Mexico's `moral renovation' plan fizzles

Mexico's ``great moral renovation campaign has fizzled.'' This view, expressed by Prof. Fernando Estrada of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, sums up the judgment of many other academics, political scientists, and politicians here.

When President Miguel de la Madrid took office in 1982, one of his main objectives was what he called ``moral renovation,'' or cleaning up the widely acknowledged corruption that exists at virtually all levels of government. His promise inspired hope among many Mexicans who had lost confidence in the management of their country.

The country was bankrupt -- a situation many Mexicans attributed to government mismanagement.

Allegations of unprecedented pilfering of public coffers by the previous administration of Jos'e L'opez Portillo were becoming public knowledge.

But four years down the road, Mexicans seem to have lost their earlier optimism and find it all too easy to cite both old and new cases of corruption. Many Mexicans think that either the President was not serious about reform or that he simply was unable to change the system.

``It is hard to believe that de la Madrid is going to end corruption in this country. It is very deeply rooted,'' says a highly placed official who is close to the President. ``But whatever advances he makes will be important, because his successor will build on these,'' he adds.

President de la Madrid has done quite a bit by tightening control over officials handling government money. Thanks to him, this official says, government auditors may now arrive unannounced to check any department's books.

But the official admits that Mr. de la Madrid's attempts to clean up Mexico's powerful oil workers union have been only partially successful. When the President forbade reselling government contracts to third parties -- cutting out the commissions that union leaders were accustomed to collecting -- and when it looked as though he would investigate other fraudulent activities, the unions made it clear that they would strike. This would have stopped the oil exports that bring desperately needed dollars -- a risk de la Madrid could ill afford to take.

There are many allegations of corruption under previous administrations and new ones leveled at the current administration that have not been cleared up. Mexican and American engineers, as well as diplomats, say that many of the architects chosen by the government to calculate repairs to buildings after last September's devastating earthquakes are incompetent. They charge that many of the contractors were put on the list in order to share the profits of reconstruction.

There are weekly reports in the press that policemen are involved in such activities as drug trafficking, kidnapping, and robberies. The former police chief of Mexico City was recently charged by the government with extortion, tax evasion, and illegal weapons possession.

Many Mexicans believed that de la Madrid might be able to deal effectively with the corruption because he had not come up through the ranks of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the traditional way as a politician. Instead he was known as an administrator and technocrat. The fact that he was not closely tied to the elite politicos led people to believe he could bring about change.

The most striking case clouding de la Madrid's ``moral renovation'' is that of former President L'opez Portillo. There have been widespread accusations that he enriched himself by taking millions of dollars from the public treasury during his tenure from 1976 to 1982. Many Mexicans are quick to say that if de la Madrid is not willing to press charges against L'opez Portillo, people in lower echelons may think that they, too, can continue with business as usual. The President, citing lack of evidence, has resisted demands that he take legal action.

But many citizens who complain daily about traffic police demanding bribes or incompetent people buying government jobs also admit that they themselves are guilty of perpetuating the problem.

``We think it is easier to pay the bribe than to go through official channels and pay the fine for double parking or whatever,'' says anthropologist Carmen Macias. Luis Herrera, a manager for a government-run store selling subsidized food and clothing, agrees. ``The laws are well-made. The problem is the people.''

Why don't the same people who constantly mutter about corruption tackle the problem seriously? They fear that to conquer it would mean a drastic change in the one-party political system that has prevailed since 1928. The Institutional Revolutionary Party has built up and used, over the years, a system of patronage and bribery to maintain popular support, several observers say.

``I don't believe Mexico is ready for political change right now,'' Mr. Herrera says.

Many older Mexicans remember the terrible violence during the 1910 Mexican revolution. Younger Mexicans have been taught through the education system that it was a terrible time for the country. Consequently, many believe that rapid change is to be avoided.

When asked if the PRI was losing control and if public unrest due to corruption and economic problems would boil over, one of President de la Madrid's aides replied: ``People have been predicting a social explosion here for years. It is not going to happen.''

Mr. Herrara's remarks appear to confirm this view.

``Everybody is looking at the short term, comparing us to countries and systems that are far different and far more developed,'' he says. ``I think the only solution is for us young people to make up our minds about what we want, the changes we want to see, and when we have children, teach them this. This is definitely a slow, slow process. We are talking about long-term changes.''

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