Don't Be Fooled By Mexico's Quick Payment

When President Clinton praised Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo for the recent timely payback of the 1995 multibillion-dollar bailout, no mention was made that Mexico simply borrowed from Peter to pay Paul. Mexico issued private bonds - again using its petroleum as collateral - to pay its debt to the US. No productive elements of the Mexican economy were involved. This is just another example of Mexican governmental expertise at papering over its weaknesses with false confidence - lulling Uncle Sam into feeling good about his southern neighbor.

No one should be fooled. The roots of Mexico's political ills have to be extracted or the country's problems will never be solved. The technical recovery of the Mexican economy might continue for a while, but the cyclical relapses with no discernible long-term progress will remain a discouraging constant. A grossly uneven distribution of wealth, social instability, and a lack of justice - all seem endemic to a governmental system that lacks a democratic tradition.

Historically, Mexico has always had to cope with authoritarianism. For 300 years there was harsh colonialism and autocratic royal rule that never was benevolent. The Spanish colonies were for plunder, to be used and abused at the pleasure of Madrid. There was a distinct lack of self-government. Self-reliance was discouraged and, in fact, servility was the order of the day. The same class-conscious, undemocratic attitude remains. Consider the denigrating expressions that remain in the Mexican Spanish lexicon. These vestiges include responses such as mande and para sirvirle, which in the vernacular might be translated "what do you want?" but literally mean "order me" and "to serve you."

By contrast, the American colonies, which were settled, not conquered, were mostly self-governed, and they refused to knuckle under to British high- handedness. The Revolutionary War was won 40 years before the Spaniards left Mexico.

The Catholic Church, too, was an antidemocratic influence in Mexico until its excesses were curbed by the reforms of the 1850s and the mid-1920s.

Burdened by educational systems that have seldom emphasized independent or critical thinking, democracy had a tough time getting off the ground in Mexico. The foundations haven't been well-constructed. There has been little "of, by, or for the people."

Nor has the entrenched Mexican oligarchy ever made a real attempt to integrate the indigenous or the poor into their tightly knit, so-called democracy. The "unwashed" have been kept out by a variety of means, but mainly by keeping them uninformed and materially dependent on economic and political bosses.

So, although the Mexican Constitution looks good on paper, it has rarely worked as intended. Presidentialism has overwhelmed checks and balances.

In 1929, six years after Mussolini consolidated the main sectors of Italian society into fascism, Mexican leader Plutarco Elias Calles used Mussolini's organization as a model. A saving grace might seem the strict observance of the one six-year term of each president from Lazaro Crdenas (1934-1940) to the present. New idealism comes to power at set intervals, but each administration has been suspected of plundering the country as its term ends. It has been said that Mexico has had a succession of six-year dictatorships.

One of the biggest deceptions to date has been the legislature. With the long tradition of an all-powerful executive, and no reelection for any public office, Congress has been relegated to rubber stamping presidential initiatives. There is a chance that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) monopoly will end with this July's congressional elections, but few are betting on it. With all the money the PRI will be pouring into the campaign, with all its savvy with television spots coupled with the complete inexperience of the opposition in this vital area, many believe that the PRI will win the seats needed to retain its majority.

Also, the Mexican presidential system courts the danger of a demagogue coming to power. When there is a direct election of the chief executive by largely uneducated voters, they easily might be influenced by someone who offers them the moon but has no chance, or intention, of delivering it.

Indirect election through a parliamentary system is considered safer. Having members of the majority in a parliament choose an executive leader from among themselves seems more judicious than having a popular vote with just the three main parties' single candidates, as now mandated. A new constitutional convention to examine fresh options appears necessary. Of course, it won't happen under the PRI.

The US seems satisfied with the present Mexican tinkering, which has been limited to weak electoral reforms. It shouldn't be - there's too much at stake.

* Richard Seid, an American living in Mexico, writes on Mexican politics and society.

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