Special Report on Mexico: Salinas presides over an era of modernisation: Colin Harding charts Mexico's re-emergence in the world after decades of revolutionary nationalism

PRESIDENT Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico, who ends a four-day official visit to Britain today, is head of state of a country of 85 million people with the world's 13th-largest economy. Mexico has undergone rapid change since Mr Salinas took office four years ago, a process closely followed in the United States but comparatively unwatched in Britain.

Mexico has a long tradition of independence. In the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17, the 20th century's first great social revolution, it developed a radical foreign policy, backing the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and taking in thousands of refugees when they were defeated. It also offered refuge to Leon Trotsky after his break with Stalin. It kept lines open to Fidel Castro's isolated Cuba, and consistently defied US foreign policy.

Relations with Mexico's powerful northern neighbour have always been touchy, not least because Mexico lost swathes of territory in a war during the last century when US troops briefly occupied Mexico City. Relations can still be delicate, as shown by Mexican outrage at the US Supreme Court's recent endorsement of the kidnapping by US police of a Mexican citizen wanted in the US.

Yet, Mexico-US relations have improved beyond recognition. President Salinas established a warm relationship with President Bush, whom he met in San Diego last week, and many of his senior ministers have degrees from US universities. Both leaders hope the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) under negotiation will set the seal on this new relationship.

The revolutionary tradition that began with the overthrow of the dictator, Porfirio Diaz, in 1910 has created a powerful state, embodied in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). This emerged in the 1920s out of the chaos of civil war, and assumed its present form in 1946. It has been in power without interruption for 63 years. While ruling the country with an iron rod, it introduced advanced social and labour legislation and pursued strongly nationalistic policies designed to build up local industry behind a wall of tariff and non-tariff barriers. This tradition is suspicious of foreign - particularly US - involvement, and favours self-reliant development.

The party's legitimacy was built on the twin pillars of state-sponsored labour and peasant unions. Since the 1940s, representatives of the private sector have taken a leading role, though only recently has this been officially acknowledged.

The apotheosis of the revolution came during the presidency of General Lazaro Cardenas (1934-40), who nationalised the US-owned oil industry and distributed land to the peasants. Behind this nationalist and protectionist curtain Mexico flourished, enjoying long periods of growth thanks to the burgeoning alliance of government and business. The military, which had held the whip hand for three decades, dropped out of the picture after 1946, and a 'popular' sector grew as society diversified and was urbanised. The oil boom of the mid-1970s brought prosperity, as the state- owned monopoly, Pemex, shadowed the pricing policies of Opec.

The president holds a pivotal role. Chosen by his predecessor as the candidate of the PRI, he is duly elected by an overwhelming majority for a six-year term. Presidents cannot be re-elected. While opposition parties are permitted, even encouraged, the PRI runs the show, with the president dividing the spoils.

Beneath the president are the state governors and the network of political bosses, or caciques, dependent on them for patronage and protection. A constellation of urban and rural union bosses keeps the peace and delivers votes at election time. The system works in the prosperous centre and north while keeping the lid on the largely Indian south. There is also the escape valve of migration to the US, much of it seasonal.

Yet, the end of the oil boom in the early 1980s brought catastrophe. In common with other oil producers, Mexico had been borrowing heavily from banks only too anxious to recycle petrodollars, and in 1982, Mexico announced it could no longer service debts accumulated to finance consumption and heavy state investments.

The announcement triggered the Latin American debt crisis, threatening to bring down the world financial system. It came as a rude shock to Mexico. A closed economy founded on protectionism and state control, underpinned by a corrupt and ossified political structure, was no longer viable. Mexico was forced into international isolation, from which it began to emerge in the late 1980s on a different footing.

President Salinas has charged himself with transforming Mexico into a modern, open economy with a stable political system. Even before he was elected, he put out feelers to President Bush on a free-trade pact. Once in office, he sent troops to arrest one of the high priests of the Mexican political system, the oil workers' union boss, known as La Quina.

Since then, change has been rapid. Backed by a team of economists, Mr Salinas moved to restore order to public finances, with remarkable results. Mexico ran a budget surplus in 1991 for the first time in its history. The free-market structure President Salinas has built has shifted responsibility for economic growth from the public to the private sector.

In 1990, Mexico became the first country to complete a debt reduction programme under the Brady Plan, effectively ending the eight-year-long debt crisis. Growth has been steady since 1988, and foreign confidence in the country is at a peak. But President Salinas is aware of the long road ahead. He has almost completed the privatisation of state- sector companies, has announced the end of agrarian reform and begun a shake-up of the education system - all vital if the 'modernisation' pursued by the present government is to be more than skin deep.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
One of the installations in the Reiner Ruthenbeck exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery
artCritics rally to defend Reiner Ruthenbeck's 'Overturned Furniture'
News
John Cleese is promoting his new book
people
News
A-list actresses such as Deepika Padukone get paid a tenth of what their male counterparts make per film
news
News
The Black Friday Vines that will destroy your faith in humanity
i100

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
News
Robbie Rogers: US former Leeds United footballer, 25, announced he was gay in February 2013, shortly after he left Elland Road. Rogers 'retired' after writing on his blog: 'I'm a soccer player, I'm Christian, and I'm gay.' Has since signed with Los Angeles Galaxy.
peopleUS footballer said he had hoped Michael Sam and Jason Collins coming out might have helped
Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops
films
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'
TVGrace Dent thinks we should learn to 'hug a Hooray Henry', because poshness is an accident of birth
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
art

Presents unwrapped, turkey gobbled... it's time to relax

Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt
art

News
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game