Staying Alive: The "Mexican Miracle" Nosedives
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.


    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.


    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
    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
   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.