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Feature 050613 Grayson

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mexico Today and the Second Coming of Carlos Salinas de Gortari

By George W. Grayson


Carlos Salinas de Gortari did more than any other Mexican president to heap defeat on his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). His arrogant mishandling of the economy-a grossly overvalued currency sparked a sharp peso devaluation in December 1994. Voters, especially those in the middle class whose savings evaporated and debt multiplied amid sky-high unemployment, took their revenge on the erstwhile chief executive of the PRI, which had dominated the country in Tammany Hall-fashion for seven decades.

Can it be possible that Salinas, long disdained by the public, is the architect to rebuild the so-called "revolutionary party" under Enrique Peña Nieto, who moved into the Los Pinos presidential residence on December 1, 2012?

Salinas' Presidency and its Aftermath

Three weeks after Salinas left office in late 1994, it became evident that government banks had issued credit like confetti, and foreign reserves were in free fall. For nearly five years, Salinas had shone as one of the world's most admired leaders, with an illustrious cabinet that matched his skills. Yet, unwilling to taint his image-he was a strong contender to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO)-he refused to stanch surging inflation, and a severe devaluation alienated voters and powered the ascent of the PAN.

A financial panic ensued. Incoming chief executive Yale-trained economist Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León-aided by President Bill Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and European financial institutions-implemented a bare-knuckles austerity program to prevent Mexico's economy from going belly up. Yet, not only did the so-called "revolutionary party" forfeit its congressional majority in 1997, but it lost key governorships before watching Vicente Fox Quesada, the 6-foot, 5-inch standard-bearer of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) capture Los Pinos presidential residence in 2000-to be followed six years later by the victory of another PANista, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa.

Salinas became the target of opprobrium. He went on a pathetic hunger strike in a poor Monterrey household; blamed the nation's Time of Troubles on Zedillo; and wound up in self-imposed exile in Ireland and Cuba where he wrote books justifying his behavior. Meanwhile, in November 1995, the new government imprisoned the ex-president's brother Raúl, along with Raúl's wife and brother-in-law, as they attempted to withdraw US$84 million from a Geneva bank. Four years later-after Mexico's "trial of the century"--Raúl received a 50-year sentence for financial crimes and the alleged murder of his former brother-in-law, who was attorney general. He gained his release after ten years behind bars.

An Easter tradition in Mexico involves burning "Judas Dolls," crude papier-mâché figures shaped like a man: the act supposedly strikes a blow again evil in general and punishes Judas in particular for betraying Christ. In 1995 these objects resembled the former president, complete with a bald-head, sideburns, mustache, and Cauliflower ears. Later, he returned to Mexico with a new wife, and, presided over the elaborate marriages of several of his children.

He also attended the funeral of Peña Nieto's father (July 27, 2005), Peña Nieto's inauguration as Mexico State governor (September 15, 2005), and the governor's wedding to soap opera actress Ángelica "The Sea Gull" Gaviota (November 27, 2010).

At one social event, Salinas reportedly sang Peña Nieto's praises to Carlos Navarrete Ruiz, then Senate president, and urged him to jump abroad the governor's bandwagon. Peña Nieto claimed that Salinas, "neither is he my adviser nor collaborator. I insist: the only relationship is one of respect and cordiality, like those I have with all former presidents of Mexico."

The PAN's Ineptness

Since 1997 an Executive-Legislative deadlock has stymied badly needed fiscal, energy, labor, media, educational, and political reforms. As it turned out, the two PANistas-Vicente Fox Quesada (2000-06) and Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (2006-2012)-had no idea how to work with savvy PRI leaders, fragmented their own party, and failed to configure a strategy to curb narco-murders, which reached 47,268 in the last six years even as 26,121 people went missing.

Fox's and Calderón's ineptness opened a political vacuum that was quickly filled by potent entities as the SNTE Teachers Union and the Petroleum Workers, such television conglomerates as Televisa and TV Azteca, and, above all, the nation's thirty-one governors and Mexico City's mayor.

The PRI, which had been circling aimlessly like a rudderless boat in the political waters, lost two presidential showdowns but continued to hold on to a majority of governorships and gain strength in Congress. They used their legislative clout to frustrate initiatives proposed by Fox and Calderón.

Salinas, former Governor Arturo Montiel Rojas, prominent Peña Nieto's family members, Luis Videgaray Caso, and other key movers-and-shakers in the nomenklatura in Mexico State, threw their weight behind the "golden boy." The attractive young man captured the state house and had barely taken office before he began to barnstorm the country with a view to the 2012 presidential showdown. Calderón's ham-fisted behavior fractured the PAN, and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) appeared more like a collection of warring Mideast tribes than a coherent organization.

At the same time, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who believes he has a mission to uplift the downtrodden, kept one leg in the PRD and the other in his own MORENA movement as he crisscrossed the country excoriating progressive legislation advanced by Los Pinos.

Peña Nieto's Assets

For his part, Peña Nieto had assisted a score of PRI state executives with cash, workers, and personal appearances. They reciprocated by revving up their well-greased machines to loft their party's super-star. Out of power for 12 years, PRI notables put aside internal squabbles to unite behind the front-runner. Bereft of ideology, PRI stalwarts were eager to recover strength lost under Fox and Calderón, while bellying up to the patronage trough.

Equally important, Peña Nieto had a Croesus-sized treasury. These resources enabled him to mount a remarkable ground campaign, saturate TV channels and radio air waves with ads, and buy space in convenience store tabloids that middle class readers ignore but blue-collar families devour. When he and his fiancée Ángelica Riviera visit John Paul II in the Vatican in 2011, the scandal sheets treated the event as if it were the second coming of Christ. The couple later attended Francis I's first mass as pontiff in Rome.

While not a likely Nobel Prize winner, Peña Nieto-unlike Calderón-knows his limitations and readily fills gaps in policy arenas. He chose as his campaign manager Videgaray, who holds a Ph.D. from MIT and combines a robust academic background with toughness and political savvy. Videgaray has shown himself to have been not only a pivotal element in Peña Nieto's triumph but also architect of his regime's agenda. He has adhered to a blueprint evocative of the change-oriented, authoritarian Salinas, who strengthened the presidency, removed governors like bellhops, and signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which irrevocably merged Mexico with the global marketplace.

Comparison between Salinas and Peña Nieto



Peña Nieto

Political Background

A bright product of a political family; his father Raúl held a Senate seat from Nuevo León, served as Secretary of Industry and Commerce, and was a contender for the PRI presidential nomination in 1964.

A young man whose quest for the good life eclipsed his academic achievements. Although related to the Mexico State political elite—the famous Atlacomulco Group—his political godfather was Arturo Montiel Rojas, the unsavory governor of Mexico State (1999-2005). 

Social Programs  



The sweat-capital provided by some 100,000 independent citizen committees complemented by government technical assistance and money to erect a school, build a clinic, pave rutted streets, or obtain potable water—with projects designed to bolster the PRI and weaken the PRD.

Crusade against Hunger—charges abound that the government is a disproportionate share of these monies in the 14 states — especially Veracruz — with elections on July 7.

(1)    Stipends for senior citizens;

(2)   Ambitious housing program for low-income citizens;

(3)   Assistance to crime victims;

(4)   Education reforms; and

(5)   Aid to single women who are head households




Jailed Joaquín “La Quina” Hernández Galicia, the “untouchable” leader of the Oil Workers Union (STPRM); also imprisoned Carlos Jonguitud Barrios, head of venal National Educational Workers Union (SNTE)

Arrested for money laundering and other crimes Elba Esther “La Maestra” Gordillo, the president of the politically and economically powerful  SNTE, in a move allegedly orchestrated by Luis Videgaray Caso

Blows against Economic Elites

Agustín Legorreta and four other prominent bankers were imprisoned for illicit stock market manipulation

A Communications Law that will facilitate competition with media giants Carlos Slim Helú (TELMEX) and Emilio Azcárraga Jean (TELEVISA)

Relations with other political parties  

Reached out to the PAN in a “Concertacesión” that advanced Salinas’ version of perestroika in return for recognizing PAN electoral wins, revamping Church-state relations, creating a Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) to oversee elections, and permitting the direct election of Mexico City’s mayor, formerly a member of the president’s cabinet

El Pacto por Mexico

An accord signed by the three major parties (PRI/PAN/PRD) and the Greens (PVEM) to debate 95 major policies.

Ties with the Roman Catholic Church  

Eliminated harsh anti-clerical provisions from the 1917 Constitution; welcomed Pope John Paul II to Mexico City where he gave a Mass to inaugurate the Solidarity Program in the Chalco, a sprawling slum outside  the capital; fostered close ties with Apostolic Delegate/Ambassador  Jerónimo Prigione; and named a distinguished PRIista, Enrique Olivares Santana, as ambassador to the Vatican

Traveled to Rome to attend the first Mass offered by newly-installed Pope Francis I.

Relations with the  armed forces

Quite good; went out of his way to praise the Army and Navy and attend their ceremonies

Excellent, especially with the Army; Secretary of Defense Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda commanded various military regions, including Region 1 that embraces Peña Nieto’s home state, as well as the D.F., Morelos, and Hidalgo

Concentration of power in the presidency and key ministries

A foursome composed of

(1) Salinas;

(2) Chief of Staff (José

      “Pepe” Córdoba


(3) Government Secretary

     (Fernando “Don

      Fernando” Gutiérrez

      Barrios); and

(4) Mexico City

      Mayor/Foreign Secretary

      Manuel Camacho Solís


(1)    Deployed resources from the Planning and Budget Ministry (SPP) to benefit friends and penalize foes, especially in the PRD;

(2)   Took advantage of Solidarity program to win friends and influence people;

(3)   Removed 14 governors from office; and

(4)   Boasted an excellent PR team headed by José Carreño Carlón

Recover powers lost by Gobernación in recent years; former Hidalgo Gov. M.A. Osorio Chong heads the ministry, but subsecretary Luis Miranda Nava is closer to Peña Nieto:  

(1)    Center of Investigación and National Security or CISEN (Mexico’s version of the CIA);  

(2)    Public Security (formerly SSP);

(3)    Gendarmería Nacional;

(4)    Policía Federal (PJ);

(5)    Penitentiaries;

(6)    National Migration

Institute (INM); 

(7)    Possible purge of the

Federal Access to Information Institute (IFAI);           

      (8)  Change the law for “Amparos”—a blend of injunction and habeas corpus—to give the government more influence over the mass media, mining concessions, and other entities.  

      (9) Manipulation del IFE, as reflected by the vote by Sergio García Ramírez, a PRI activist, against penalizing for distributing Monex credit cards to potential voters in the presidential contest;

     (10) Excellent entourage in Social communications led by David López Gutiérrez, who has concentrated on the international financial press.



José Córdoba Montoya (Los Pinos);

Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios (Gobernación); and

Arsenio Farell Cubillas (Labor Ministry/STPS)

The second-in-command of key ministries are Peña Nieto loyalists:

(1)    Gobernacíon (Luis Miranda Nava;

(2)    SEDESOL (Ernesto  

 Nemer Ávila); and

(3)    PGR (Alfredo Castillo Cervantes)

Visits Abroad  


Costa Rica, Peru, China, and Japan, Vatican City, Venezuela, and Uruguay  

Relations with the U.S.

Excellent ties, especially in economic activities, including the promulgation of NAFTA on January 1, 1994.

The relationship will remain good, although the nationalistic PRI would like to reduce dependence on the U.S.; Peña Nieto has sought diversity in foreign affairs by visiting  China, Japan, and a handful of Latin American nations.  The “Plan Mérida” will disappear from Mexico’s official vocabulary because it is identified with Calderón.  The U.S. will continue country-to-country anti-cartel and socio-economic assistance, but there will be a tighter rein on the activities of American security personnel.


Peña Nieto has taken notice of Salinas' governing strategy. He has re-concentrated power in Los Pinos, surrounded himself with skilled operatives, imprisoned a venal union boss, preserved strong ties with the Vatican, endorsed trust-busting, ingratiated himself with the armed forces, advanced an ambitious "Crusade against Hunger," sought to diversify the nations with which Mexico enjoys key relations, and indicated that he will continue military-to-military ventures with the U.S. against blood thirsty drug cartels. While important, fair elections do not produce democracy. Much more important is tolerance within and among political forces. The Pact for Mexico was a brilliant idea to bring key decision-makers to the bargaining table where they might attempt to hammer out agreements on the security, fiscal, educational, energy, and other major issues that impede achieving the six percent growth rate required to loft employment, especially for young people. "Veracruz-GATE"-the use of anti-hunger resources to advance the PRI's political fortunes-will spike negotiations with the PAN and the PRD unless the culprits are punished. While Salinas' experience provides useful lessons, times have changed since the late 1980s and early 1990s. Peña Nieto cannot emulate the skullduggery that pervaded Salinas' administration, lest he compromise the success of which his administration is capable of achieving.

George W. Grayson is Class of 1938 Professor of Government Emeritus at the College of William & Mary. He is an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. He has written Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? (Transaction Press, 2010); co-authored with Samuel Logan, The Executioner's Men: Los Zetas, Rogue Soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs, and the Shadow State They Created (Transaction 2012); and The Cartels: The Story of Mexico's Most Dangerous Cartels and their Impact on U.S. Security (Praeger, forthcoming). 757-253-2400; 757-810-0034;

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