The Holes in Mexico's Bucket

US decisionmakers, both in Washington and Mexico City, continue to make wrong, questionable - and occasionally correct - judgments about Mexico.

For example, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York says that ''there is no chance whatsoever'' Mexico will pay back its loans. Where are his precedents?

When Mexico's President Lazaro Cardenas expropriated the country's petroleum industry in 1938, the agreed upon value was reimbursed to all former foreign owners. Historically, although there sometimes have been renegotiations, Mexico has always paid its debts. Mexico is not Cuba.

Then again, Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas rightly surmised that there were holes in the Mexican bucket that needed to be identified before the United States poured in more funds.

Even here in Mexico, many thoughtful observers are saying the US Senate should follow the House in canceling the remaining $7.5 billion of the bailout. Many Mexicans, deeply in debt, are furious at the governments of both countries for what they see as an imposed loan that drove Mexican interest rates to exorbitant levels. They say if the interest on the Mexican bonds, called tesobonos, could not have been paid on time, there should have been the usual renegotiations. Then the deep depression into which Mexico has plummeted could have been avoided, these critics say.

Now, even the Mexican finance secretariat has said that the rest of the bailout loan won't be needed. If so, why tempt the usually spendthrift Mexican government? Why risk piling on more debt? Sounds sensible, right? Not to Mexico City's American Chamber of Commerce. The chamber wrote a forceful letter to the senators reviewing the House action, asking them to delete the provision that would prevent the use of the US Stabilization Fund to prop up the peso. The letter argues, among other things, that US exports to Mexico support about 700,000 US jobs.

But those were last year's figures. How many of those jobs have now been lost, since present US exports to Mexico are next to nil?

The American chamber's concern: If the whole package isn't available, investors will be leery of another devaluation and further interest payments in dollars that the Mexican government won't be able to handle alone.

As usual, the chamber is thinking in the short term, which reflects the mind-set of its most influential members, the chief executives of multinational affiliates doing business in Mexico. These executives are usually here in Mexico for a three-year stint, and their overriding concerns are the quarterly bottom lines during that time period. For them, short-term stability is a must. Creating a stable economic and political climate over the long term, if it implies any risk at all, is not a priority.

The type of security US businesspeople seek is not in the best interests of either the United States or Mexico. It implies the propping up and continuation of a corrupt government that does not account for its spending. Aside from repaying interest due on loans, does the US Congress know what Mexico does with the money it borrows? Of course not. Not even the Mexican Congress knows where the funds go.

Of the Mexican government's total income, the president has virtually complete discretionary power over approximately one-third. With this comes the enrichment of innumerable politicians - and, as recent reports have indicated, drug-related corruption and political assassinations.

Is this where Americans want their money going?

Mexico's promised reforms have yet to be proposed, much less implemented.

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