August 8, 2008

Carlos Salinas de Gortari and the Resurrection of the PRI

Once the most reviled man in Mexico, former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari presses ahead with his political comeback. On a July 31 visit to Chihuahua City, Salinas was given a VIP welcome by high-ranking members of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and a good portion of the state’s political class.

“(Salinas) will continue being an important citizen for all of us,” said Antonio Andreu, president of the standing commission of the Chihuahua State Legislature.

Officially, the occasion of Salinas’ visit was to promote a new book he authored.

On hand for the well-attended presentation in the state capital complex were Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes Baeza, former governors Patricio Martinez and Fernando Baeza and the rectors of the autonomous universities of Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez. Previous to Salinas’ speech, Governor Reyes Baeza held a private meeting with the man who was Mexico’s president from 1988 to 1994.

In his presentation, Salinas blamed former presidents Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox for allowing Mexico to wallow in economic stagnation between 1995 and 2005. Massive migration was the consequence, Salinas contended.

“Five million compatriots left the country in search of a future in order to respond to their own expectations and those of their families,” Salinas said. “It’s difficult to encounter a country in times of peace that has a migratory phenomenon of this magnitude.”

As is customary, Salinas accepted no responsibility for the peso devaluation and financial crash of 1994-95 that immediately followed his term in office and ushered in Mexico’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Alluding to his successors’ responsibility for the current public safety crisis and “moral tragedy” of the times, Salinas did not mention the consolidation of the Juarez, Tijuana or Gulf cartels during his presidency. Nor did he delve into the explosive events of the last year of his administration, including the slaying of Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas OCampo; the murder of Salinas’s likely successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio; the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas; and the Mexico City gangland-style killing of Salinas’ former brother-in-law and PRI leader Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

Instead, Salinas’ speech followed the political line that the PRI is pushing to win the mid-term congressional elections in 2009 and re-conquer the Mexican presidency in 2012.

Flush with victories in state and local elections last year, the PRI is promoting itself as the alternative between the radical “populism” of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the “neoliberalism,” or unrestrained free market philosophy, of President Felipe Calderon’s conservative National Action Party (PAN).

Critics of neo-liberalism, however, would be quick to point out that Salinas was the Mexican leader who pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement and pressured the Mexican Congress to enact a constitutional reform that permitted the privatization of collectively-owned farm lands known as ejidos.

Touching on the contemporary political scene, Salinas lauded Reyes Baeza as a “first class” governor and praised President Felipe Calderon for retaking the “reformist path.” Significantly, the Harvard-educated politician blessed President Calderon’s controversial Pemex reform proposal that is undergoing a bitter fight in the Congress and in the streets.

Sharing commonalities with Calderon’s legislation, Salinas’ PRI recently presented its own initiative. At this political juncture, it’s next-to-impossible for the president’s Pemex reform, opposed by Lopez Obrador as well as by other center-left political forces and many social movements on the grounds that it will privatize a constitutionally-protected public property, to make it through the Congress without the support of the PRI.

Considering the PRI’s clout, the issue of who really calls the shots in Mexico will become even more interesting if the party that was born from the ashes of the 1910 revolution wins next year’s elections. In this sense, the PRI is working on different levels to guarantee the continuity of the political class that has governed Mexico for decades.

In 19 months of office, the Calderon administration has relied on the support of PRI governors and federal lawmakers to advance its agenda.

Writing earlier this year, political analyst Jorge Zepeda Patterson predicted that not only will the PRI achieve a crucial electoral victory next year, but that the Calderon government’s dealings with leading Priistas could ultimately wind up handing over the presidency on a “platter” to the former ruling party in 2012.

Politically, Salinas’ increasingly public profile should be viewed as a key element in the PRI’s steady resurrection and from its 2000 electoral defeat. Moreover, the Chihuahua speech was one more indication of the strategic role Mexico’s geographically largest but conflictive state will play in the reconsolidation of the PRI’S political and economic power in tandem with a sector of the PAN.

In the days preceding the Salinas speech, President Calderon conducted a brief visit to Ciudad Juarez, where he inaugurated new maquiladora operations, and former PRI leader and political operator Elba Esther Gordillo, who is widely credited for helping Calderon attain the presidency in 2006, made a visit to Chihuahua.

Personally, Salinas’ Chihuahua appearance showed how far he’s bounced back since 1994-95, when an unfolding economic disaster and his older brother Raul’s legal problems influenced the ex-president to undertake a self-imposed exile to Ireland, Cuba and other places.

Jailed for 10 years in Mexico on charges of planning the murder of Ruiz Massieu and investigated in Europe for secret bank accounts that had the smell of drug money-laundering, Raul also prevailed, beating the homicide rap while escaping prosecution for the suspect funds. He has yet to be tried for pending embezzlement and illicit enrichment charges in Mexico.

Unable to sustain a criminal case, the Swiss authorities recently returned more than $100 million of the frozen funds to the Mexican government and Grupo IUSA headed by businessman Carlos Peralta.

In 2002, a Swiss judge provided documents to the Mexican government that purported to show the involvement of Mexican military, law enforcement and other public officials in drug trafficking during Salinas’ 1988-94 term in office. Some of the information came from protected witnesses, including one man who was reported tortured and murdered before he was scheduled to fly to Switzerland in November 2001.

Allegations of turbulent European financial transactions also surrounded a third Salinas brother, Enrique, who was murdered in 2004.

Although he loudly protested the 1995 arrest of Raul, and even staged a brief hunger strike, Carlos Salinas de Gortari has always disassociated himself from his older brother’s activities.

For a sector of the political class, Salinas’ political rehabilitation, which actually began when Vicente Fox took office in 2000, has now come full circle.

Accompanied by his second wife, Ana Paula Gerard, Salinas signed autographs of his book during the Chihuahua visit. He took no questions from reporters and did not offer a press statement.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Return to the Frontpage