Seed of Hope Endures In a Weary Mexico

Despite clean image one year into presidency, Zedillo finds populace dissatisfied with his leadership

PERHAPS it is just another case of hope springing eternal.

As Mexico today marks the first anniversary of Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon's presidency, a country plunged into pessimism over what may be its deepest economic dive of the century is finding some encouragement in the perception that the president is an honest and clean man.

That does not mean Mexicans are satisfied with Mr. Zedillo as he ends the first year of a six-year presidency - far from it. In a recent poll, the Mexico City daily newspaper Reforma found that 75 percent of the capital's residents disapprove of his management of the country.

But in a year when evidence has bloomed like a red tide to reveal just how pervasive corruption and the abuse of privilege have become, a president who has made ''establishing the rule of law'' his mantra and who rails against corruption at least has Mexicans wondering if they dare believe him.

With drug lords known to dine publicly with police officials simply to make a point about their power, with top justice officials leaving office with sizable fortunes, and with Raul Salinas de Gortari, brother of former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, accused of masterminding the murder of at least one key reform-minded politician in September 1994, believing the rhetoric of an earnest, middle-class president does not come easy.

That is especially true when the same middle class is reeling from the effects of a recession that in the Mexico of NAFTA and globalization was not supposed to happen.

Last week Zedillo once again brandished the sword of the rule of law after the Attorney General's Office announced that the wife of Raul Salinas had been arrested Nov. 15 in Geneva as she tried to withdraw nearly $84 million from an account her husband kept there under a false identity. .

Zedillo never mentioned the Salinas brothers by name, but he pointedly chose the moment to insist that Mexico's long age of gilded untouchables would end, and that no Mexican could consider himself above the law. He also denounced the misuse of privilege and public trust - Raul Salinas was a government functionary in his brother's administration - as the worst form of treason one can commit.

Yet as satisfying as the president's words may be, Mexicans want more. ''When Zedillo talks like that, he gives a hopeless people a little bit of hope, but of course words are not enough,'' says Pedro Cuadriello, a graphics shop owner in Mexico City. ''We need real change.''

Adds Francisco Rios, a high school English teacher, ''He now has an opportunity to prove his discourse,'' he says, ''but attacking the [Salinas] family whose model for the country he followed would also cause him problems.''

Despite some progress, important investigations into 1994's political assassinations appear to be going nowhere. The war against Mexico's powerful drug cartels has registered few morale-boosting victories. All of which in the minds of many Mexicans bodes ill for Zedillo's drive to make Mexico a country that follows the rule of law.

Yet some analysts say progress during Zedillo's first year can be found elsewhere. A string of peaceful and uncontested state and local elections (in the midst of more attention-grabbing examples of traditional Mexican election highjinks) is one sign of a maturing democracy, says political scientist Arturo Sanchez Gutierrez. The rebellion in the state of Chiapas, where dialogue has largely replaced military confrontation, is another example of progress, he says.

One of Zedillo's greatest advantages is that the vast majority of Mexicans want him to succeed. But with most of them already set against his Draconian economic adjustments, Zedillo's failure to deliver on his risky promise of a more just Mexico would squelch what little hope Mexicans still have.

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