Special Report on Mexico: Social programme has political pay-off: The modernisation of the economy needed a social component. Colin Harding reports on the success of the Solidarity public investment scheme

WHEN President Salinas took office at the end of 1988, he had two 'big ideas' : Modernisation and Solidarity. The latter is, as it were, a corollary of the former.

The modernisation of an antiquated economic system implied abandoning the state intervention that had stood Mexico in good stead for several decades but had outlived its usefulness. But it quickly became clear that the new, free-market model needed a social component if it were not to exacerbate the growing discontent and disillusionment that had marked the six-year term of Mr Salinas's predecessor, Miguel de la Madrid.

This reached its most embarrassingly public expression in the whistling and jeering that drowned out his speech at the opening of the 1986 World Cup.

If Mr de la Madrid's term had seen the nadir of the presidency's public esteem, it was Mr Salinas's job to halt the decline. That he has managed to do so is thanks in no small measure to the success of the Solidarity programme, known as Pronasol, which was launched at the end of 1988.

The aim of this public investment scheme is to improve the lot of the millions of Mexicans who, despite the rapid economic growth of the past few years, still live in abject rural and urban poverty. Average real income has actually declined by 15 per cent since 1988, as the reductions in public expenditure have hit the worst-off.

The programme has concentrated its efforts on local public works projects, such as piped water and drainage, paved roads, small bridges and irrigation channels - but has used local organisations and voluntary labour to channel the resources from central, state and municipal governments. The budget for this programme has increased from an initial USdollars 500m ( pounds 256m) to dollars 2.2bn ( pounds 1.1bn) this year, and officials can provide impressive statistics on the number of projects completed.

But what really sets Solidarity apart is the political pay-off it has brought: Mr Salinas and his government have gained enormously in popularity in precisely those areas where his predecessor's administration had lost out: among the poor, the marginal and the migrants.

Critics of the Solidarity programme, such as the political scientist, Jorge Castaneda, and Federico Reyes Heroles, editor of the magazine Este Pais, point to its blatant political and manipulative purpose. Opponents and apologists alike tend to cite the example of the Chalco shantytown on the remote outskirts of Mexico City.

In 1988, Mr Salinas, the PRI's presidential candidate, almost lost the election to a group of dissidents who only a few years earlier had left the party to form the opposition PRD, with Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the son of an old revolutionary hero, at its head. In Chalco, as in other marginal areas, the PRD swept the board in 1988, and Mr Salinas was prevented by popular opposition from campaigning there. As soon as he was installed in office, public money was poured into Chalco, which became a Solidarity showpiece - heavy earth-moving equipment emblazoned with the Solidarity logo were shown helping to lay water pipes, pave roads, build schools, and so on. Now, nobody there would dream of voting for the opposition; it has become a PRI stronghold.

So is Solidarity just a cynical vote-buying exercise, designed to crush the opposition under the weight of presidential largesse? Critics point to the subtle use of symbolism, such as the use of the colours of the Mexican flag - green, white and red - in the logos of both Solidarity and the PRI, but Pronasol officials indignantly deny any such intentions.

'Solidarity in its conception is light-years away from old-style Mexican politics,' says Luis Rojas, under-secretary for rural development and Solidarity's most articulate exponent. 'In the old days the government used the political structures, the state governors and their local appointees, to hand out patronage - money, jobs in the bureaucracy, public works - and people paid for these hand-outs with votes.

'That's not what Solidarity is about at all. We aim to motivate people to solve their own problems and make their own decisions. If people come to us with a request, we encourage them to form their own Solidarity committee, independently from the existing political structures, and put in an application.

'They liaise with our people to decide which projects they need and how to carry them out. We just provide advice and expertise when it's needed.'

The local people provide the labour, and Mr Rojas points out that funds are channelled through local government, even in the 200 towns and villages where the opposition is in power.

There are now 82,000 Solidarity committees throughout Mexico, and even its most intransigent critics concede that the programme has brought tangible benefits to large numbers of poor people.

President Salinas has identified closely with the programme, making weekly visits to projects around the country. He has recently elevated responsibility for the programme to ministerial status, putting one of his closest lieutenants, Luis Donaldo Colosio, former head of the PRI, in charge.

Clearly, much depends on the quality of the officials running this arms-length form of officially-sponsored local development. Those I saw in action in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City, were of the highest calibre: hard-working, dedicated, competent and superbly led by an experienced public official, Alvaro Urreta. They were obviously respected by the people they visited, and were imbued with what one young assistant described as a 'new mystique of public service'.

Mr Rojas points out that Pronasol has only 2,000 permanent officials nationwide, none of them traditional politicians. It has even been said that President Salinas and his advisers have toyed with the idea of using Solidarity as the embryo of a new political organisation, which would replace the PRI.

Some of Solidarity's most enthusiastic officials regard the programme as a virtual alternative to the traditional bureaucracy, a way of circumventing red tape, delay and corruption. But Solidarity's reputation is not uniformly high throughout Mexico. I was assured that in some areas, particularly in the traditional Indian highlands, officials tend to behave much like the familiar political cacique, sitting behind big desks, handing out favours selectively. Some things only change very slowly.

(Photograph omitted)

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Junior DBA (SQL Server, T-SQL, SSIS, SSAS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior DBA (SQ...

Business Anaylst

£60000 - £75000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: Business Anal...

Senior Project Manager

£60000 - £90000 per annum + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Global leading Energy Tra...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment