IN a nation fabled for machismo and male-dominated machine politics, Blanca Ruth Esponda won her seat in the Mexican Senate by a solid majority. In a land where only 54 percent of eligible girls are enrolled in secondary school and few can afford to travel abroad, she has a doctoral degree, earned in Munich, West Germany.
In a country edgy about both its northern neighbor and Fidel Castro's Cuba, Mrs. Esponda, who as a teen-ager spent a year in school in Missouri, speaks warmly of the United States - and recalls with pleasure her time as commercial attach'e at the Mexican Embassy in Cuba.
``My job is letting people know that we are changing,'' she says in a leisurely evening conversation during a three-day conference of parliamentarians, journalists, and religious leaders here at the Aspen Institute's Wye Center.
Many hope she's right, and that change really is in the wind. When President Carlos Salinas de Gortari took office Dec. 1, he inherited seven years of economic stagnation, a $102-billion foreign debt, and the nation's worst recession in 50 years. Rumors of electoral fraud dogged his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Mexico City's air pollution, generally thought to be the worst in the world, forced the closing of schools during January. A teacher's strike this spring, winning a 25 percent pay increase, cracked the veneer of an austerity program upon which the Harvard-educated President has pinned his hopes for the nation's future. And while family-planning education has helped reduce the rate of population growth, this already-overburdened nation of 87 million people will add an estimated 67 million more by the year 2025.
A one-time foreign service diplomat who now represents the southernmost state of Chiapas, Esponda takes all of these developments in stride. She was part of the President's campaign team and regards him as ``a true leader of the Mexican people.'' Reflecting on her travels during the campaign, she says, ``My personal experience is that people were very much aware of a need of a change in the politicians' attitudes.''
Even her presence at this conference, she says, ``is a demonstration of that change, and how we want to get connected to newer realities, to the true values of modern society, and how we are ready to challenge our own future.''
For all her party loyalty, however, she clearly represents a shift from the old-line party bosses - some of whom have already toppled under Salinas's drive against corruption. ``She's very smart, and she's very serious about her work,'' says a fellow deputy who served with her in the Mexican Congress before her election to the Senate. This colleague notes that Esponda, unlike traditional politicians who thrive on inside information and influence, ``has never been very aware of what is happening inside the PRI.''
Internationally, too, her reputation is growing. ``I think she's most definitely somebody to watch,'' says Rep. James H. Scheuer (D) of New York, who has worked with her in several interparliamentary organizations. ``She's a very educated, very sophisticated, very fair-minded person, and she's got a creative sort of searching intellect. She's searching out problems and trying to reach out to people to come together and devise solutions.''
That searching leads her to some unusual views. She would like, for example, to find ways for the government to invest in what she calls the ``informal economy'' - the growing body of small enterprises, often family-run, that exist ``outside of the social security programs, outside of taxes, outside of everything.''
``A good income distribution comes from letting people organize themselves in a productive way - in a way that they can earn enough to support themselves, even if they don't pay taxes,'' Esponda says. ``As long as they are taking care of themselves, government doesn't have to worry about them.... In a country like ours, that's the only way people can manage when there are no jobs, when the market economy is restricted, when budgets are reducing.''
Her views on the informal economy grow out of her free-market view that the imposition of top-down economic management simply doesn't work. ``We cannot keep being attached to the traditional way of governing - that is, imposing, controlling.'' Noting that Mexico has had 111 armed invasions in its history, she points out that ``we are the result of a worldwide imposition, and we know that it is not successful.''
The latest example of that domination, in her eyes, is the policy of industrialization and economic development foisted on developing nations, Mexico included.
``In the 1960s we thought that this was the way that we could solve our poverty problems, our lack of industrialization, our lack of modernization. So we started building factories around the main valley of Mexico.'' The result was that ``the developers came, and made this urban mistake that we call now Mexico City - the largest human mistake ever made.''
``Nobody paid attention whether the industries that were being established were contaminating or polluting the air, the rivers. The idea was to imitate New York - the idea was to be like the United States. And this was supported by all the international financing system - the World Bank, the Inter-American [Development] Bank, and of course the private banks. They granted loans for Mexican development. And they brought the model of urban concentrations.''
They also brought an influx of basic industries, which first-world countries wanted to get rid of - precisely because they were too dirty. The result, she says, is that only nine-tenths of 1 percent of Mexican industry now qualifies as ``modern,'' and that is largely in the service sector, including hotels and food services. Yet the labor needs of these industries has caused a massive demographic shift. In 1960, she says, seven out of 10 Mexicans lived ``in the fields.'' Now the figure is reversed, with 70 percent living in the three major cities of Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey. ``If we don't stop the trend,'' she warns, ``then we may be facing by the end of the century the fact that we have three gigantic cities which are ungovernable.''
To meet that challenge, she says, the Salinas government has put forward a six-year plan (the length of the presidential term) that focuses on developing 25 medium-sized cities, hoping to make them magnets for the mobile work force.
That plan, she feels, will help reduce the floods of emigrants heading for the US border.
For that to happen, however, the Mexican economy must first be bolstered by external goodwill and support. To some extent, that is already happening: The International Monetary Fund has promised over $3.6 billion in loans over three years, and the World Bank has recently announced loans of $250 million for industrial restructuring and $460 million for two hydroelectric projects.
WHAT troubles Esponda, however, is the growing sentiment for trade protectionism she sensed in recent meetings with US legislators. ``We have to export,'' she says. ``But now that we have built up a whole industrialization model that was suggested to us by the fiance organizations and the international organizations - now that we are ready to compete in a free-trade exchange, we discover that the US is trying to implement a new policy, which is called `fair and just trade.''' She considers such a policy a ``philosophical setback,'' since it will impose restrictions on some exports.
Looking forward, Esponda sees the possibility of a much stronger Mexico by the turn of the century. Part of that strength, she says, will lie in political change. In the last elections, she notes, the PRI was seriously challenged by two opposition parties. ``We have rediscovered the value of democracy,'' she notes. And while she feels the PRI will continue to be the ruling party, she adds that ``in the year 2000 I see a more democratic political system in Mexico.'' She also sees ``a more environmentalistic approach to development'' and a ``more decentralized'' government.
Economically, too, she remains hopeful. She sees hope in the oil and petrochemical industries (Mexico's top income producer) and in tourism (the No. 2 source of income). And, she adds, ``we have a lot of possibilities with fisheries, and a lot of possibilities in mines.''
``We have enough natural resources so that if they are rationally exploited, they can offer a real opportunity to the Mexican people - if we work together [to lower] the population rate.''