Leading Article: The misfortunes of Mexico

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The Independent Online
THE REBELLION in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas highlights three critical issues upon which Mexico's drive to leave the ranks of the Third World and join the leading economies may founder.

It is rooted in the historic misfortune of the indigenous people of Central America, whose culture all but perished at the hands of the colonisers. All three tribes involved in the upheavals trace their lineage to the Mayas and blame their present lot on the centralised state and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, which has ruled from Mexico City in uninterrupted comfort since 1929. The uprising thus presents a challenge to the sovereign rule and inherent legitimacy of this paradoxically titled regime.

The second issue called into question is the effect upon Mexico's semi-enfranchised poor of the economic reforms unleashed by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari during the Eighties. Their benefits are clear to see: 13 dollar-billionaires listed by Forbes magazine, a growing middle class, declining inflation, fiscal discipline, renegotiated foreign debt and a dramatic surge in foreign investment. Against this must be set the World Bank's estimate that 32 million of the 85 million citizens of Mexico live in poverty, concern that a population boom among the poorest is worsening their plight, and the failure of government anti-poverty programmes to close the gap between the newly rich and the permanently deprived.

The third question is whether economies and states so visibly prone to social or political strain can cope with the pressures of free trade, which the Mexican government wholeheartedly embraced when it signed the North American Free Trade Agreement with the US and Canada. Government economists argue that it will create employment, wealth and opportunity; so it will, but through a relentless selection of winners and losers that would test the fabric of the most stable, homogenous democracy.

These questions will confront whoever wins the presidential election later this year. President Salinas's victory in 1988 owed much to a conveniently failed electoral computer. His chosen successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, pledges a clean campaign. But the opposition left- leaning candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, rightly identifies the forthcoming poll as the Mexican people's decisive fight for democracy and their destiny. This contest, not a tribal rebellion in a sad backwater, will provide Mexico with its critical choice.