IN a Monitor article last June, I characterized Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's choice of a successor in the following terms: If the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ended up being approved with only moderate complications, President Salinas would choose social development minister Luis Donaldo Colosio; were it subjected to rejection or delay, he would have to select Manuel Camacho Solis, who was at the time mayor of Mexico City. My reasoning was that Salinas would seek to preserve Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) hegemony as best he could.
Under more favorable circumstances, that would mean choosing Mr. Colosio, who has concentrated on rebuilding the PRI and reestablishing its network of patronage. Mr. Camacho, on the other hand, has built his reputation on dialogue with the opposition. Since such dialogue inevitably undermines the prerogatives of one-party rule, Camacho would only be turned to as a last measure to forestall the possibility of an even more serious threat to the political order.
On a close vote, Congress approved NAFTA, and Salinas wasted no time in announcing his choice of Colosio. In keeping with custom, Colosio began assuming the manner of a president-elect. Yet on New Year's Eve, as Mexicans toasted the incoming year and the government celebrated implementation of NAFTA, the party came to an abrupt end when a rag-tag army of Mayans marched into San Cristobal. The insurrection shattered the Salinas administration's image of Mexico as a modern society.
It also highlighted serious failings in Colosio's Solidarity program. Though a disproportionate share of federal funds had been lavished on Chiapas, the government had neglected to address the area's most fundamental social problems: racism, dispossession, marginalization, and repression.
By naming Camacho to head a government commission to negotiate with the Zapatista rebels, Salinas is in effect acknowledging his earlier misjudgment. Mexico's problems are worse than he imagined. Almost overnight, poverty and repression have become major issues, bolstering the presidential candidacy of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Soloranzo. With Mexico now in a close partnership with the United States, its government must also carefully mind its image abroad. That means avoiding the appearance of being undemocratic and repressive.
After failing to eradicate the guerrillas quickly, Salinas had little choice but to pursue dialogue. That choice has further implications: If the government is to engage in negotiations with a small band of armed insurrectionists, it cannot well avoid serious dialogue with the country's democratic opposition, including Mr. Cardenas and his Democratic Revolutionary Party.
It is widely believed that Cardenas won the 1988 presidential election only to have his victory stolen by fraud. Similar indications of fraud in recent gubernatorial elections have sparked mass protests that have forced the government to back down. Any perception of cheating in the upcoming presidential election would almost certainly provoke nationwide unrest.
Further, Camacho was chosen despite his publicly expressed differences with Colosio, who is virtual heir to the presidency. That the rebels agreed to negotiate with Camacho after ruling out any dealings with Colosio, whom they describe as a stooge of Salinas, adds to the snub.
Moreover, it now looks as though Camacho is preparing for a possible run for the presidency after all, and Salinas seems to be hedging his bets. Article 82 of the Mexican Constitution specifies that no one who has held federal office within six months of the election may seek the presidency. Camacho's new appointment has allowed him to relinquish the foreign ministry just in time. And by accepting his new post as a ``private citizen'' without pay, he is unmistakably keeping his options open.
Camacho's prospects will now depend on the outcome of the negotiations. Should the talks lead nowhere, he will, for the time being at least, become political history. However, should he succeed in reaching an agreement that tranquilizes southern Mexico, he will become a national hero. In that case Colosio will seem irrelevant and expendable.
There is no precedent for replacing a PRI presidential candidate. Yet Salinas has shown little predilection for precedent. He has, furthermore, set the stage for such a switch through his repeated substitutions of governors in response to unrest at the state level. Should he be faced with similar problems at the national level, all he need do is test Colosio's loyalty by asking him to step aside in the interest of ``national solidarity.''
The only resistance Salinas would encounter would come from the PRI bureaucracy itself, which is Colosio's only firm base of support. But after 65 years of one-party rule the PRI is not warmly regarded by most Mexicans. Camacho, on the other hand, has won almost universal trust through his demonstrated commitment to working with all Mexicans, including the opposition. Whereas Colosio symbolizes the resurgence of the PRI, Camacho represents the as yet unfulfilled promise of political reform. Last November, Salinas opted to place the interests of his party ahead of those of the nation. He may soon have an opportunity to reverse priorities. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles 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.