Salinas: The Mystery and the Controversy : Perhaps only history will fully judge Mexico's ex-president

What did the president know and when did he know it?

These were fundamental questions in Watergate, the constitutional crisis that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974. Now, similar questions are being asked in Mexico regarding former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Unlike most of the Mexican presidents who preceded him in office this century, Salinas has not faded into oblivion with the end of his six-year term. He remains a key and controversial character on the Mexican political scene--a fact only emphasized by his decision to leave Mexico this week for what friends say is an extended stay abroad, possibly in the United States.

MEDIA VITRIOL: The Mexican press is not mincing words, flatly reporting that Salinas has gone into exile like some deposed banana-republic dictator. While perhaps exaggerated in tone, those Mexican reports reflect widespread suspicion that Salinas is trying to take it on the lam just as President Ernesto Zedillo's new government begins uncovering some shocking scandals of the Salinas years, and just as the risks of Salinas' economic policies become painfully evident in Mexico's latest fiscal crisis.

As recently as last Dec. 1, when he handed the presidential sash to Zedillo, public opinion polls indicated that Salinas was popular with Mexicans. The only place he was more popular was on Wall Street and in other financial centers. There Salinas' efforts to modernize and open up the Mexican economy--utilizing the economic education he and other Mexican technocrats received at elite U.S. universities--made him a darling of economists and investors.

Now, from London to Los Angeles to Mexico City, few seem willing to admit they ever thought well of Salinas. That is perhaps understandable, given the gravity of some of the charges leveled at former officials in his government--everything from covering up assassinations to being connected with drug traffickers, not to mention that Salinas' older brother stands accused of masterminding a murder. But it must be remembered that Salinas himself has not been charged with any crimes. Even if he were, he is entitled to a presumption of innocence until proved guilty.

What really feeds the anger Mexicans now feel toward Salinas--an anger that leads many to now see him as responsible for any and all sins that may have been committed during his administration--is a sense of betrayal over the now-obvious failures of his fiscal policies. After all, Salinas was the bright young president who was going to lead Mexico into the first rank of nations by making the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada the cornerstone of his economic reforms. Instead, Mexicans find themselves once again trapped in underdevelopment and poverty due to the collapse of the peso and the flight of foreign capital to other nations.

A WORTHY GOAL: Clearly, mistakes in Salinas' fiscal policies--especially in the last year of his tenure, when he was reluctant to dramatically devalue the peso despite a consensus among economists that such an unpopular step was necessary--are to blame for the latest recession to hit Mexico. So if Salinas can be accused of anything for now, it is of being stubborn, cynical or naive, or perhaps a little of all three, in not modifying his financial strategy when he had the chance. And while Salinas' strategy clearly failed, the goal he and his generation of U.S.-trained technocrats were striving for remains worthwhile: building a modern, efficient Mexican economy geared to compete on the world level in the 21st Century.

As with Richard Nixon in this country, only historians will be able to judge how well Salinas did in trying to achieve his highest goals. In the meantime, the harsh judgment of his contemporaries is inevitable.

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