The Peso and the President: Mexico's Leadership Crisis

By Andrew Reding. Andrew Reding, an associate editor of Pacific News Service, directs the North America Project of the World Policy Institute . | The Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Peso and the President: Mexico's Leadership Crisis


Andrew Reding. Andrew Reding, an associate editor of Pacific News Service, directs the North America Project of the World Policy Institute ., The Christian Science Monitor


WASHINGTON'S optimism on developments in Mexico City is belied by the peso. Its chronic devaluations underscore serious concerns about the leadership ability of President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon.

No one doubts the president's good intentions. But in a country whose political system still centers on an all-powerful presidency, Mr. Zedillo's failure to assert his authority contributes to uncertainty and instability. Foreigners respond by dumping pesos, and Mexicans by switching votes to the opposition National Action Party (PAN). With five years left in Zedillo's term, this only compounds his problems at a time when the country desperately needs firm leadership to confront formidable social and political challenges.

The social challenge is symbolized by the stalled peace talks in Chiapas, reminding the country of the wider problems of poverty and discrimination against the indigenous peoples that make up more than one-quarter of Mexico's population. Contributing to the most recent market jitters was the arrest of an alleged Zapatista leader in Mexico City, just as the government announced the talks were making progress. Though he was released six days later, the incident left everyone wondering how it could have happened in the first place. Especially worrisome was the prisoner's description of interrogation by Army officers before he was turned over to police, suggesting that Zedillo has trouble exercising authority over the armed forces.

The political challenge, dramatized by disclosures that former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's brother Raul stashed more than $100 million dollars of presumed drug money in European bank accounts, is to restore confidence in the government. Zedillo made an early effort with Raul Salinas's arrest on charges of masterminding the assassination of a prominent politician. Yet, worried about exposing the complicity of more prominent power brokers and shattering the fragile unity of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the president allowed the assassination inquiries to stall. Raul Salinas was on the verge of release by the courts for lack of evidence when the US Justice Department rescued Zedillo by tipping off the Swiss police about the clandestine bank accounts.

A similar failure of presidential nerve contributes to the spread of lawlessness throughout southern Mexico, undermining Zedillo's pledge to build "a nation of law." Naively, Zedillo believed he could lead by example by relinquishing the informal powers of the presidency, which derive from his leadership of the PRI. However laudable in principle, the effect in a system short on democratic checks and balances and long on authoritarian tradition has been to create a power vacuum. …

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