Mexicans Wonder What's Next After Salinas's Quick Fast

Former president's hunger strike signals more turmoil

FORMER President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's fast-turned-nonfast puts a bizarre twist on Mexico's deepening political turmoil.

He said he would not eat until his name is cleared in the investigation in the 1994 assassination of his hand-picked presidential candidate, and until the ''error'' of December's devaluation of the Mexican peso is recognized.

As it turned out the man who until Dec. 1 was Mexico's most powerful individual postponed the strike Friday, less than a day after starting it. But his action was enough to plunge Mexico even deeper into bewilderment over what new shockers the country's blown-open political adjustment is likely to bring.

''It's very strange,'' says Felipe Ehrenberg, a well-known political commentator here. ''Not only has [Salinas] lost any of the dignity of being a former president, but he's added to the incredible rumor mill that has everyone wondering what's coming next.''

Mr. Salinas's action is a symptom of a sudden rupture in the Mexican system, at least as old as the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), celebrating its 66th year in power this week. Business affairs or any wrongdoing of a former president, his family and associates, were off limits to a new adminstration.

Change of guard

The end was signaled with the arrest Tuesday of Salinas's brother, Raul Salinas de Gortari, for allegedly masterminding the assassination last September of PRI's No. 2 and determined reformer Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

That arrest led to speculation that the former president acted to stymie investigations into the Ruiz Massieu killing and the assassination last March of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio.

But by the weekend, the Attorney General's office issued a statement saying it had turned up no such evidence in its search.

While Salinas was left looking desperate, President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon was clearly fortified by the arrest. A huge pro-Zedillo demonstration in Mexico City's Constitution Square Friday testified to the rallying power of the Mexican presidency.

''It is time we accept, without exception, that the law is above all, and we must all be subject to it, the governors and the governed,'' he said Thursday in Tlaxcala, Mexico. ''We can see, we can feel, we have a president!'' the crowd chanted in return.

But many observers worry that a high-profile arrest and now the spectacle of an ex-president fasting and not fasting are obscuring many problems, including a deepening economic crisis.

The Salinas affair, wrote daily Reforma columnist Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, ''is distracting the public [and] lowering the opposition's guard,'' he said. But in no way does it dissipate the catastrophic economic scenario facing the country.''

The Mexican Congress is to begin today its review of the international economic rescue package coordinated by the United States. Mr. Zedillo says he will announce new economic measures once it is approved.

Presidential powers

But in the meantime, the specter of a former president who left office with 75 percent approval ratings, groveling for time on radio shows, while Zedillo -- only yesterday considered weak -- enjoys new public adoration, bears witness to the strength of Mexico's presidencialismo, the system of centralized power in the person of the president.

''People were drawn to Salinas because he was power in a country where power is not institutionalized, but personalized,'' says a high-level observer who asked not to be named. ''Now he has a brother in jail, he won't get the [chairmanship of the World Trade Organization] he so wanted, and the word is out that friends won't answer his phone calls,'' he adds. ''That is not the public's image of power.''

What's really happening in Mexico, says Mr. Ehrenberg, is a ''financial war'' pitting different factions of the monied elite: those who are losing as Salinas falls, and those who are scrambling to win.

Other observers say Zedillo had reasons other than law and justice to take action against the Salinas juggernaut. He feared a pool of malcontents, dissatisfied with his presidency, developing around a still very public Carlos Salinas. Taking the plunge against Raul Salinas headed that off, they say. He also feared sinking in a quagmire akin to Italy's, with decomposition of the PRI -- like that of Italy's Christian Democrats -- taking him down.

While Salinas pursues, in ''My Way'' fashion, the salvation of his honor, nothing suggests that Zedillo -- although looking more like a president to his public -- has faced his fiercest foe. The battle between the PRI's powerful, entrenched old line -- the so-called ''dinosaurs,'' epitomized by Raul Salinas -- and the reformers, observers say, has just begun.

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