Mexico's Green, White, and Red Flag - a Partisan Symbol

THREE cheers for the red, white, and blue. What American doesn't feel a stirring of patriotism at the mention of the colors of his flag? I was an impressionable third-grader in Deep River, Conn., when our marines raised the Stars and Stripes on Mt. Suribachi to culminate the capture of Iwo Jima in 1945. As I recall, the famous staged photo, in color, was distributed in school. Nothing could have been more symbolic of a hard-fought United States victory than the planting of Old Glory on top of that strategic hill.

Countries' flags and colors have been used to rally people to patriotic causes for centuries. In our nationalistic world, their figurative importance to maintain pride in one's country is evident. Remember how the Palestinians flaunted their until-then-banned flag after the peace accords with Israel were signed this past summer?

Nowhere, however, have the colors of the flag been used for such partisan political purposes as in Mexico. The only political party that can use the colors of the national symbol - green, white, and red - is the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has been in power for 65 years and was assured of six more years by the August elections. It's the law, passed by the PRI-dominated Congress. The two main opposition parties, the National Action Party (PAN) and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), must resort to blue and white, and yellow and black, respectively. Imagine the outcry in the US if Democrats or Republicans tried to usurp a monopoly on the red, white, and blue!

Half of Mexican voters are at best only marginally literate and unduly influenced by symbolism. That makes the antidemocratic aspects of the PRI's color monopoly even more apparent and sinister. In post-election polls, many of Mexico's underclass admitted to having ``voted the colors of the flag.''

Unfortunately, the ruling PRI used its ``symbol monopoly'' in every manner possible. Social programs, paid for with taxpayers' money, are publicized as if they were projects completely financed by the ruling party. Solidaridad, a widespread program in which the government and local communities cooperate on mainly infrastructure projects, is a prime example. On practically every road I've traveled recently, signs proclaim the successes of the Solidaridad program, which had a green, white, and red symbol suspiciously similar to the emblem of the PRI. TV ads extolling the contributions of Solidaridad are constant. This is one of many examples of how the PRI has blurred the distinctions between the party and the government. They want people to associate government social programs with the ruling party, and they have apparently been successful.

On Dec. 1, the PRI's Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon is scheduled to be sworn in as Mexico's president. One of his most publicized campaign promises was to continue the democratization of the country (although no specifics were mentioned). There is considerable evidence that democracy in Mexico has enemies in high places. It is widely suspected that the political assassinations of the PRI's first presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, in March, and of PRI reform leader Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu in September, were ordered by PRI ``dinosaurs'' who oppose relinquishing any of the party's power. Attempts on Mr. Zedillo's life have also been reported in recent weeks.

It will take considerable courage for Zedillo to propose that the Congress legislate meaningful democratization reforms.

One way to show his valor would be to start with the obvious: eliminate the PRI's monopoly on the use of the colors of the flag. Such a reform would be both significant and simple: either all parties should be able to incorporate the green, white, and red - or none should be allowed to use them. If he advocates this change, Zedillo will have sent a bold message that his intention to reform is serious. 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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