"There is no room in Mexico for ex-presidents," former President Jose Lopez Portillo (1976-1982) was said to have warned former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. He should know. Lopez Portillo quietly moved to Rome after leaving office. Loyal to the unwritten rules of the Mexican political game, he endured his political lynching in silence until years later, when he published his memoirs. His hyperactive predecessor, Luis Echeverria (1970-1976), wanted to be U.N. secretary general but was named ambassador to Australia and the Fiji Islands to keep him from meddling in Mexican politics.
Why do Mexicans rip out the still-beating heart of the man who occupied the peak of the Aztec pyramid with an obsidian knife? There are three reasons.
First is the constitutional prohibition of reelection, Mexico's version of term limits. The prohibition is a legacy of the 1910 revolution, erected against the 34-year personal dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. This rule of Mexican politics is passionately defended and guarantees that no one monopolizes pork and power.
Mexico's recurrent fear is that a strong president will either try to change the constitution to reelect himself or that he will deliberately name weak successors. One of the defining moments of Mexican politics occurred when President Plutarco Elias Calles (1924-28), who perpetuated his power by naming puppet presidents during a period known as the Maximato (1924-34), was forced into exile by President Lazaro Cardenas (1934-40). Since then, incoming presidents must prove their independence from their predecessor and outgoing presidents must abstain from all political activity.
The second reason for the ritual slaying of ex-presidents is the corruption embedded in Mexico's single-party-dominant regime. The moral rebirth of the regime springs up Phoenix-like when the new president offers a human sacrifice from the ashes of the old administration. Lopez Portillo jailed Eugenio Mendez Docurro, secretary of communications and transportation under Echeverria. Miguel de la Madrid attacked Lopez Portillo, calling for "moral renovation," passing laws regarding family members in the government and jailing Lopez Portillo's Pemex head, Jorge Diaz Serrano. Salinas himself jailed the head of the petroleum workers' union, Joaquin Hernandez Galicia (La Quina), and businessman Eduardo Legorreta. Ex-presidents and their families, however, were untouchable. New presidents covered the back of the old and expected the same treatment when they left.
Finally, incoming presidents blame their predecessors for the economic catastrophes they inherit. Devaluation pressures always increased around presidential elections. Echeverria implemented Mexico's first devaluation since 1954 as a lame-duck president, after the election of Lopez Portillo. Lopez Portillo devalued before the elections, after pledging to defend the peso like a dog. Mexican public opinion is unforgiving and Lopez Portillo observed that "presidents who devalue are devalued." Legend holds that when he walked into a Mexico City restaurant after leaving office, the patrons barked. De la Madrid devalued before the elections in 1987, pressured by a stock-market crash. Salinas ended his term resisting devaluation, hoping that the economic situation after Ernesto Zedillo's inauguration would permit a soft landing.
Does the Zedillo-Salinas fight differ from past tiffs between presidents? In some aspects, only as a matter of degree. Salinas was by far the most powerful president Mexico has seen in years. The stronger the president, the more intense the fear of a Maximato. Zedillo had to flex his muscles and demonstrate his independence to placate the yammering voices who claim that Zedillo is a weak president and saw Salinas' shadow under every bed.
Zedillo, furthermore, did not choose an all-out confrontation from the start. After the peso devaluation in December, he shared the blame, a response that fell within the traditional rules of the game. He restrained himself to a pointed critique of the "imbalances accumulated over period of several years . ." Salinas, according to script, kept quiet.
But the unsolved assassinations of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, PRI Secretary General Francisco Ruiz Massieu and Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo stained the moral credibility of the previous regime as never before. The Phoenix would never rise unless Zedillo and his opposition-party attorney general, Antonio Lozano, broke the rules of the game and got to the truth, even though it touched a member of the ex-president's family. Salinas' hunger strike after his brother Raul's arrest violated the ex-president's code of silence, created an unseemly spectacle, escalated the conflict and made his departure from Mexico inevitable.
Zedillo's pursuit of the murder cases, regardless of their impact on the former president is truly revolutionary, if indeed he is motivated by more than mere political expediency. Will Zedillo declare war on an entire political and economic network of institutionalized complicity? If a president's family is not exempt from the law, no one is. How far will Zedillo go in rooting out corruption and taking on the drug lords, the army, the business elite, other prominent politicians?
The question is, will the vested interests of Mexico fight back? The old rules of the game dictating loyalty to the president used to ensure party discipline, at best, and a unified front among the complicitous, at worst. Once the presidency is desacralized, there is little to stop Zedillo's political adversaries within his own party from turning against him.
The battle between Zedillo and Salinas also departs from the past because Salinas was not just any president. He embodied a revolutionary model of market economic policies, a vision of Mexico's modernization and a historic reconciliation in U.S.-Mexican relations. A policy legacy is at stake, as much and more than the image of a man. It is now clear that Salinas' critical mistake was in the way he financed Mexico's current-account deficit. But long after the Mexican and U.S. public have forgotten Raul Salinas and Mario Ruiz Massieu, Mexico will have consolidated a pattern of constructive cooperation with the United States, tariffs will have been dismantled, Mexico's investment policies liberalized and fiscal health made stable by privatization and monetary reform.
The danger in the rift between these two titans is that Salinas' discomfiture and Mexico's financial crisis offer an opportunity to the adversaries of market liberalization to tip the balance of political power in ways that Zedillo may not be able to control. Zedillo is a market-oriented economist, but he may now find it harder to unify an unruly PRI behind economic reform. Will the 12 years of reform begun during De la Madrid go down the drain? Will the United States be shaken and fail to stand by their partner, thereby contributing to the making of an even greater crisis?
We need to stand back to get some perspective on our southern neighbor. Mexico is not unique with regard to the pervasiveness, scale or quasi-institutionalized style of corruption. Single-party-dominant systems historically have bred corruption in Japan, Italy and the solid South in the United States. The qualitative difference in the Mexican case is its proximity to the largest consumer market for illegal drugs in the world, which adds a deadly national-security dimension to the issue of corruption.
Salinas' greatest failing is that he did not complete the revolution he began. The economic reforms he set in motion also demanded judicial and political transparency, a blind spot for which he has been judged harshly. It will fall to Zedillo to complete those reforms. If he succeeds, Mexico will end up transformed for the better, with a restructured economy and strengthened political and judicial institutions.