Mexico's Foreign Policy under Salinas: The Search for Friends in the First World*

Article excerpt


After years in the wings, Mexico is poised for the spotlight. The club of rich nations hails it as the perfect student of economics. What better candidate for stardom than this country of 85 million people, which went bust so publicly just over ten years ago and which has since embarked on dramatic and successful economic reforms? .Mr. Saunas has a claim to be hailed as one the great men of the 20th century (The Economist 1993).

The above statement represents the view of mainstream foreign opinion on Mexico: a singular case, a developing country that had reverted old policies, become a stellar student of the economic orthodoxy of the times, and had started the journey towards joining the ranks of First World nations. All the accolades were bestowed upon one man: Carlos Satinas de Gortari, a young technocrat of 41 years of age with a doctorate from Harvard and having already served as a Minister under the previous administration had, against all expectations, been chosen by outgoing President Miguel De La Madrid as his successor to occupy the highest office in Mexico

What foreign policy did this statesman implement that would precipitate such adoring reviews abroad? In short, one that served his particular economic revolution. Domestic economic policy became inextricably linked to foreign (economic) policy, and indeed the border between the two became blurred. Under Salinas, diplomacy was to take a decidedly economic hue, and whether one judges his policies as clever or as misguided, the change in Mexican foreign policy orientation he introduced has been institutionalized. It will be difficult, if not inconceivable, for future Mexican presidents to turn the clock back and return to the old policy framework. That is why to understand the Mexico of today and that of tomorrow necessitates a previous knowledge of Carlos Salinas' term in office.

If there was to be a ubiquitous theme on the lips of Mexican policymakers at this time it was that of modernization, the need for Mexico to modernize. What was meant by it? This is how Carlos Satinas himself would define it in his inaugural speech, where he would use the term modernization or some form of the verb modernizar, a staggering 30 times (Rusell 1994):

Economic modernization means a public sector that is more efficient in attending its legal and popular obligations; it means counting with a productive apparatus that is more competitive vis-à-vis other nations; it means a clear system of economic rules that will foster productive creativity and imaginative entrepreneurship among more and more Mexicans... To modernize Mexico is to face straight on the new economic and social realities of the world (Salinas 1994).

In practice, this translated into privatization, deregulation and economic opening to the outside world.

The Carlos Salinas administration saw a complete change of cabinet staff. The new president recruited a team of internationally oriented young economists who had studied in the United States and who espoused a new worldview, a new conception of Mexico, and certainly a new view of its foreign relations. While the shift in the balance of power from those with political experience (the priista dinosaurs) to those with technical abilities (the tecnicos or technocrats) began in 1982 with Miguel de la Madrid, 1988 was to mark a veritable turning point. The Mexican governing cabinet became more monolithic than it had ever been before, a cabinet that was praised as "probably the most economically literate group that has ever governed any country anywhere."

Modernization of Mexico would amount to a total repudiation of the economic policies adopted in the past. Mexico's former inward-looking orientation had resulted in mounting industrial inefficiency and an excessive dependence on external borrowing*. The mistakes of the past were to be avoided (Centeno 1994). A new rapport would be established with the world economy in which Mexico would seek to accommodate itself to the new, evolving rules of the game. …