Mexico's Dangerous, Outdated Paternalism

THE deep-seated problems that sparked the new year's violence in the southern Mexican State of Chiapas underline the failure of government paternalism.

Some maintain that the majority of the Mexican population is politically immature and still needs the paternalism that the government Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) provides. They claim that the people are not ready for a democracy and that an authoritarian central government should continue to make decisions for the benefit of society.

These are the idealistic PRI apologists who deny that the party wants to maintain power for power's sake and for all the perks that go with it. They say instead that the PRI has altruistic motives. They argue that the PRI is the only experienced vehicle for the stable governing of Mexican society. They claim that all other parties are fringe groups, either far right or ultraleft, and that the PRI is the only one that assures progress and tranquility in the land.

Of course, the PRI's assertion that it can provide continued stability has collapsed. Discontent and unrest erupted into bloody warfare.

Paternalism has failed simply because it is paternalism. The government has not listened or even given a voice to the majority of its usually docile constituents - those considered to be most in need of guidance. Instead, it has favored the most vocal and financially powerful.

The dominant landowners of Chiapas, the coffee growers and the cattle ranchers, have decimated the countryside, to the detriment of both the rain forest and the indigenous people of the region.

In addition, the government has sided with timber interests against environmentalists. Issues such as education have been neglected, the people's interests in the land have been scorned, and their agricultural economy has been ignored. They will never be able to compete with United States imports, as the North American Free Trade Agreement will mandate, in 15 years or 100 years, and they know it.

That a leading religious leader of the region sides with the people, thus incurring the wrath of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, says much about the legitimacy of the insurgents' claims.

In this local conflagration, both sides should accept mediation. It is the only just and face-saving solution to short-term grievances. In the long run, however, the system has to change.

There can be no justice if the people indigenous to the region have no advocates within the system. Their voices must be heard and considered.

FOR that to happen, the PRI must discard its paternalistic approach. The people themselves must be able to choose their political leaders. It should no longer be acceptable that the executive branch of the government at the federal level should choose local governors.

Now that the decades-old myth of PRI-assured security has been shattered, the electorate must take note. Voters must insist that there be true political competition; all political parties must participate responsibly.

It is no longer enough that Mexicans be treated like children and told that the ruling party's candidate has been chosen and should be accepted with no questions asked.

It must be the responsibility of all political parties on both national and local levels to define issues in understandable terms and to propose realistic programs and solutions. One of the most important steps in all such formulations must be input from the people to be affected by the plans. When the people, representing themselves or represented by interest groups, have a say in open forums, better positions have a chance for a hearing.

In many democracies, smoke-filled back rooms where decisions were dictated are anachronisms. Today the town meeting has returned, participation by the public through electronic media talk shows is accepted, and direct contact with representatives is encouraged.

The problem in Mexico is that the people don't have representatives that they themselves have selected; PRI candidates for gobernador, diputado, and senador are chosen by the executive branch and usually face only token opposition. There are no politically oriented talk shows, no town meetings, and no local planning committees in Chiapas to decide the future of the people or the environment. The PRI's approach is undemocratic; it is shameful that decisions affecting so many are made in far away places and by so few.

Paternalism has no place in a democracy. The sooner the Mexican government realizes this and changes its approach, the better for all its people. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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