The new facts of life in Mexico

THE turmoil in Mexico is good news for the United States - and for Mexico, too, for that matter. This seeming paradox stems from the lack of any other way to shake up the ossified Mexican political system and set the country on a course that offers long-range hope instead of a dead end.

``Poor Mexico,'' lamented Porfirio D'iaz, the last old-fashioned Mexican dictator. ``So far from God and so near the United States.'' Many years later William D. Rogers, then assistant secretary of state, made the same point from an American perspective when he remarked that a country can choose its friends but not its neighbors. Geography has decreed that, for better or worse, like it or not, Mexico and the US are stuck with each other.

Governments in both Washington and Mexico City have accepted that fact, though they have sometimes had to swallow hard to do so. Mexicans have generally been more adept than Americans in manipulating it to their advantage.

Since the 1920s, Mexico has been dominated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party - PRI, after its Spanish initials. Since at least the 1940s, the PRI has governed and looted Mexico under a formula that combines leftist, nationalistic rhetoric with the operating methods of the 19th-century American robber barons.

Mexican governments have paid lip service to land reform, education, health, and social welfare, while following pro-business tax and economic policies and enforcing labor peace. The distribution of wealth and income has become steadily more distorted and the upper echelons of the PRI hierarchy steadily more corrupt, especially after the oil boom of the 1970s provided more wealth to be stolen. Mexican officials, especially ex-presidents, have given new meaning to the term ``conspicuous consumption.''

The biggest losers in this process have been the peasants. The land reform program was never funded adequately. Mexico has limited amounts of good agricultural land. Most of the country is mountains or desert that can be farmed only with massive investments for reclamation and irrigation. Most important, the pressure of population on land has increased enormously. Mexico has more than three times as many people today as it had at the end of World War II.

Mexican governments have not wanted to be bothered with these troublesome facts. Doing something about them would require genuine reform and would cost a great deal of money that would have to be taken from the governments' rich friends. So the governments have in effect exported the problem to the US in the form of illegal immigration. Officials have cynically called the border an escape valve for Mexico's social pressures and have dared the US to try to close it. Closure, they have said, would produce chaos in Mexico that would inevitably spill over into the US.

American governments that have wanted to help Mexico in more fundamental ways have been inhibited from doing so by the prospect that the aid would be misused and by reluctance to contribute to perpetuation of the unjust and corrupt Mexican system.

Now, there is striking evidence of overdue changes in Mexican politics. Masses of Mexicans have demonstrated that they are fed up with being misgoverned.

The PRI, which has been stealing elections along with everything else for 40 years, was so shaken by the results of last month's election that it proclaimed its presidential candidate the winner with only 50.36 percent of the vote. Further, the PRI gave itself only a bare majority in the Congress.

And the principal opposition candidate, Cuauht'emoc C'ardenas, the son of a former president, is refusing to go quietly. On the contrary, he is touring the country, rallying his supporters while cautioning them to stay within the law. This keeps the pressure on the PRI, not so much for specific reforms as for an opening of the political process.

To a surprising degree, this opening has already occurred. That is what is producing the turmoil, and that is the salient fact about Mexico today.

There is a long road yet ahead, and the good news may turn bad. Even if Mexico has an honest, competent political structure, it would still have many difficult problems. In the short term, the PRI may panic and try to suppress the turmoil with force, as it has done before. But this time the genie is further out of the bottle than it has been before.

And this may make it palatable for the US to do something constructive in helping Mexico.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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