The Larger Lessons of the Mexican Crisis Mexico Must Reform a Political System That Allows Presidents to Manipulate Public Policy for Their Own Ends

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THE government crackdown on the Zapatista rebels over the weekend, spurring demonstrations in Mexico City and leading many observers there to question the judgment of President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, may have pushed the peso crisis off the front pages.

But the astute observation Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas made before the Clinton administration's loan guarantee was announced still should be heeded.

He said that Mexico started 1994 with its bucket full but ended the year with it empty. He wondered whether or not the administration had considered where the holes were before committing more funds to an obviously leaky bucket.

I am not saying that short-term assistance to Mexico isn't necessary right now; it is. But the United States must be careful not to prop up an outmoded political system that contributes to Mexico's continual economic crises. The main "hole" is the inflexible, almost-dictatorial powers wielded by Mexican presidents.

The blame for Mexico's financial crisis has centered on former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. What the finger-pointing shows is frustration with presidentialism gone wrong. The accusations, including the threat of a trial, charge that Mr. Salinas used his extraordinary powers as chief executive for personal gain and against the best interests of the Mexican people. Specifically, Salinas is said to have improperly depleted Mexico's dollar reserves in 1994 from approximately $30 billion to less than $7 billion in a futile attempt to defend an overvalued peso. Why? So that his image as author of the "Salinas economic miracle" would remain untarnished at the end of his presidential term last Dec. 1 and he could be elected head of the new World Trade Organization.

Unfortunately, for a Mexican president to manipulate public policy for his own private ends and ego is nothing new. Almost 20 years ago, in November 1975, as President Luis Echeverria was nearing his last year in office, he thought it might be a nice career move to become secretary-general of the United Nations. …