THE New Year's Day Indian rebellion in Mexico is sparking a debate here over a basic tenet of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's administration: economic reform before political reform.
``Salinastroika'' is the term used by critics. It's the Mexican version of perestroika (restructuring) but without glasnost (political opening). Comparatively minimal political reforms have been accompanied by five years of economic growth, falling inflation, reduced debt, the privatization of inefficient state enterprises, record foreign investment, sweeping agricultural reform, and the crowning achievement: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The free-market reforms embodied in the so-called ``Mexican miracle'' have been touted by the United States as the model for Latin America. While some Salinas critics see the Chiapas revolt as a failure of the economic reforms to benefit one of Mexico's poorest states, many blame a lack of democracy.
``Salinas was seen as the little Superman south of the border, able to change `everything' without having to resort to populism,'' says historian Lorenzo Meyer, a Salinas critic at the Colegio de Mexico. ``Meanwhile, the authoritarianism, corruption, repression, and electoral fraud were kept in the background. Now everyone is aware inside and outside Mexico that Salinas is not a little Superman.''
It is argued that extreme poverty is not confined to the 1 million Indian farmers in Chiapas. Government figures show 17 million Mexicans live below the poverty line and have complaints similar to those of the rebels. And even though the Salinas administration has pumped more money into Chiapas via antipoverty programs in the last two years than almost any other state, it is there that the peasants took up arms rather than seeking redress through the political system. But why?
One answer comes from rebel ``Major Mario'' interviewed Jan. 15 by several Mexican newspapers. ``We won't be voting [in the August presidential elections] because they're fixed. Our brothers have voted for the PRI and got nothing. They've voted for the PAN [National Action Party] and nothing. They've voted for the PRD [Democratic Revolutionary Party] and got nothing.''
Economist Roberto Salinas Leon, a proponent of Salinas economic policies, blames the frustration on the ``feudal and highly corrupt structures of the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI] machinery.'' He notes that NAFTA ``is supposed to reflect Mexico's status as a booming first-world country. The Chiapas revolt is a violent, but unquestionable, indication that much third-world political backwardness remains to be addressed.''
OFFICIALLY, the PRI won 98 percent of the Chiapas ballots in 1976. In 1982 and 1988, 90 percent of the vote went to the PRI. But the uprising begs the question: How real is PRI support?
When approached by journalists after an aerial bombardment near San Cristobal de las Casas, a frightened woman and her daughter emerged from a thatched hut waving their voter registration cards (which have no information about party affiliation) as if they were tickets to safety: ``We're PRI, we're PRI.''
``As long as the local caciques [political bosses] delivered Chiapas to the PRI, no one at the national level questioned how they got the vote. Now, you're seeing the fruits of frustration sown by past policies. How else can you explain a revolt in the most PRI of states?,'' Mr. Meyer says. ``The unavoidable conclusion is that an overwhelming part of the vote is fiction or fraud.'' PRI officials say that an armed uprising by 1,500 or 2,000 Chiapas Indians is not representative of views of the remaining 3.2 million state residents.
Alfonso Flores Zarate, director of the Interdisciplinary Consulting Group, a Mexico City political research firm, says rebel demands for land redistribution, better health care, improved education, and more jobs have received the most attention. But Mr. Zarate considers the political demands ``very important.''
In their ``Declaration of War,'' the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) communique says that the Indians have been denied the ``right to freely and democratically elect our officials.'' A Jan. 6 Zapatista communique states: ``The serious state of poverty shared by our compatriots has a common cause: lack of liberty and democracy. We consider genuine respect for liberty and the democratic will of the people are indispensable requisites for the improvement of economic and social conditions.'' It also calls for ``a guarantee of clean elections.''
Zarate notes that the rebel demands for clean elections are likely to figure prominently in the major presidential candidates' campaigns. The specifics of those demands - not yet fully outlined in the indirect negotiations begun this week - may favor the opposition parties who now smell a chance to end the six-decade reign of the PRI.
The Jan. 11 official campaign launch of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio - normally a publicity bonanza for the ruling party - has been overshadowed by the Chiapas crisis. There is speculation that peace negotiator Manuel Camacho Solis - passed over by Salinas for the PRI candidacy - may be substituted for Mr. Colosio if he can reach a peaceful solution quickly. But most political pundits discount the rumor.
Still, the political repercussions of the Chiapas crisis are likely to continue to be felt here and abroad. On Jan. 18, the governor of Chiapas, Elmar Setzer Marseille resigned.
Last week, the Secretary of the Interior Ministry (another ex-Chiapas governor) was fired and replaced by former human rights ombudsman Jorge Carpizo McGregor. Mr. Carpizo's appointment is likely to bolster the credibility of the Mexican elections, Zarate says.
``I'm sure it's scary for the pot-bellied old guard of the PRI to have an honest guy like Carpizo in charge of the elections,'' says John Bailey, a Georgetown University political scientist.
In Argentina, another free-market reformer, President Carlos Saul Menem, put his military and police forces on alert Jan. 13 as a precaution against a similar rebellion occurring there.