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Zedillo Tours Mexico With Panache, Pesos

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cheerleaders shrieked, athletes high-fived, and thousands of students thundered “Ze-dee-yo! Ze-dee-yo!” with rock-star adulation as the once-shy economist worked the crowd at Occidental University here in the northern state of Sinaloa.

Cringing presidential security guards elbowed and shoved to clear paths through the stadium, while their boss--beaming and tie-less--reached into the crowd to press the flesh, kiss cheeks, pat heads, hug and trade quips over screams and applause.

It was a scene that repeated itself for four days last week in three Mexican states as President Ernesto Zedillo did something that just a few months ago would have seemed extraordinary.

The technocrat-turned-president, who had appeared to recoil at the sight even of sympathetic crowds during much of his first two years in office, was being a politician. He was barnstorming his country in the tradition of so many Mexican presidents past, with a new sense of confidence and comfort that spread thousands of handshakes and hundreds of millions of pesos in fresh federal money across the Mexican countryside.

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On his longest domestic trip since he took office in December 1994, Zedillo wielded a hand mike like a talk-show host. He ad-libbed speeches in remote villages and major cities from Sinaloa to Yucatan, where his French-built Super Puma helicopter and silver presidential bus delivered him with a message as new as his methods.

He hugged hundreds of babies, shook thousands of hands and cut ribbons at new universities, high-tech factories and a hospital. And almost everywhere he went, Zedillo talked money, announcing increases of up to 73% in federal spending for everything from fattening cows and paving streets to building new schools and clinics in a nation that he insists is on the rebound.

Those increases come after two years of economic crisis that sharply curtailed government spending, and independent economists agree with Zedillo’s assertions that the increased allotments will do little or no damage to the nation’s economy.

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But according to critics and opposition leaders, the sudden largess--and the president’s new populist allure--could not come at a better time for the ruling party.

Just five months away from national legislative elections that could cost Zedillo and his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, its congressional majority for the first time in seven decades, critics say the spending spree is, at least in part, politically driven.

Opposition leaders assert that Zedillo--who once tried to distance himself from his party--is now following a long tradition of stepped-up social spending during key election years to bolster the chances of the PRI.

Moreover, they say, Zedillo’s new political style is showing signs of what the magazine Proceso recently tagged “The Messiah Syndrome,” as he embarks on the third year of his six-year term--the point at which Mexican presidents have traditionally begun to assert their near-absolute power, Proceso said.

But as Zedillo and his aides toured the nation from one of its poorest states to one of its richest, the president and his staff flatly denied those assertions.

They insisted that this year’s large increases in federal spending for rural and social development merely reflect the recovery of Mexico’s economy after two years of crisis-driven austerity left key social programs lagging. They also stressed that Zedillo’s rural tours are nothing new: Last week’s trip was just the longest of dozens of domestic tours in which Zedillo has logged a reported 245,254 miles and 1,122 hours by air, rail, road and foot since he took office.

But senior government officials conceded that the president’s public image is, in fact, new--as new as his more activist role within a ruling party that he once said should be “a healthy distance” from the presidency.

Zedillo’s renewed involvement, which one top official said is applauded by the PRI’s old guard and young technocrats alike, is based on the belief that a PRI victory in congressional elections July 6 is “absolutely essential” to Zedillo’s being able to continue his economic policies and political reforms.

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“The president doesn’t think he’s a god or a messiah, and this new spending is not in any way linked to the elections,” the official said, asking not to be named. “But the president is realizing that, as a member of a political party, he has the right to fight for his party to keep its majority in Congress.

“This is what President Clinton does. This is what the leaders of European countries do. No one there would think twice of a president or prime minister out campaigning for his party during a key election year.”

At the core of the criticism is Mexico’s political context: the extent to which the PRI has become synonymous with the Mexican presidency and the federal government during the 68 years of the party’s control over both institutions. Historically, activist and opposition groups say, the PRI has used federal subsidies and social entitlements to influence the vote.

During last week’s tour, Zedillo signed agreements committing the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars to education, farm subsidies, road construction, electrification, health care, small business and agricultural research programs--all of them up sharply from 1996 and all loudly applauded at each gathering.

At times, the scenes were reminiscent of the federal paternalism that has long been a hallmark of Mexican politics: At each whistle-stop, Zedillo was flanked by ruling party governors and mayors who profusely thanked the president for the entitlements.

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But there were clear differences that set Zedillo apart from his predecessors--and from his party’s political campaign.

Not once did the president mention the PRI or even the upcoming elections. He stressed that the new spending is primarily for rural development, education, health care and basic government services--programs he sees as central themes of his presidency.

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He began each speech with profound thanks to crowds that ranged from impoverished Indians and peasants to scientists and business people--for their patience and pain during two years of recession. Real incomes plummeted, prices soared and government purse strings tightened after Zedillo sharply devalued the peso just three weeks into his term and then agreed to federal austerity measures to win international bailout packages.

Now, with many short-term loans repaid, including $13 billion advanced by Clinton, senior officials said Zedillo finally is free from some fiscal constraints that had a chilling effect on his political style.

But as Zedillo worked the crowds last week, he had to take some bad with the good.

After a showering of praise from Sinaloa cattlemen at a ranch outside the state capital, Culiacan, a woman whose son was kidnapped eight months ago grabbed the president’s van as it pulled away, wailing and weeping through an open window. Zedillo stopped, listened and vowed to look into the case.

The following day, at the signing ceremony on a Guasave street corner for Zedillo’s new social-development plan, a man in the crowd interrupted Zedillo’s speech: “We want water! We want sewers!” Zedillo ad-libbed, asking the man where he lived, then turned to the governor and ordered him to get on it.

Elsewhere in the crowd, Graciela Sanchez, a social worker, pushed through to hand the president a letter reporting that a street just half a block away was a poorly constructed death trap where three girls had died in a car accident the previous night.

It was one of hundreds of letters, file folders, crumpled notes and handwritten appeals that are routinely stuffed into Zedillo’s hands as he works crowds. Zedillo receives an average of 300 such missives every day while on tour, his aides said.

The aides said most of the letters are turned over to appropriate state and local officials, as part of another central theme in Zedillo’s presidency: a new era in which governors and mayors are increasingly empowered to allocate federal funds and implement projects for which they are held accountable.

That his “new federalism"--announced nearly two years ago--is working was disputed by some local officials along the way last week. Especially critical were several opposition party mayors swept into office in key defeats of PRI candidates during the two years of economic crisis.

Labeling the program “false federalism,” the mayor who greeted Zedillo in Merida, Yucatan’s capital, told The Times that he has yet to see any federal funds since taking office nearly two years ago.

The reason, Mayor Patricio Patron suggested, is that he is a member of the conservative National Action Party, Mexico’s largest opposition group, which is leading in many polls. Yucatan’s governor is from the most traditional faction of the PRI, the old guard known as “dinosaurs.”

“I’m not seeing the decentralization of resources here,” Patron said as he trailed Zedillo and Gov. Victor Cervera Pacheco on a late-night walking tour in the state capital. “Maybe they’re going to the state, but it’s not trickling down to the city.”

Assessing Zedillo’s new image in general, Patron said: “He is becoming a better politician, but I don’t know if that means he’s becoming a better leader. I also worry that the dinosaurs are grabbing him, which would make this process of change in him just another deceit.”


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