Mexicans treated to sober view of future

PHIL DAVISON

Latin America Correspondent

Perhaps just when they needed it most, Mexicans could not get a shot of tequila or a Dos Equis beer in their beloved cantinas yesterday as President Ernesto Zedillo gave his first State of the Nation address. To prevent inflamed reaction, alcohol is traditionally banned on 1 September as the President gives his compatriots the good news and the bad.

Mr Zedillo, who took the tricolor presidential sash from Carlos Salinas de Gortari last December, adopted a tone of subdued optimism despite a distinct lack of good news. He also slashed the address from the usual three hours or more to a mere 85 minutes, dropping the old stream of statistics with which his predecessors used to hypnotise their compatriots.

"We have surmounted the worst of the [economic] crisis and the coming years will be times of economic growth and increasing jobs," the President told Congress. He pledged to set up an independent auditor's office to oversee public spending which, he said, would be slashed by 10 per cent in real terms this year, compared with 1994.

"Drug-trafficking has become the most serious threat to national security," Mr Zedillo went on. "We will continue to combat drug-trafficking with all the means at our disposal." US anti-narcotics officials have expressed fears that the demise of the Cali cocaine cartel in Colombia could lead Mexican drug lords to take over. The President said he would push through new laws to fight organised crime and set up what he called a National Public Safety System to retrain Mexico's endemically corrupt police.

"Nine months of nightmare," was how the country's most influential news magazine, Proceso, described Mr Zedillo's tenure on its cover this week.

"Usually, Presidents use this address to list their achievements. But Zedillo hasn't any. It should be a short speech," said Porfirio Munoz Ledo, who broke away from Mr Zedillo's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) several years ago and now heads the centre-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

Supporters of Mr Zedillo, a Yale economics graduate, feel this is unfair. They say that he is back on the right economic track after last December's disastrously handled devaluation of the peso; that foreign investors are returning; that he broke the PRI mould by going after one of the party's own - ex-president Salinas's brother Raul - in connection with a political murder; that he insisted on clean elections, which cost the PRI three recent state governorships; and that he is sincerely trying to end the peasant uprising in the poverty-stricken state of Chiapas.

But hundreds of middle-class Mexicans, from businessmen to housewives and landowning farmers, braved a storm outside Mexico City's Banco de Mexico central bank building on Thursday night to protest against sky- high interest rates. "Robbers, robbers," they shouted, shaking their fists. Interest rates on credit-card bills, cars, homes and businesses vary between 70 and 100 per cent. The protesters said the banks and investors were cashing in on the high interest rates.

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