Special Report on Mexico: Salinas is a popular exponent of reform

FEW Mexicans expected revolutionary changes when Carlos Salinas de Gortari took over the presidency in December 1988. Born into a prominent family in the northern border state of Nuevo Leon, Mr Salinas graduated from the economics department of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) before going on to Harvard in the mid-1970s. There he earned two master's degrees and a doctorate in political economy and government.

After returning to Mexico in 1978, he rose quickly in the public administration, serving as chief of budget and planning under President Miguel de la Madrid before being chosen as his successor. During the 1988 presidential campaign, critics dismissed Mr Salinas as a colourless technocrat, and he only won by a narrow majority. Once in power, however, he quickly won popular approval with a highly publicised crackdown on corruption and drug-


From a crucial political power base, Mr Salinas set about modernising Mexico's ailing economy with a dramatic free-market reform programme that admirers called 'Salinastroika'. The results have been impressive and the free-market approach has won the approval of the Bush administration and the World Bank, which hold up Mexico's economic strategy as a model for other Latin American countries.

But, more importantly, President Salinas, 44, remains extremely popular at home. 'I have been able to introduce the changes that Mexicans were expecting,' he said recently. 'Mexicans were demanding change. These reforms reflect what the people wanted.'

The benefits of these reforms, however, have yet to reach most Mexicans. The minimum wage is still about USdollars 5 a day and the number of people living in 'extreme poverty' has increased from 18 million to 20 million since he came to power. Mr Salinas is the first to acknowledge these limitations. Yet, there is a sense that the country has been rescued from an economic abyss.

'It's true that if we were to wait for economic recovery to show its benefits it would take many years,' Mr Salinas said. 'But with the Solidarity programme we've been able to translate economic reform into social results.'

In Mexican politics, a new president has too often meant an entirely new economic direction, reversing the reforms of previous administrations. With little more than two years left in office, President Salinas says: 'I am concentrating all my energy on making sure that this very important process of reform is consolidated, institutionalised and permanent.'