Mexican President Wins Plaudits With Aid to Poor

Critics charge antipoverty program is mostly a political self-help plan

WITH a rib-crunching hug, Juana Cruz Miranda thanks the president of Mexico for giving this poor neighborhood potable water and basketball courts. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari turns to a crowd of several thousand people wearing paper sun visors bearing the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) logo. To them, he promises, ``If you unite and form your Solidarity Committees street by street, I offer Solidarity's support so that we can finish the urbanization of this neighborhood.''

Solidarity is President Salinas' personal $3.2 billion antipoverty campaign. It is sometimes called the social side of Salinas's economic reform program. Solidarity is designed to ease the transition from a socialist state to a market-oriented one, especially for 41 million Mexicans (half the population) living in poverty.

But opposition parties say Solidarity is a thinly-disguised, carefully targeted political program to win votes, particularly in areas where the PRI is weakest. Crucial congressional and state elections will be held in August.

In the 1988 presidential elections, Salinas won by a slim margin. Some analysts claim he actually lost. And for the first time in six decades the PRI's right to rule was seriously challenged.

``To give his administration legitimacy, Salinas has to erase the memory of 1988 and win the congressional elections, not by a small margin, but by an enormous margin. This is the political purpose of Solidarity,'' says Lorenzo Meyer, a political analyst at Colegio de Mexico.

Solidarity does indeed look like a political campaign. Almost weekly Salinas leaves Los Pinos, the official residence, on a whirlwind two- or three-day tour to inaugurate public works projects.

Since it began in December 1988, Solidarity has brought electricity to 5 million low-income homes. Solidarity records show 400,000 farmers got loans last year. The number of rural medical clinics jumped 40 percent in two years. Last year, 16,800 schools were renovated and 115,000 scholarships awarded.

Solidarity started with a budget of $550 million. This year it will spend $1.7 billion. The funds are from the sale of state-owned corporations, the money saved from not having to finance these corporations, and ``other savings,'' Solidarity officials say.

The federal agency provides funding. But this is a grass-roots program. Neighborhood committees prioritize the greatest needs. If electricity is the greatest need, funds and technical help are requested. Locals provide the labor.

``The difference between this and other programs is the high level of participation by the people,'' says Gerardo Huerta Mendoza, a senior Solidarity official. ``It's not some grand, centralized, bureaucratic project.''

When the project is finished, Salinas sails in to take credit and often shares the glory with the local authorities, especially if they happen to be PRI candidates up for reelection. But he also listens to complaints and project requests. Perhaps more importantly, Salinas's constant, personal attention has eliminated some corruption and red tape.

In the state of Nayarit last year, Salinas stopped in a town to meet with local Solidarity committees. After some amicable discussion, one resident stood up and demanded when exactly was the money going to arrive for these fine projects. Salinas turned to the ashen-faced governor and replied: ``It was sent four months ago.'' The next day, the governor purged his Cabinet.

But critics charge that Salinas has created a parallel agency that isn't coordinating with institutions already set up to address social needs. ``It builds schools, but doesn't tell the education department. So the school stands empty waiting for teachers,'' says Ricardo Pascoe Pierce, spokesman for the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).

SOLIDARITY officials admit to coordination problems. ``We're working to increase the level of cooperation between institutions,'' says Mr. Huerta. But Huerta says claims that Solidarity spends money only in PRI areas or mostly in PRD districts to buy votes are unfounded. ``Of the 173 municipalities in opposition party hands, 171 have Solidarity projects. And on a per-capita basis, spending in PRI municipalities and opposition municipalities is almost equal. This is a non-partisan program,'' he says.

Mr. Pascoe of the PRD says the 28,000 Solidarity committees could serve as an springboard for Salinas's own politicalbase, should he decide to develop a party separate from the PRI. He doubts they will be effective as such, but predicts in the coming months, ``there will be a high level of correspondence between the PRI's candidates and Solidarity public works projects.''

Presidential spokesman, Leonardo French Iduarte says every government project can be construed as political. In the case of Solidarity: ``The cause is social. The effect is inevitably political and economic.''

Meanwhile, in Quer'etaro, Jos'e Pablo Aguila Garc'ia is happy just to get title to the land his house sits on. In Mexico, there's a backlog of more than a million homeowners waiting for land titles. In the 16 years prior to Salinas' administration, the agency that resolves title questions delivered 300,000 titles. Already Salinas has handed out 775,000 land titles.

``I don't care if the PRI or the PRD is behind Solidarity,'' Mr. Aguila says, clenching his ownership document. ``I've been waiting years for this and Salinas gave it to me.''

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