas can neither be subdued militarily nor satisfied by short-term improvements to the region's service infrastructure.

The problems are deeper, and while analysts -- both from Mexico and the US -- seem to think political reform must wait until these emergencies are handled, there is definite interconnection. The pundits continually fail to examine the root causes that have led to the failures of the Mexican economic and social systems over the past 20 years (or is it five centuries?).

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Gloria Steinem, in ''Revolution From Within,'' observes, ''Development experts [are] more comfortable with citing natural resources, capital, markets, and other 'hard' quantifiable elements . . .'' Now, however, Ms. Steinem notes that economists are considering ''soft'' factors, too, such as ''national inferiority complex,'' ''national will,'' ''basic worldview,'' ''equality,'' and ''belief in reward for work.''

In Mexico's situation, the only such ''soft'' factor being mentioned is ''confidence'' -- but not in the Steinem sense of how Mexicans feel about themselves. The press views ''confidence'' only in terms of how investors feel about Mexico. No confidence in Mexican economic or social stability means no investment.

Steinem cites examples of how countries developed, and how their development determined their psyches and financial states. She notes that success depends on having a democratic form of government, and her arguments are most persuasive. Her two comparative cases are first, Barbados and Haiti, and second, Australia and Argentina.

In both examples, the countries are similar in size, climate, natural wealth, and ethnic makeup. But in each case study, the first mentioned country has prospered in every societal measurement, with stable representative forms of government, while the other state has suffered continual economic and cultural reversals under the yoke of dictatorial regimes.

Unfortunately for Mexico, in many ways it falls into the Haiti/Argentina category, with entrenched authoritarian rule that has stifled development. Recently, Argentina has shown an admirable will to break the cycle, but it is still too early to tell whether its democracy will mature. In Mexico, democracy is like the weather: Everybody talks about it, but little seems to be done. The new president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, says he's for strengthening democratic institutions, but after almost 100 days in office, he has yet to make concrete proposals. At some time soon, the process must be started -- both from the top down and from the bottom up.

Last week's arrest of a former president's brother for allegedly masterminding a political murder is the first sign that Mr. Zedillo is willing to back up his rhetoric -- but it's just a start.

Recognizing that in the Steinem examples long-standing democratic traditions were key to the Barbados/ Australia successes, the Mexican people need to be prepared to take advantage of democracy. Analysis of political issues, participation of the citizenry, and measured debate -- these democratic skills have to be taught at all levels of society. It won't be easy, considering the lowly (third to fourth grade) condition of the average Mexican's education.

Nor does Mexican television help. Not only are the owners solidly for the ruling party, they are openly antidemocratic. They admit that their programming is designed only for mass entertainment and, even worse, they discourage critical thought by the population (more than 85 percent of whom get their only news through TV). This is one area where democratic reform could come through executive order, and it is discouraging to see that nothing is being done.

To say that Mexico's collective self-esteem right now is low would be an understatement. Mexicans do not see themselves as equal partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). They feel ruled by forces they do not control. What pride can come from knowing that they are simply the providers of cheap labor? Many who considered NAFTA to be good for Mexico, and I was one of them, saw the treaty as a way to bring the Mexican worker into the international marketplace so that wages would gradually rise and growth in purchasing power would yield a higher standard of living. Now, with the devaluations, the Mexican minimum wage is hovering at or below $3 a day.

There is a collective paralysis in Mexico these days. We don't know where or to whom to turn. For our leaders to read Gloria Steinem's words on the value of having a democratic society, however, wouldn't be a bad start.

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