Mexico's Public-Works Program Bolsters President as It Aids the Poor

JUANA JOSE MARIA PONCIANO waits stoically as a light drizzle slowly ruins her Sunday-best calico dress.

Full of hope, she clutches a petition for a kitchen stove and running water. Others wedged into the amphitheater of this mountain village seek a presidential nod for school supplies, land titles, farm machinery, paved roads.

His open-collar shirt freshly adorned with flecks of confetti, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari faces the crowd, extolling the virtues of Solidarity, his multi-billion dollar antipoverty program.

"Without the bank, without bureaucracy, as of today 1 million campesinos have received money with only their word as collateral. You," he gestures to the multitude, "are the faces of Solidarity."

With a 1992 Solidarity budget of $2.3 billion, Mr. Salinas crisscrossed the nation all last week handing out checks and celebrating another year of public-works projects. While Salinas is heralded worldwide for his free-trade initiative and economic reforms, at home Solidarity is seen as his most savvy political achievement.

Since taking office, Salinas has enacted sweeping market reforms which have left more than half a million people jobless. About half of Mexico's 85 million people live in poverty. Yet thanks largely to Solidarity, Salinas is far more popular now than when he took office, polls show.

"Salinas's economic restructuring program doesn't bring short-term, visible benefits to the poor. Solidarity does," says Susan Kaufman Purcell, a Mexico expert with the Americas Society in New York.

Spending about $5 billion during the last four years, Salinas claims Solidarity has:

* Provided electricity to 13 million people.

* Delivered drinking water to 11 million.

* Rebuilt 75,000 schools.

* Paved more than 2,000 miles of roads.

* Given loans to 58,000 small and medium-sized businesses.

And while bettering the lives of the poor, Solidarity also undercuts the voting base of the leftist opposition, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which nearly upset Salinas in 1988.

"It's been very important in turning around voters in poor areas. Solidarity spending has targeted areas which favored Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano [the 1988 PRD presidential candidate]," Ms. Purcell notes.

Solidarity officials deny a political motivation behind public-works projects.

But the July 12 Michoacan gubernatorial election, among others, clearly exemplifies Solidarity's political success. A poor farming state, Michoacan is the bastion of the PRD. In 1988 Mr. Cardenas trounced Salinas by a 3-to-1 margin. In 1989, Michoacan became the first and only state in six decades where the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) holds less than half the mayorships. But official (albeit disputed) results show PRI candidate Eduardo Villasenor Pena beat the PRD candidate 418,000 to 289,000 in Michoacan.

What happened? The government is pumping a lot of money into Michoacan, and a major wellspring is Solidarity.

With about 4 percent of Mexico's inhabitants, Michoacan is receiving about 12 percent of this year's Solidarity budget. In the past three years, Salinas has visited the state eight times and about $1.6 billion has been spent on federal public-works projects.

Solidarity has also successfully drawn the leftist opposition into its fold. "The major part of the specific Solidarity programs are directed and executed by people who at one time - some recently - were leftist militants, including ex-guerrillas, ex-communists, ex-socialists, ex-Trotskyites, ex-Maoists...," notes the independent weekly magazine Proceso.

While this may show divisions in the left, it also indicates the willingness of the Salinas government to draw on those most likely to make a program like this work.

But these ex-leftists in the Solidarity trenches are seldom on the podium sharing the limelight with the president, the magazine notes. Have they been co-opted?

"I can't speak for others in the party, but I work for the people. And in my town, this is what works," says Hector Sanchez, PRD mayor of Juchitan, Oaxaca. His town has set up garbage-collection services and Mr. Sanchez did share the limelight at a Solidarity rally with Salinas last week.

"The opposition has derided Solidarity as a partisan, pork-barrel program - and to a large extent it is. But given its popularity and the overwhelming response the government has gotten, everybody wants in," says Federico Estevez Estevez, political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "With this much money flowing around, you may be better off going with the flow than against it."

There are 60,000 local Solidarity committees in Mexico. The neighborhood groups decide what need is most pressing - a school, potable water, electricity - then petition Solidarity for funds and technical assistance. The people provide the labor.

The organization structure has the advantage of identifying and nurturing community leaders, whether they be PRI members or not. But given the indistinguishable line between the PRI and the government, analysts say the PRI does benefit by luring Solidarity leaders into the PRI camp.

Proponents of Solidarity counter that Salinas's hands-on approach simply supports grass-roots directed projects which are the essence of democracy.

But Mexican historian Lorenzo Meyer says Solidarity circumvents social welfare institutions. And because it is created and directed by the president, without any congressional input or judicial counterweight, he says, Solidarity "strengthens the authoritarian nature of the Mexican presidency."

Roads and electricity are basic services that should be delivered by Mexican institutions to taxpaying citizens, Mr. Meyer says. Instead of empowering people, he argues, Solidarity teaches people like Mrs. Ponciano to wait in the rain and "humbly, like subjects, petition the king for money."

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