PERSPECTIVE ON MEXICO : Did Someone Say ‘I Told You So’? : As the incompetence and scandal in the Salinas revolution is revealed, the U.S. must not make things even worse.

<i> Jorge G. Castaneda is a graduate professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. </i>

It had to end badly; the dreadful outcome was too often predicted. But no one, not Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s fiercest opponents, not NAFTA’s most ferocious adversaries, not the shrillest critics of Mexico’s so-called economic miracle could have ever imagined as disastrous a denouement as this: the former president threatening a hunger strike; his brother in jail accused of murder; the peso at 6 to the dollar; the U.S. Treasury micromanaging the Mexican economy; the central bank’s reserves virtually dry. No one, not even the most proficient practitioners of doom and gloom, could have predicted such an end to the high and mighty Salinas revolution.

Before the country is able to determine where it goes from here, a number of questions will have to be answered.

One question is what the investigations--both legal and political--of Raul Salinas de Gortari’s presumed misdeeds will reveal. He is, of course, accused of murder, but politically and in the court of public opinion, he is on trial for much more. For several years, he has been suspected of having enriched himself immensely thanks to his brother’s office. In September, 1992, when presidents Fernando Collor de Mello of Brazil and Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela were reeling from corruption scandals, this writer wondered, on these very pages, whether Raul Salinas would survive similar scrutiny.

There has also been a great deal of speculation in Mexico about the exact nature of Raul Salinas’ close friendship with former President George Bush’s son, Jeb. It is well known here that for many years the two families spent vacations together--the Salinases at Jeb Bush’s home in Miami, the Bushes at Raul’s ranch, Las Mendocinas, under the volcano in Puebla. There are many in Mexico who believe that the relationship became a back channel for delicate and crucial negotiations between the two governments, leading up to President Bush’s sponsorship of NAFTA.


Another unanswered question that is crucial to Mexico’s recovery involves the threat that Carlos Salinas made (and promptly withdrew) to fast until his name was cleared, even should he starve to death in the process. The public, which abhors him today as much as it revered him a year ago, was not moved; if anything, the public was further outraged by the threat, seeing it for what it was--attempted blackmail: the ex-president, who had presented himself as a great reformer, demanding that his successor absolve him of any responsibility for the collapse of the economy after he left office in December, and to drop the investigation of his connection, if any, in the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio last March. It was exactly this tradition of immunity, of new presidents letting bygones be bygones, of the scandalous impunity of officeholders, that has corrupted the country politically and economically.

Of course, it is possible that the blackmail will work: that what Salinas knows about the skeletons in so many closets will rattle enough nerves to persuade his critics that it might be wiser to back off.

Already, President Ernesto Zedillo has been forced by the catastrophic legacy of his predecessor and by his own mistakes to resort to extreme measures to consolidate his grip on power. These measures are generally popular and worthy of praise and support, but they are, at best, stop-gap solutions. Zedillo’s biggest problem is one that is beyond his control: the myopic policies imposed by Washington that threaten to drive Mexico into chaos. The economic package that President Clinton put together to bail out Mexico is excessively severe, recessionary and foolhardy. But these are the least of its drawbacks. Its effects on a constricted economy and explosive unemployment are sure to bring demands in Washington for closure of the border. That is a prescription for utter disaster south of the Rio Grande.

There is a habit in the United States of indulging in endless soul-searching after a disaster. This time, the soul-searching should begin now, so that Washington is never again surprised when the marvelous modernizing leaders who do the United States’ bidding turn out to be crooks and worse.