Needed in Mexico: Not-for-Profit Politics

President Sedillo must provide an example or eliminating corruption in public office

IF Mexico is to be a full NAFTA partner, and not just a cheap labor provider, the hidden costs of corruption must be eliminated.

The new president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, must set a squeaky clean example for both government and business. He must renounce personal gain from public office and institute laws requiring full financial disclosure. The health of Mexico's peso, its trade balance, its quest for democracy, and its relations with the United States are ultimately at stake.

All the presidents' wealth

The concept of real public service, of not-for-profit politics, is now indispensable if Mexico is to continue on its path toward a competitive economic and political society. For a Mexican public official actually to serve without thought of lining his own pockets is, frankly, the exception. It has never been the rule.

Mr. Zedillo is the fifth Mexican president under whom I have resided (each serves a single six-year term). Before becoming president, none were known to be wealthy, yet all Zedillo's predecessors have left office under strong suspicion - or actual evidence - that they enriched themselves considerably in office. However, under Mexico's unwritten rules, no one ever questions the personal lives of the president and his family.

When Luis Echeverria (1970-1976) was in the last days of his regime, the French magazine Paris Match named him as one of the five richest men in the world - and was promptly banned from Mexican newsstands.

Jose Lopez Portillo (1976-1982) built a family complex estimated to cost 106 times the total salary he had earned in office.

Columnist Jack Anderson wrote that Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado (1982-1988) received $18 million from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, even before he took his oath. Although the Mexican government denied this, no legal action was ever pursued against Mr. Anderson, and it must be assumed that he had solid sources.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who has just left office, is suspected of having gained financially through the use of prestanombres, front men, who allegedly have invested on his behalf in companies privatized during his administration. Proof is hard to come by, as always in underdeveloped societies that lack ethical traditions, corruption controls, or investigative reporting. But politicians should avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

One huge problem is a pervasive form of sophisticated corruption. What it does to harm society is poorly understood. Miguel (Miguelito) Aleman Velasco, the son of a former president, Miguel Aleman Valdez (1946-1952), has said publicly that his father earned the family fortune through real estate investments. Yes, he did, and there is little public outcry. But before he bought land in Acapulco, he probably knew that his government was going to develop the sleepy fishing village into Mexico's first major beach resort. And before he invested in property just north of Mexico City, he likely had knowledge of a highway extension that would make the land he bought much more valuable.

Miguelito might not be aware of the implications of his father's dealings, but this is the type of corruption that worries American investors. It creates a playing field that isn't level.

The sin of corruption is compounded by impunity. No former president has ever even been investigated, let alone been held accountable, for corrupt practices, in spite of ample evidence.

Naturally, the chief executive of any government sets the moral tone for those serving under him or her. Until Mexican presidents set the example, many Mexican politicians and businesspeople will continue to be corrupt.

At this time, Zedillo needs the will to break the mold.

Part of the job can be done thorough legal restraints such as modern financial disclosure laws and the enforcement of present ``anti-enrichment'' statutes.

Ultimately, elected officials, especially the president, must be made to answer to the public. So far, the executive department has been seriously remiss in accounting for billions of ``discretionary'' dollars it controls. It's now up to Zedillo to be in the forefront of change; the extent of the democratic reforms promised by him will reveal, in part, how serious he is about fighting corruption. Inevitably, continued corruption will hurt the peso further.

From the top down

Everyone knows that Mexican politicians enrich themselves from the advantages of their office, but nobody has seemed to know what to do about it. Financial disclosure and accountability for funds collected from others (the people's taxes) are elementary requirements. These necessities for political trust are nonexistent in Mexico and need to be introduced from the top down. Legislation is one factor; the will to enforce is quite another.

Categorically, the answer lies with the president of the country. Zedillo must demonstrate his moral fiber - as soon as possible. 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.

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