Courting the Church in Mexico

HERE in Mexico City, President Carlos Salinas' warm welcome of his ``friend'' John Paul II last week flies in the face of Mexico's strong anti-clerical tradition. Though ignored, Mexico's 1917 constitution not only prohibits priests from voting or holding office, but even bans wearing vestments in public and conducting outdoor services. Yet, unfurling the red carpet for a papal visit is part of Salinas's astute strategy to bolster support for the most dramatic Mexican economic reforms of this century. Change has highlighted Salinas's 18 months in office. The Harvard-educated economist is determined to streamline Mexico's statist, corrupt economy and integrate it with the US and Canada. Otherwise, he fears, Mexico will become a stagnant backwater as Europe and the Pacific rim emerge as dynamic trading blocs.

In pursuit of ``modernization,'' Salinas has curbed bureaucratic growth, privatized state companies, boosted tax collections and jailed intractable labor barons. He has also trimmed subsidies, tumbled sky-high import barriers, courted foreign investors and impelled joint ventures between corporations and traditional Indian communities called ejidos.

Decisive leadership has lofted the chief executive's personal popularity. But the scope and velocity of his initiatives have alienated and disoriented many people.

Some bureaucrats fear the loss of bribes as market forces replace Byzantine regulations. Blue-collar workers worry about declining purchasing power as sweetheart contracts give way to tough bargaining. Owners of small- and medium-sized firms are afraid of bankruptcy as US and Japanese competitors seize more opportunities. And campesinos dread displacement by machines if ejidos are transformed.

In the past, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) appeased, co-opted, or repressed the discontented during transition times. However, the PRI's clout has diminished. The public identifies it with fraud, ballot-stuffing, and political violence. A majority of Mexicans believe Salinas's party stole the 1988 presidential contest. Even key bishops, emboldened by Polish counterparts, have blasted electoral shenanigans. Too, intra-party conflicts abound as trade union ``dinosaurs'' condemn democratizing changes pushed by pro-Salinas reformers.

In contrast to the PRI's dismal image, the Roman Catholic Church wins widespread praise for its independence and sensitivity. The people rank it with the public school system as the nation's most esteemed institution. A recent Nexus magazine poll shows that 82 percent of urban Mexicans call themselves Catholics; 70.9 percent favor the pope's visit; and 68.4 percent back civil rights for priests. Support is even stronger in the countryside where priests often stick up for peasants against venal PRI bosses and landowners.

As a progressive, Salinas considers anti-clericalism as outmoded as a Pancho Villa mustache. Like any embattled politician, he's on the hunt for allies. Long before the pope's visit was confirmed, he invited senior chruchmen to his inauguration. Recently, he dispatched a personal envoy to the Vatican. Diplomatic relations, broken in 1857, may be next.

The Virgin of Guadalupe rivals the red, white, and green national flag as a unifying symbol. Sweeping constitutional amendments are unlikely because of the bitter conflict they would spark. But the president's attentiveness to the pontiff combined with his conciliatory gestures should enhance the regime's appeal to the faithful - especially to campesinos and slum dwellers who flocked to Salinas's opponent two years ago. Closer ties could even mute criticism from the pulpit. Most important, by extending the olive branch to the church, Salinas may buy time for his version of perestroika to bear fruit and still avoid the upheaval that has beset other modernizing nations.

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