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Book by Salinas Takes Swipe at His Successor

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a five-year exile, disgraced former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari charged back into Mexico’s political fray, releasing an encyclopedic memoir Monday and launching a vitriolic attack on his onetime protege, current President Ernesto Zedillo.

Salinas’ return has raised the specter of political warfare between two fading titans, just as Mexico appears headed for a peaceful, democratic transition from 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

“The clothes are being ripped off the old system. Just before dying, it is showing its horrible intimacies,” said Lorenzo Meyer, a prominent historian.

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Salinas’ 1,393-page tome, “Mexico: A Difficult Step Toward Modernity,” is a detailed defense of his 1988-94 presidency, during which he was a prized U.S. ally for championing such things as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But Salinas fled into self-imposed exile in March 1995, his reputation in tatters. Mexicans turned their fury on the ex-president because of the devastating economic crisis that began shortly after he left office in late 1994 and subsequent revelations that Salinas’ elder brother, Raul, had socked away more than $100 million in European bank accounts.

In interviews during a four-day visit to Mexico that ended Saturday, the ex-president announced that he would soon move back to the nation for good--he has lived primarily in Ireland during his exile--and that he intended to clear his name.

“There was a deliberate campaign by the [current] government to place the responsibility for this economic catastrophe on my government, instead of on the errors committed by Dr. Zedillo’s administration,” Salinas told the Mexico City daily Reforma.

Zedillo has not commented on the charges, and his spokesman did not return a phone call Monday seeking reaction.

The feud between Salinas and the current president is long-running. While Salinas’ book and media campaign offered little new information, Mexicans were mesmerized by the audacious attack on the powerful president. Salinas repeatedly labeled Zedillo, an economist, as inept and worse.

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“All weekend people were calling and asking, ‘Has the Salinas book arrived yet? When will the Salinas book be there?’ ” said Octavio Ogarrio, manager of the Crystal bookstore in the upscale Polanco neighborhood in the capital.

Alejandro Camacho, merchandising director for the publisher, Plaza y Janes, said the first printing of 30,000 sold out, indicating that the Spanish-language book would be a bestseller by Mexican standards.

The book appears as Zedillo is enjoying high popularity ratings, in part for presiding over the country’s fairest presidential election, held in July. It was won by Vicente Fox of the center-right National Action Party, or PAN.

But ruling-party members are so furious at their loss of the presidency and congress that some have vowed to expel Zedillo. Analysts have predicted that the president’s enemies could seek revenge on him after he leaves the powerful post in December. In a country beset by political infighting in recent years, such a prospect is unnerving.

“Salinas still can rock the boat,” said Denise Dresser, a Mexico specialist at the Pacific Council on International Policy at USC. “He has a lot of information about members of the political class. He will stop at nothing.”

However, it’s not clear how much power Salinas wields. Meyer, the historian, said the PRI’s devastating loss in the elections had the indirect effect of sidelining the former president.

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“Salinas hasn’t realized that the country he wants to return to with his anti-Zedillo crusade is now different,” he said. “It’s not interested in this except out of morbid curiosity. Although he [Salinas] would like to move the levers of power, he can’t. Salinas by himself didn’t have the force; it was as part of a great machine that was the state party in an authoritarian system.”

Some say the controversy could benefit Fox.

Political scientist Jorge Castaneda, a prominent member of the president-elect’s transition team, said the scandal has removed some of the media glare from Fox as he prepares his Cabinet and policies.

But if the fight goes on, he said, it could eventually force the Fox administration to open investigations into Salinas’ allegations of favoritism and corruption.

Among Salinas’ harshest charges is that Zedillo informed a group of prominent Mexican businessmen in advance about his plan to devalue the peso in December 1994. Salinas charges that the move set off a run on the peso by the executives, which drained Mexico’s reserves.

Critics have responded by saying that Salinas shares the blame for leaving the country’s finances in such a vulnerable state.

In his book and in interviews, Salinas also accused Zedillo of causing the PRI’s loss of the presidency and of unjustly jailing his brother Raul on murder charges in 1995.

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The arrest marked the start of the open feud between Salinas and the man he chose to succeed him. Before Raul Salinas’ jailing, ex-presidents and their families were treated as virtually untouchable by their successors.

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Jose Diaz Briseno in The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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