Angry Mexicans losing faith in their country

Micaela Sanchez slowly counted out 40 pesos to buy her family's normal daily ration of two dozen tortillas.

Then, with six-month-old Josefina nestled snugly in the cotton shawl wrapped around her torso, Micaela walked through dusty, rutted streets to the one-room adobe home in northern Mexico City that she and her husband, Miguel, share with their three children, his mother, and an uncle.

''I've got two pesos left (about 3 cents) to last until Friday when Miguel gets paid,'' she said with a sigh, aware that Friday was two days away. ''I'm tired of it all.''

Eight miles away in a luxury hotel in the heart of this sprawling city, Juan (Pepe) Ramirez, a businessman in a three-piece suit whose small manufacturing plant lies a stone's throw from Micaela's home, commented:

''The middle class is simply tired of Mexico's economic troubles.''

Micaela Sanchez and Pepe Ramirez are separated by only eight miles. Their backgrounds, life styles, and economic fortunes seem further apart - one living on the thin edge of poverty, the other with a Texas Tech education, one of Mexico's well-to-do minority.

Yet both share an anger, frustration, and confusion over Mexico's sudden economic crisis. Both have lost faith in Mexico's economic and political system.

Along with millions of other Mexicans - certainly the majority of this country's 76 million - they do not understand how Mexico could have plunged in a matter of months through a period of unparalleled prosperity into the worst financial crisis in memory.

For Micaela, the problem is the price of tortillas, the pancake-shaped cornmeal staple of the Mexican diet. It has doubled since July 1.

For Pepe, it is a question of importing raw materials to keep his factory going and paying dollars, which neither he nor Mexico has.

Mexico - the oil-rich nation that banked less than five years ago on oil to lift it people out of endemic backwardness into bountiful consumerism - has watched the bubble burst. Inflation is running at 100 percent, business bankruptcies are soaring, dollars are scarce, and the nation cannot pay even the interest on its near $100 billion debt.

Outgoing President Jose Lopez Portillo, who leaves office Dec. 1, is widely blamed for the crisis.

He repeatedly lambasts Mexican businessmen in demogogic speeches saying they have made the crisis worse by taking dollars out of the country, but few Mexicans believe him.

His government is criticized here in Mexico City for corruption, waste, inefficiency, and a host of other ills. Indeed, the Lopez Portillo government is accused of having itself taken millions of dollars out of the country to feather overseas nests of many Mexican officials.

Seldom, if ever, has a Mexican president left office so disgraced in the public eye.

No amount of government radio, television, and press propaganda has altered that disgrace, and it is unlikely to do so before Dec. 1, when Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado takes over the presidency.

In just about every corner of this mammoth city of 17 million one gets the feeling that Mexicans wish Dec. 1 would hurry up and come.

In fact, storekeeper Manuel Espinosa on Calle Tacubuya says, ''The sooner we get rid of that crook, the better.

''You know what he is doing with the millions and millions and millions that he has squirreled away? (He's) putting up the huge complex on the edge of the city for himself and his family after he leaves office. And he's doing it with government funds.''

There is no proof that government money is financing the complex going up on land belonging to the President, and indeed there is no official confirmation that houses are being built for Mr. Lopez Portillo. But it is widely accepted that the houses under construction are for his use.

This speculation has already appeared in the Mexican press, which is usually skittish about printing items of this sort.

Last week's issue of the news weekly Proceso spotlighted the complex - along with two other mansions, one in New Canaan, Conn., and the other in Zihuatenejo, Mexico, all said to be owned by top officials of the Lopez Portillo administration.

The magazine, in an article titled ''Three Disturbing Mansions,'' hardly had to convince Mexicans that the three large homes were owned by the President and two of his associates. What was interesting, though, was the fact that the article itself was printed. It suggests the degree to which opposition to Lopez Portillo is building.

Moreover, such reports, which hint at widespread corruption, have nurtured growing cynicism and frustration. Although most Mexicans seem not to understand the reasons for the current economic crisis, they know there is a crisis. And they say the crisis is linked to the corruption that they feel is rooted deeply in their society. Mr. Lopez Portillo is increasingly painted as the culprit. Reports like that in Proceso only heighten this sentiment.

''He is the worst robber of them all,'' shouts a supermarket manager, waving his arms vigorously in anger as a newsman asks customers in a lower-middle-class part of town what they think of the crisis. The manager's comment is instantly applauded.

A popular radio call-in show, Opinion Publica, was taken off the air in mid-August without explanation. The show had broadcast callers' comments that criticized the President. It is widely believed the program touched too many sensitive areas.

Anger over such arbitrary actions is fueling bitterness toward government. This anger, however, has yet to boil over into active discontent.

But the anger is there and the loss of faith in government is real. Mr. Lopez Portillo's surprise nationalization of Mexico's private banks Sept. 1 stunned businessmen like Pepe Ramirez, and only added to the crisis of confidence.

A close associate of President-elect de la Madrid says the incoming chief executive is faced with ''the most serious political and economic crisis in modern Mexican history.'' He admits the loss of faith in government ''will not cease on Dec. 1.''

But Mr. de la Madrid, who is required to remain largely out of view until his inauguration, is banking on Mexico's traditional sense of hope in new administrations to help him launch his six-year rule.

This time around, however, there is less enthusiasm for him and his incoming government than has been the case with previous new governments.

The reasons are obvious: The current crisis is not only financial, but also political and social. And there is widespread uncertainty about Mr. de la Madrid's ability to handle it all.

He must quickly move to bolster state finances, implant austerity in government spending and in society in general, and launch a drastic housecleaning in government. The call for a drastic cleanup of corruption is perhaps his biggest challenge.

Unless he moves on this issue, however, the deterioration in public confidence in government will grow.

The problems faced by the Micaela Sanchezes and the Pepe Ramirezes are also there, and the way in which Mr. de la Madrid's government tackles these problems and the underlying financial crisis will determine whether confidence in government will be rekindled.

If de la Madrid fails, the situation is so serious that today's mood of anger and frustration could spill over into the street - upsetting Mexico's claim to being one of Latin America's most stable nations.

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