Staying Alive John Ross poses the question NAFTA ignores: who will survive as the "Mexican Miracle" nosedives? New Year's Eve seemed a propitious moment for Mexican President Carlos Salinas and his handpicked successor Luis Donaldo Colosio: the long-anticipated North American Free Trade Agreement would be a reality by morning; foreign investment was booming (although mostly in the volatile stock market); debt was down to just 37 percent of the gross internal product; and, even if the peso was a tad overvalued, the cash flow was sanguine. As the candidate of the candidate of the long-ruling (65 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has never lost a presidential election since the ruling party was consolidated in 1928, Colosio's victory in the August balloting seemed assured. The Colosios and the Salinases were toasting each others' good fortunes with Dom Perignon (according to one account published in El Financiero) when, at 1:45 AM on New Year's morning, a military attach‚ burst onto the terrace at the swank Oaxacan resort of Huatulco where the first couples were vacationing, to inform the President and his political heir of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. Since that pregnant moment, the "Mexican Miracle" has begun to crumble like a badly constructed house of cards. Less than three months later, Colosio is dead, his brains splattered all over a dead-end street in a Tijuana squatter colony on the front page of the world's most important newspapers; the director of the nation's largest bank remains a kidnap victim; the ruling PRI is in tatters; and prospects for a fraud-free, peaceful presidential election next August 21 have gone belly-up. The New Year's Day rebellion of the mostly indigenous Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) based in the distant Lacandon rainforest of Chiapas surprised Mexico City and Washington only because the movers and shakers of the New North American Economic Order had begun to believe the $24 million worth of public relations bushwa the Salinas government had shelled out during the campaign to ram NAFTA through the U.S. Congress. INSTABILITY BENEATH There have long been troubling signs of instability just beneath the paper-thin skin of Mexico's highly-stratified social structure. While the fury of the underclass has often been cloaked, the big picture has long been clear: the Salinas years have given Mexico 13 new billionaires while the number of Mexicans living in what the United Nations terms "extreme poverty" has leaped from eight million to 14 million in the past decade of neoliberal "reform." The vaunted NAFTA or TLC ("Tratado de Libre Commercio") as it is known south of the Bravo River, the fulcrum that Salinas would utilize to springboard Mexico from Third World to First, and the cornerstone of the president's free market strategies, has shut down whole productive sectors. It has left tens of thousands of Mexican textile and small manufacturing workers without any job except to sell U.S.- made, duty-free candy bars in the street. The end of agrarian reform and the withdrawal of government credits has devastated the agrarian sector and NAFTA, with its hefty imports of cheap U.S. and Canadian wheat and corn, sounds the death knell for Mexico's campesinos. Salinas-stroika is lauded by international institutions for having created human rights commissions and engineered electoral "reforms" but the rosy promise of democracy tendered by the longest-ruling political dynasty in the known universe has been purely for export. Violence, repression, and fraud have been the hallmark of the Salinas enlightenment, starting with the murder of social democrat opposition candidate Cuauht‚moc C rdenas's electoral strategist on the eve of the 1988 presidential elections -- C rdenas's Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has suffered over 250 political killings since its foundation following that election. The stunning assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio this past March 24 is only the most recent (at this writing) bloodletting conducted during the watch of Carlos Salinas. One previous political killing that should have alerted investors that the "Mexican Miracle" was built on treacherous sand, was the May 1993 hit on the nation's second leading Catholic churchman. Nearly a year after Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas was gunned down at the Guadalajara airport, allegedly by the Tijuana drug cartel, the killers remain at large and the public is properly skeptical. So it will be as the months drag on and what in Mexico are called "the intellectual authors" of the Colosio assassination remain unnamed. Oddly enough, the hit on the Cardinal coincided with another firefight far off in the Lacandon jungle. Last May 22, elements of the Mexican military stumbled into a fully equipped training base deep in the Lacandon municipality of Ocosingo, Chiapas. In the first exchange of gunfire between the as-yet unidentified guerrilla and the army, two soldiers were killed and several wounded. A public justice investigator was summoned to make an "ocular" (on the spot) report. That report, detailing rebel operations in the rainforest, was passed on to the then-Secretary of the Interior Patrocinio Gonzalez, the second most powerful official in the Salinas government whose purview included national security. Gonzalez communicated the news to the President's braintrust where word of the resurgence of a guerrilla movement in southern Mexico died a silent death last August, the information quashed lest it might upset the delicate balance in the U.S. Congress, then about to debate the merits of NAFTA. This past January 1, at the very hour that NAFTA became an irrevocable reality, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation marched into the highland cities of Chiapas to declare the free trade treaty "a death certificate" for the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Carlos Salinas's initial instincts to crush the Zapatistas with military might also tested faith in the "Mexican Miracle". Organized to mobilize, after the losing, bruising battle on NAFTA, human rights groups in the three signatory countries quickly piled into Chiapas to decry human rights abuses being committed by the Mexican military and the international press broadcast their findings. Twenty-five Democrats in the U.S. Congress who had voted NAFTA up at Clinton's behest sent the Mexican president an urgent letter, pleading with him to call the troops off the Indians. The stock market wobbled traumatically. For Salinas, dispatching the Zapatistas quickly had become bad for business. On January 13, the President declared a cease fire and sued for peace. No matter how artfully the Salinas administration has sought to cajole and coopt the rebels since then, the genie of armed violence is out of the bottle in Mexico. From the Suchiate River at the Guatemalan border to the Rio Bravo, and all across the girth of the country, the underclass has remembered that when you pick up the gun, you get the government's attention. Accused Colosio assassin Mario Aburto Mart¡nez and his co-conspirators seemed to have caught the drift. UNPRECEDENTED MOVEMENT The Zapatista uprising has motivated unprecedented movement by what is called the "civil society," that unstated coalition of campesinos, workers, youth, disaffected intellectuals, and squeezed petit bourgeosies that stands in opposition to the perpetuation of the PRI dynasty. Since January 1, Mayan farmers in Chiapas have invaded over 200,000 acres of private land, according to ranchers in Los Altos. More prosperous "small property owners" use their tractors to block national highways and close down banks in central Mexico to demonstrate opposition to governmental decapitalization of agriculture. In virtually every sierra of the nation, indigenous leaders express solidarity with the EZLN and press their own demands. Urban slumdwellers fill Mexico City's great Zocalo -- on one February day, there were 102 separate marches in the capital. Even at the opera, aficionados rise to sing the praises of the Zapatistas. The drama that has gripped Mexico since January 1 is being played out with the apocalyptical specter of the August 21 presidential elections looming up ahead. Until March 24, Colosio was to be pitted against Cuauht‚moc C rdenas, a candidate many Mexicans fervently believe edged out Salinas in '88 only to have victory fraudulently snatched from him in the vote count. The conservative National Action Party (PAN), which has increasingly sought to trade its votes in the national legislature to the PRI in exchange for electoral victories in the provinces, is fielding a brusque but uncharismatic criminal lawyer named Diego Fernandez to carry its banner. But since New Year's Day, there has been another entry in the running -- the Zapatistas, among whose demands the resignation of Carlos Salinas and the immediate creation of a transitional government to oversee a fair election in August, have been paramount. From their New Year's Day debut forward, the Zapatistas have flexed more political than military muscle. The uprising immediately cost Secretary of Interior Gonzalez and the governor of Chiapas their jobs and promoted the political fortunes of Salinas's peace conciliator Manuel Camacho Solis. Camacho had been bypassed last November when the President chose Colosio as his heir. But now, as a wave of sympathy for the Zapatistas crested over Mexico, demoting major party candidates to the back pages, Camacho's stock so soared that pundits predicted his imminent substitution for the faltering Colosio candidacy. Then, on the eve of the assassination, Camacho finally pulled out of the running, a flipflop that left the PRI hierarchy squirming. "The EZLN profoundly laments that the government group is not able to resolve its internal struggles without covering the country with blood," the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee stated on the heels of the Colosio assassination. The Zapatistas were certainly not alone in their conviction that the ruling party itself was responsible for the murder of its own candidate. One newspaper poll indicated that 80 percent of those questioned considered either the PRI or the government it has managed for six and a half decades to have ordered the killing. For the rebels, Colosio's death spells particular evil. Surrounded by the army and reduced media-wise to an occasional interview with the likes of Vanity Fair magazine, the Zapatistas suddenly appear vulnerable and isolated. "The end of our cycle is near" the mysterious Subcomandante Marcos wrote following the assassination. Who killed Luis Donaldo Colosio? Salinas's designated special prosecutor has found the assassination plot to involve corrupt police and disaffected PRI members in Baja California, a highly likely scenario whose cast of characters is expected to reach much higher into ruling circles. But whatever dark forces were behind the Tijuana triggerman, Colosio's assassination has leveled the playing field. Limited by constitutional constraints in his choice of a substitute candidate, Salinas selected Ernesto Zedillo, a faceless technocrat. Like Salinas, Zedillo had never run for public office but his nomination sends a comforting signal of continuing neoliberal "reform" to a nervous global economic community of which Mexico is now a fledgling member. So shaky had international bankers become about events south of the border that, following Colosio's murder, the White House immediately came to the rescue, overnight extending Salinas a $6 billion credit line -- twice what Clinton has pieced out to the former Soviet Union -- to insure against capital flight from Mexico by panic-stricken investors. The choice of Zedillo has splintered the already splintered ruling party not only in name but in form as well. When presented with the opportunity to hold the Institutional Party's first-ever open convention to determine Colosio's successor, Salinas chose the autocratic "dedazo" instead -- the ritual "big fingerpoint" by which the outgoing President has always named his heir. Now, led by a bloodless candidate who has no popular support, and torn by internal dissension that may well have cost Colosio his life, the ruling PRI no longer appears the vaunted bastion of stability it has always claimed to be. In 1988, C rdenas's numbers were swollen by millions of PRIistas who, appalled by their party's choice (and method of choosing) its candidate. showed their displeasure by voting the opposition up -- thus moving the ruling party to inflict massive fraud upon the nation in order to retain its chokehold on power. Such a scenario seems again in the offing in 1994 -- with one significant permutation: the armed conscience of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. If there are not fair elections August 2l, Marcos told La Jornada just before peace talks began in the cathedral in San Crist¢bal de las Casas February 21, "there won't be enough cathedrals in all of Mexico in which to negotiate with the Zapatistas and Villistas and Flores Magonistas" who will rise up in arms. Such a pledge seems more pertinent than ever in light of the PRI killing of its own candidate. Keeping the Zapatistas alive until August 21 now appears the only hope for fair elections in Mexico. JOHN ROSS, a journalist who has lived over 30 years in Mexico, is currently writing Chiapas: Uprising at the Roots for fall 1994 publication by Common Courage Press.