Can Mexico's Ruling Political Party Save the State, and Itself, From Balkanization?

Victor Perera is author of "Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy" (California) and co-author, with Robert D. Bruce, of "Last Lords of Palenque: The Lacandon Mayas of the Mexican Rain Forest" (California).

The assassination of the Institutional Revolutionary Party's presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, last Wednesday is the third major shock to Mexico's institutions since the assassination, last May, of Guadala jara's cardinal. Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, in an apparent case of mistaken identity that recalled the drug wars in Colombia, was cut down at the city's airport. The next major jolt came Jan. 1, with the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, which struck at the heart of Mexico's bid for first-world economic and political status, via the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The assassination of Colosio, the hand-picked candidate of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, strikes at the PRI's hallowed tradition of presidential succession. Colosio, a self-made, 44-year-old economist from the northern state of Sonora, was named the PRI's candidate over his archrival, the ex-foreign minister Luis Camacho Solis, who represented the official party's left flank.

The recourse to violence as an instru-ment of political and social change recalls the first two decades of the Mexican Revolution. Between 1913 and 1928, three Mexican presidents--Francisco I. Madero, Venustiano Carranza, Alvaro Obregon--as well as two revolutionary leaders, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, were cut down by assassins. The year after the murder of Obregon, in 1928, saw the rise of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has dominated Mexican politics for 65 years and has named all its presidents. The assassination of Colosio by a 23-year-old mechanic and self-styled pacifist with a handgun bought in the United States poses the most crucial test yet to the PRI's ability to shepherd Mexico into the next stage of its still unfolding revolution.

Colosio's murder in the northern-border city of Tijuana dramatized the great chasm that separates the two Mexicos, the Mexico of poor agrarian states, such as Guerrero, Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Chiapas, and the Mexico of the industrial north.

In his efforts to bridge this chasm, Colosio increasingly invoked the rhetoric of Mexico's 1910 revolutionaries: "The hour has come," he declared in his swing through the north, "to combat inequality, to overcome extreme poverty and guarantee for everyone the right to education, health and dignified housing." In Monterrey, the capital of Mexico's industrial white upper class, Colosio was presented with a doll dressed in Indian clothes, wearing a baseball cap with the name "Colosio" printed across it. The symbolism could not have been lost on baseball-loving Colosio, a stalwart of northern Mexico's private sector, who was gambling all in repackaging himself as a "president of all the people" bringing the PRI and the country back to its 1910 revolutionary founding principles.

The enormous impact of the Zapatista uprising was predicated on its timing, the week following the ratification of NAFTA. The revolt served to remind Salinas that he could not drag the country into the First World while millions of its peasant farmers lived in a pre-revolutionary state of poverty and exploitation. The outrage generated by the Zapatistas, and by their articulate spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, sparked protests and demonstrations in other poor regions of Mexico, protests that are being fanned anew by Colosio's assassination. The violence at the opposite border states of the Mexican republic cannot help but invite comparison to the breakup of the former Iron Curtain states of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

The signs are not encouraging that the PRI can contain the country's deepening rifts and contradictions without undertaking radical structural reforms. The enraged and frustrated Mexican poor will no longer settle for a technocrat president along the lines of Miguel de la Madrid, Salinas or the pre-Zapatista Colosio, who had just begun to gain credibility with Mexico's poor when he was cut down.

On the other hand, the hard-line industrialists, bankers and landowners who dominate the PRI's right are on the march--both in Chiapas and in the industrial north. Two-thousand "authentic citizens" of San Cristobal de las Casas gathered two weeks ago to denounce Camacho and the Zapatista rebels and to call for the ouster of Samuel Ruiz Garcia, Chiapas' liberation-theologian bishop who was the chief mediator between the government and the Zapatistas. Their hard-line counterparts in Salinas' Cabinet and inner council are agitating for a candidate who represents their economic and political interests. If the violence accelerates, these hard-liners will seek an authoritarian leader after the mold strongman Obregon.

The right-wing backlash is matched by a popular revulsion against the back-room deals that have produced Mexico's presidents for the better part of seven decades. As events in the northernmost and southernmost states tug at Mexico's center, Salinas will need all his political skills to prevent the polarization of his party and the start of a regional fracturing and balkanization that could turn Mexico into a North American Yugoslavia. The PRI is fighting for its soul, as well as for the right to continue directing the destiny of 92 million Mexicans.*

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