The next Bosnia?

Another Balkan country teeters on the brink

VINCE BEISER February 7 1994

The next Bosnia?

Another Balkan country teeters on the brink

VINCE BEISER February 7 1994




He has the affable good looks of a television gameshow host—a kind of Hispanic Alex Trebek—and a heartbreaker’s mustachioed smile. For the campaign trail, he has traded in his Armani suits for a more populist look: trendy stone-washed cotton shirts that would not look out of place on a Gap billboard. A former legislative deputy, senator and technocrat, he is so image conscious that he will not allow photographers to snap him riding his Harley Davidson or let relatives discuss his two divorces. But having risen to his party’s top post through unflagging loyalty to his boss, it is now unclear whether he holds any views of his own. And his personality remains so ill-defined that one Mexico City weekly recently dubbed him “the mystery candidate.”

Until New Year’s Eve, that mix of caution and calculation made 43year-old Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta an apparent shoo-in as the next president of Mexico in the country’s Aug. 21 elections. But last month’s armed uprising in the impoverished southern state of Chiapas has thrown that conventional wisdom—and his presidential prospects—into question. “Chiapas changes the whole picture,” says Roderic Camp, a professor of Latin American studies at New Orleans’ Tulane Universi-

ty. “It will make the election much more competitive, and put it under much more scrutiny.” Once considered unbeatable, the man handpicked by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to carry on six more years of pro-business economic policies—known as Salinismo—has now come to symbolize many of the inequities and democratic abuses that the rebellion exposed. The rebels’ demands for clean elections not only underlined the widespread belief that Salinas owed his 1988 victory to fraud: they implicitly pointed the finger at Colosio, who ran his campaign—and has now become the beneficiary of the ruling Institutionalized Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) secretive succession process.

Late last week, the government moved to answer its critics with an agreement to reduce campaign spending limits and guarantee its opponents equal television time for commercials. In spite of those efforts towards democratic reform, however, even PRI officials admit that, like every president before him, Salinas personally anointed his successor. Not only had he plucked Colosio from obscurity to become his righthand man at the budget ministry, but, with his ascent to the presidential mansion, Los Pinos, he entrusted the party presidency to his former protégé and sometime jogging partner. On Nov. 28, the party



Colosio wages an uphill battle for Mexico’s presidency

orchestrated the nomination announcement, known as the destape, or unveiling—a rite considered tantamount to a coronation. Wrote Raymundo Riva Palacio, an editor of the independent daily El Financiero: “Last Sunday, a king died and a new king was bom.”

But even then, there were omens of troubles to come. Some loyalists bused in for the ceremony greeted the heir apparent with only tepid applause; a few read newspapers throughout his acceptance speech. So bitter was his rival Manuel Camacho Solis, a 45-year-old boyhood friend of Salinas who had been Mexico City’s appointed mayor, that he refused to proffer the customary congratulations. According to El Financiero, the following day Colosio demanded—and won— Camacho’s ouster from city hall, a potential rival power base.

Before Camacho could take up his new appointment as foreign minister, the Chiapas rebellion had made him an even greater threat. Tapped last month to lead negotiations with the rebels, Camacho has since upstaged Colosio’s campaign with front-page headlines and TV stardom.

Now, the capital is abuzz with speculation that Salinas may dump Colosio before his candidacy becomes official next month.

Another rumor suggests that Camacho is plotting to stage an independent power bid. Most experts dismiss both prospects.

But as opposition political analyst Jorge Castañeda points out: “Colosio is in a difficult position. His whole campaign was based on Salinas’s economic miracle, and now that’s down the tubes.”

In fact, one of Colosio’s closest aides confided to Maclean’s that the party was not unhappy about his current low-watt coverage—leaving him distanced from the Chiapas crisis as he scrambles to craft a new theme. Judging by Colosio’s reception on the campaign trail recently in the eastern state of Tamaulipas—ostensibly a PRI stronghold—there may be other reasons for the party’s relief at his low profile. In town after town, the “candidate of hope,” as he bills himself, was greeted with low-key enthusiasm. According to the left-wing weekly Proceso, Colosio was even booed at one event—a gesture of such stunning disrespect to a presidential anointee that one analyst compared it to being pelted with tomatoes.

As Colosio’s campaign bus lumbered into González, a farming town of adobe and cinder-block shanties 90 minutes inland from the Gulf of Mexico oil port of Tampico, the local party machine appeared to have paved his way. Along the highway, his name had been painted in four-foot letters on freshly whitewashed walls. And rows of plastic pennants fluttered over the narrow main street, where peasant farmers and schoolchildren had been provisioned with flags and new white “Colosio” baseball caps. At each stop, officials had declared a local holiday, closing schools to guarantee a crowd. But veterans of previous campaigns expressed shock at the thinness of the turnout. “At the opening of Salinas’s campaign in 1988, the smallest rally would have been 5,000,” marvelled one Mexican journalist, surveying a fraction of that number scattered across González’s leafy square. Despite an announcer’s frenzied cheerleading over the blaring loudspeakers, Colosio’s appearance was met with measured applause.

“Most poor people cannot believe in the PRI any more,” said Tampico schoolteacher Virginia Martínez Hervia. “They think if the people in Chiapas made that revolution, there must have been a good reason.” But as party officials closed in on her, apparently alert for criticism of the government, she insisted she was a PRI loyalist who had been chosen to hand Colosio a petition from fellow teachers pleading

for a raise in their $570-a-month salaries. “We believe what happened in Chiapas is going to help us to improve our way of life,” she said, “because it’s a wake-up call to the politicians.”

But in six campaign stops that day, Colosio never once invoked the spectre of Chiapas. In the public code that passes for political discourse in Mexico, he promised jobs, better farm prices, social reform and “the democratic transformation of our country.” Despite his stemwinding rhetorical style, those vague pledges elicited only a muted reception. In the dirt-poor hamlet of Ocampo, nestled below the Sierra Madre, aides hustled him offstage as hostility bristled in the heat of the half-empty village square. Scarcely 100 people had gathered around the makeshift stage. Most of the townsfolk hung back under the trees, their arms crossed in flinty silence.

Nor was that pallid reception lost on the busload of wealthy businessmen in Colosio’s five-coach cavalcade. As staggering quantities of food were loaded on board for them at each whistle-stop, some reminisced about bygone electoral glories. Wistfully recalling the pandemonium of a visit by Salinas’s predecessor, Miguel de la Madrid, 12 years ago, one stylish banker decked in gold chains pointedly noted: “Now, that was a campaign.”

Many of those party VIPs had won public works contracts from Salinas’s antipoverty program, Solidarity, which has dispensed more than $11 billion over the past four years. By appointing Colosio the program’s minister 18 months ago, Salinas presumably hoped to craft him an image as the man who brought a more sympathetic face to the hardships imposed by free-market reforms. But despite the Solidarity billboards dotting even the remotest landscapes, its failure to help the Indians’ plight in Chiapas—which received more money than any other state—has turned it into a taboo campaign topic. And a recent report by the U.S.-Mexico Study Center at La Jolla, Calif., compounded the embarrassment. It showed that most of Solidarity’s largesse went to shore up PRI support in the richest states. Said co-author Jeffrey Weldon: “As political pork that the government spent to win back support, it was very successful.”

Despite that, some longtime Colosio friends such as former Montreal consul general Maria Emilia Farias insist that, as a product of the working class himself, he is genuinely concerned about his country’s poverty. Unlike Salinas, who was born into a wealthy political family, Colosio is the oldest child of a small-time rancher in Sonora, near the Arizona border. He owes his education to scholarships, which ultimately took him to the University of Pennsylvania, where he wrote his master’s thesis on regional development. “He’s a self-made man,” says Farias, who once talked him into sending a Solidarity official to study Quebec’s caisse populaire. She predicts that, once out of Salinas’s shadow, Colosio will put his own more populist stamp upon the presidency.

But first, he must triumph at the ballot box. As a result of past abuses, pressure is already building for international observers to oversee the vote. Colosio and Salinas have rejected the idea, but events may force them to reconsider. According to a poll in last week’s El Financiero, 71 per cent of those surveyed said they do not believe next summer’s elections will be honest. Once, the ruling party might have shrugged off such skepticism. But in the bloody wake of Chiapas, even the hint of a fraudulent count, as Castañeda warns, “could end up a much more violent and messy story.” □