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Los Angeles Times Interview : Ernesto Zedillo : Cutting a New Path Through Mexico’s Political Landscape

One month after the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, Mexico’s mood is somber. Across the country, black ribbons still bedeck the giant billboards that urge voters to support Colosio. But Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, new candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is already in full campaign mode--address ing workers in cavernous halls, walking crowded subway platforms to shake hands, talking with constituents in small neighborhood meetings.

Zedillo was born in 1951, in Mexico City, but was raised in Mexicali, Baja California. Life in that border city was not easy for the Zedillo family. They were extremely poor. Yet, young Ernesto excelled in school, and his straight A’s secured him a college education, then graduate studies at Bradford University in Britain and, finally, a doctorate at Yale. Married to Nidia Patricia Velazco, Zedillo is the father of five children.

Recognized as a brilliant economist, Zedillo was chosen by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to succeed Colosio--despite the reservations expressed by many political observers about his limited political experience. Zedillo is the first to admit his candidacy is the result of tragic circumstances. He has no doubt, however, that he is ready to manage a country confronting a severe political crisis--including an armed insurrection in Chiapas and its first major political assassination in more than six decades. By choosing Zedillo, Salinas sends a powerful message that the economic model the country has followed since the presidency of Miguel de la Madrid, in 1982, will remain in place.

The challenges Zedillo face seem overwhelming. Politically, he must persuade his party that he can win the Aug. 21 election. If he does win, he must persuade the public that he won fair and square. Then, as president, Zedillo wants to reform the justice system, to reassure the country that Mexico will remain stable and peaceful. He also must start showing the nation that the time to reap the benefits of economic reform--initiated in 1982, after the collapse of oil prices precipitated an economic crisis--has arrived.

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His success will be measured by the rise in per capita income of Mexican households. That, in turn, may give Zedillo the support necessary to tackle the long-delayed political reform vital to Mexico’s modernization.

Question: Mexico seems overwhelmed with mourning due to the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio. What do you feel about it?

Answer: This is an unknown and dramatic experience we thought only happened in other countries--not here. Mexico has had social peace for many decades. This has created an enormous amount of affliction and uncertainty--but it has also generated a sense of national unity and (desire) for peace. This was a crime committed not only against one person, but against the nation. We all are hurt by it, and we will suffer the consequences of this terrible act for many years to come.

Q: Many people have criticized the way you handled Colosio’s campaign. Is this a fair criticism?

A: The situation in which the campaign evolved in the first three months was difficult. Chiapas changed the framework of reference that we had envisioned for the campaign. I feel that Luis Donaldo Colosio’s campaign was good--not because of me, but because he was responsible for giving us the larger themes. He was a party man who had managed many political campaigns, and the one he made for himself was the best--given the circumstances in the country.

Q: Is this the most critical moment in Mexico’s history after the revolution?

A: No. Obviously, I feel it is a difficult moment because incidents have occurred Sergio Munoz is the editor of Nuestro Tiempo, The Times’ weekly Spanish-language edition.

that are new in Mexico’s modern history--the Chiapas question and Colosio’s assassination. It is atrocious. But I feel that the country’s basic structure and the people’s capacity to resolve problems is enormous. On the contrary, I am very optimistic. I believe these incidents reflect the actions of a very small minority and shouldn’t be used to judge the strength of a country like Mexico.

Q: Do you possess the political experience necessary to lead the country in this moment of crisis?

A: Look, I will let results speak for themselves. I think that I have the experience and the capacity to come through for my party. Don’t forget that I am the first presidential candidate in many years who has been secretary of two Cabinet posts (budget and planning and education) in the federal government. The truth, in all modesty, is that there is no contender to the republican presidency with my experience. The facts speak for themselves.

Q: What is your platform?

A: First of all, we Mexicans must recognize our strengths and our capacities as well as our problems. Granted that we Mexicans will continue to defend and strengthen our sovereignty; this is very important and is not up for discussion. But then there are the problems of insecurity and injustice, unemployment, insufficient income for the working class, and poverty and inequality. My proposal is an integral strategy which will attack these problems simultaneously from four different fronts.

Regarding justice and democracy, we should strengthen the validity of the law in Mexico--a problem that ranges from unjust laws to unjust judges. We seek to solve the problems regarding the procurement of justice.

We must preserve and consolidate the stability of our economy. The answer to our problems won’t come from lack of financial discipline. We won’t find it by returning to budgetary deficits or to high inflation rates. To achieve economic development, it is mandatory to have economic stability.

Then we must improve productivity and efficiency. It is true that we have made macroeconomic advances. Now we must work hard at the microeconomic. We have to strengthen productivity in the workers and businesses. We must achieve a rapid technological actualization; train the workers as well as the companies; achieve a competitive condition in the input factors used by the Mexican enterprises; continue to streamline all of those aspects that affect the investment and the efficiency of workers and companies.

Last, but not least, is my social policy. This is what I place the most importance upon. We have to invest in people, break the vicious circle of poverty and incorporate millions of Mexicans into the modern sectors of the economy. This is my simple proposal: to achieve economic growth with a more favorable income distribution that will translate into an improved benefit for families. The most powerful point in my campaign is the Mexican family’s well-being.

Q: If you win, what would you do differently from the Salinas Administration?

A: Granted that we will maintain our financial discipline, I feel that, in the next few years, we must emphasize the issues of justice and democracy. The truth, with all due respect, is that the people, especially the most humble people, don’t feel the law is on their side. The people fear the police, they fear the justice department, the judges . . . .

There are matters of discrimination; I mention the case of women. We have not only discriminatory laws against women in Mexico, but even the existing laws that protect them are, at times, not carried out. Therefore, we must bring into effect what is written in article 4 of the constitution--that men and women are equal in the face of the law.

Q: But would you tell the people: ‘I understand your frustration with the economic policies in place since 1982, but you can expect that things will get better ?

A: I think that we have a well-founded belief in Mexico that the sacrifices we have made these years, under President Salinas, have allowed us to now have an extraordinary base for Mexico to develop in the coming years. So that Mexico may grow and, above all, have a structure that will benefit us in the next few years with a better distribution of income.

We must emphasize microeconomics, as it has not been done these past few years but which will be the challenge in the upcoming years. We have the economic possibilities of having a much more ambitious social policy than what we have had up until today--if we do not erase our advances. We cannot afford to go back to populism, paternalism or statism.

Q: How do you see Chiapas now?

A: There has been great progress since January. I was very encouraged by Manuel Camacho’s call last week in response to the attack on a military post. It seems there has been a positive response and soon dialogue will be re-established.

I believe the problem will be peacefully resolved, because there is good faith on the part of the government to reach a civilized solution, and now we see there is also good faith on the other side.

Q: Some of the criticism heard about your party is there is no accountability--that there are many electoral irregularities and yet nobody is ever punished publicly.

A: There was a flaw in our legislation. The crimes related to electoral issues were not aptly classified nor were the penalties. There now exists a classification of electoral crimes and the stipulation of the penalties in the penal code. Now we must make sure that all those who break the law receive the corresponding penalty. Now I feel we have a modern electoral framework. We have electoral institutions that are extremely refined in their procedures.

We are on the way to another electoral reform. The constitution was just amended to guarantee the autonomy of the electoral institutions and, in the coming days, Congress will surely be discussing additional reforms . . . .

Q: Your party is divided.

A: Says who?

Q: The entire world.

A: That is not true! Only a few people who are outside of my party say so.

Q: But I have heard criticism by the PRI old guard against President Salinas and by the young generation of Priistas, for whom “business-as-usual” is a repugnant practice. Don’t you believe that political reform in Mexico lags way behind?

A: Well, now you are mixing several topics. In the first place, I don’t believe my party is divided. Being a broad center party--a characteristic unknown to any other party here in Mexico--it embraces a diversity of opinions. It is a very myopic commentary to say, because there are different opinions among the members of my party, that the party is divided. No. Diversity of opinions and the construction of a consensus are precisely what we Priistas strive for.

The diversity of opinions is one manifestation of the political strength of our party. We are not a monolithic, authoritarian party where all must share the same opinion. Those who claim that our party is divided, and point to our problems, should concern themselves with their own party. The matters of the PRI are the concern of Priistas.

Q: So, you don’t think that political reform has been forgotten in Mexico?

A: President Salinas has made an extraordinary effort to modernize the country on all grounds. In the political realm lie all the facts. There were three great electoral reforms during his term. He has promoted democracy from the grass roots of society by calling to all Mexicans for an enormous social participation. Democracy transcends the electoral process. He has promoted a larger democratization of the country. He has made his best effort, given the circumstances. But it is clear that we must still work hard to achieve the kind of democracy that will appease the Mexican people’s call for democracy.

Q: Does the PRI have to separate from the government?

A: Well, the constitution is clear; it establishes the government’s functions and what defines a political party: public- interest organizations to promote the political participation of the citizens. Therefore, what we need to do is follow through with what the constitution has already established.

Q: How do you see the future between Mexico and the United States under the North American Free Trade Agreement?

A: I hope to have a relationship of mutual respect. I hope they realize that Mexico has firm and clear foreign-policy principles and that those principles are necessary to uphold an amicable and cooperative relationship. In order for the free-trade agreement to function, we need to work at it. We must dispel this environment of uncertainty that has developed in these months. I am sure this will be dissipated soon and that both countries can take advantage of the immense opportunities that the free-trade agreement promises.*


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