- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2000

Who could better describe the intrigue, conceit and betrayal that marked presidential successions in Mexico than Jorge Castaneda, Mexico's newly inaugurated foreign minister? In his book, "Perpetuation of Power, How Mexican Presidents Were Chosen," Mr. Castaneda illustrates both the institutional shortcomings and human frailties that led to the extinction of Mexico's dinosaurs as the more retrograde politicians from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) came to be known.

Mr. Castaneda is in a privileged position to guide the reader through the Byzantine subterfuge that propagated recurring economic crises, human rights violations and corruption in Mexico. As the son of a former foreign minister and a critic of the PRI, Mr. Castaneda is both insider and outsider to the world of the PRI. Indeed, Mr. Castaneda forms part of the first administration to oust the party from its seven-decade monopoly on power. The author's retrospective coincides with the start of a new era of transparency and political plurality in Mexico.

Mr. Castaneda's account of the Gustavo Diaz Ordaz-Luis Echevarria succession vividly demonstrates how a president's and the PRI's objectives are liable to conspire against the interests of Mexico, with dire results. In keeping with the PRI tradition, in 1969 President Diaz Ordaz chose by hand the next president of Mexico. Since democratic elections were little more than a formality, the candidate fingered by the sitting president was sure to be the country's next leader.

Mr. Castaneda shows that Mr. Diaz Ordaz's overriding criteria for choosing Mr. Echevarria, his finance minister, as Mexico's next head of state was his successor's apparent loyalty to him. Given a more neutral historical context, this self-serving priority might have been innocuous. But in 1968, a dissident student movement was gaining momentum. Had Mr. Diaz Ordaz been willing to reward successful negotiation with the students rather than displays of fidelity, tragedy might have been avoided.

The government's mishandling of the student movement culminated in one of the darkest moments in Mexican history. On Oct. 2, student protesters rallied at Tlatelolco Plaza and were met with an army battalion. Since the government subsequently moved to cover up the tragedy, estimates of the confrontation's casualties vary wildly, ranging from 50 to 600 students.

Mr. Castaneda entertains the idea that Mr. Echevarria may have gone so far as to exploit the student movement to damage the prospects of his two main rivals. One of his adversaries, Mexico City Mayor Alfonso Corona del Rosal, was conveniently disqualified from the succession race after the movement ended in bloodshed since under the circumstances it would have seemed distasteful to put a former military man in power. And Mr. Echevarria's other main rival, Emilio Martinez Manatou, minister of the presidency, became increasingly embroiled with negotiations as the movement grew.

Notes Mr. Castaneda: "To the degree that the student movement favored Echevarria and weakened his two main adversaries, speculation regarding the manipulation, instigation, or exaggeration of the movement by the winning candidate becomes inevitable."

The economic crises that chronically shook Mexico were similarly created by a combination of presidential conceit and the circumstances created by the succession competition. When Miguel de la Madrid was minister of planning and budget to President Jose Lopez Portillo, he gave the president grossly optimistic economic forecasts that helped precipitate a currency and fiscal crisis in 1982. Finance Minister David Ibarra, who cautioned the president about intensifying inflationary pressures and unsustainable fiscal spending, was dismissed as a naysayer and lost the crown.

Apparently forgetting his own political maneuvering, Mr. de la Madrid allowed his own minister of planning and budget, Carlos Salinas, to paint him a similarly misleading economic scenario in the early 1980s, while his finance minister, Jesus Silva Herzog, pointed to a fiscal imbalance and recommended a budget cut. Mr. de la Madrid's decision to ignore Mr. Herzog's prescription led to 1987's capital flight, devaluation and stock market crash.

Mr. Castaneda chronicles a unique brand of palace intrigue that flourished, for a time, under an illusory democracy. The PRI could survive as the sole political power only if politicians subordinated their own goals for the good of party. But the PRI's tradition of transferring power engendered precisely the kind of megalomaniacal behavior that endangered party domination. The author demonstrates that without the checks and balances existing in other systems, Mexico was especially susceptible to abuse.

After generations of ruin, Mexico rebelled against the one-party system that became unable to deliver either prosperity or civil participation. The opposition movement that successfully severed the PRI from the levers and coffers of power in this year's election can now implement reform to the extent to which legislators permit it.

Ximena Ortiz is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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