Agustin Barrios Gomez, president of SolutionsAbroad.com, has been commissioned by the newly-relaunched English-language daily The News (www.thenews.com.mx) to produce a weekly opinion column on Mexican current affairs. The column is published every Wednesday in the paper and also here online. Our president is a member of the Mexican Council on Foreign Affairs and is an analyst of politics in North America with a degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.
What to Make of Carlos Salinas de Gortari
May 20, 2009
In order to understand today's Mexico, you have to understand Carlos Salinas de Gortari's presidency (1988-1994). His reign was a watershed period in Mexico's modernization. Vilified by many (mostly on the left) and adored by some (mostly on the right), President Salinas is no doubt a brilliant, if often devious, man.
The latest accusations regarding his role in bringing to light videos that discredited former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, have brought everybody's favorite conspiracist back into the limelight. People may well be doubting the veracity of Mr. Ahumada's claims, but not that Carlos Salinas would be capable of such a thing. His semi-senile predecessor's ramblings about Mr. Salinas' alleged corruption have just served to remind people of the evil Salinas that Mexicans think they know; a caricature of a man who came to power after a seriously flawed election that many people believe was fraudulent and who left the country on the verge of bankruptcy.
In 1988 the country was ripe for change. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son of a populist President of the 1930s, was running on a platform of democratic transition from the left. Mr. Salinas was President Miguel de la Madrid's hand-picked successor. The 1980s had been a "lost decade" for Mexico, with de la Madrid taking office in the middle of a major economic collapse. The severity of Mexico's "debt crisis" was so bad that rich country banks and the developing economies had been sucked in. The PRI responded by giving the presidency to a group of economically liberal technocrats under de la Madrid; a group that The Economist called the most economically "literate" government in the world.
They put the country through IMF-planned shock therapy and achieved stabilization. They also opened up the economy, joining the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the precursor to the WTO (World Trade Organization). In fact, the prestige of the de la Madrid-Salinas administrations would be such that President Salinas would have become the first director of the WTO when he left the presidency in 1994. But his ambition was scuttled after Mexico suffered the "tequila" crisis that December, an economic collapse that was largely blamed on Salinas' use of dollar-denominated debt to pump the economy in the runup to the 1994 elections.
President de la Madrid chose the 39 year-old Harvard-educated Carlos Salinas because keeping Mexico on the path to economic liberalization was paramount. Mr. Salinas privatized the banks and telecoms, creating a new business elite that was beholden to him. He also convinced the world that Mexico's full development was just a matter of time, making it the first developing country (after Turkey, which was admitted because of its role in NATO) to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Salinas' crowning achievement was to negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). According to his book, it was his realization that Europe and Asia were too busy with their own integration to pay much attention to Mexico that convinced him that Mexico's future lay with its neighbors. NAFTA would anchor the country by making it politically and economically unfeasible to go back on free trade.
Eventually, the Salinas legacy would become victim to its own contradictions. It tried to impose economic modernity on Mexico while fomenting an old-style kleptocracy, channeled via his brother, Raúl, who would eventually end up in jail. The day NAFTA was implemented, on January 1st, 1994, a group of far-left romantics would lead a ragtag band of indigenous groups to "take" several towns in Chiapas. Marcos and his millions of urban sympathizers would remind the Salinas modernizers that they had liberalized the country's economy from the top down. That they had not created a national consensus and, despite the fall of European Communism, many people still believed in old-style socialism. Most damningly, for all of his economic brilliance, Mr. Salinas had not achieved rates of growth that were high enough to infuse the urban poor, who are the poor that matter politically, with enough hope to overcome their numerous frustrations.
15 years later, NAFTA has proven to be exactly the anchor to the free market that Salinas had hoped. Further, a democratic transition has taken place, such that Mexico is both economically and politically very free. Nevertheless, the loosening of the reigns of authoritarianism without a strengthening of government institutions has meant that lawlessness is a serious problem. According to critics, Salinas allowed groups of narcotics traffickers to grow, making President Calderón's fight with these gangs life-threatening.
Salinas left an indelible mark on this country. Understanding his legacy without making it into a Manichean caricature is the key to figuring out how we can finally get Mexico out of its current stagnation.
For more thought provoking articles by Agustin Barrios Gomez please go to our Opinion Column Archive
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