Carlos Salinas de Gortari

Mexico Table of Contents

The Passing of the Torch, 1987-88

The year 1987 in Mexico was the last full year of de la Madrid's presidential term. In both economic and political terms, de la Madrid's last months in office proved tumultuous. Economically, the administration's failure to restore sustainable growth rates produced a new flare-up. On November 18, 1987, the government recognized the overvalue of the peso and announced that the national currency would be allowed to float on the free exchange market. The free float produced an overnight devaluation of 18 percent; devaluation in turn reignited inflation, which jumped to 144 percent on an annual basis. To avoid an economic disaster, de la Madrid mandated the Economic Solidarity Pact among government, business, and labor to control both prices and wages. Although the government had always exercised immense influence over the economy, wage and price controls of this scope were unheard of. Their implementation by a president who had made sincere but ineffective efforts to liberalize the economy demonstrated both de la Madrid's frustration and his determination to avoid personal blame for the intractable crisis.

The man who inherited this unenviable legacy was a forty-year-old economist with wide experience in the Mexican bureaucracy. Carlos Salinas de Gortari was de la Madrid's minister of budget and planning when the president decided that Salinas was best qualified to assume the helm of state. The selection of Salinas appeared calculated to signal the continuation of de la Madrid's austere economic policies, which were largely shaped by Salinas. A Harvard-educated Ph.D., Salinas was a técnico , a competent technocrat with little or no grassroots political experience. Technically, he was highly qualified to deal with the nation's problems. Politically, however, he had to define himself on the campaign trail.

Although throughout his administration de la Madrid had publicly vowed to promote political reform, this promise was not realized. De la Madrid's failure to open up the political system to genuine competition dashed the expectations of Mexicans both within and outside the ruling party. As a result some disaffected PRI members chose to establish the Democratic Current (Corriente Democrático--CD) within the party in October 1986.

The CD leaders were Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, a former chairman of the PRI, and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, former governor of Michoacán state and son of president Cárdenas. The primary issue binding the faction members together was the exclusionary nature of party-nominating procedures. They particularly condemned the practice of the dedazo , whereby the sitting president chooses his successor, who is then declared the party's candidate by acclamation. In addition, CD members and their sympathizers also objected to de la Madrid's austere economic policies on nationalistic grounds. The president, they believed, had mortgaged the national patrimony to foreigners. Such policies, these dissidents claimed, resulted from the noncompetitive nomination of técnico presidents who had no feeling for the plight of the average Mexican.

The CD did not find a receptive audience for its message within the PRI. At the party's national assembly in March 1987, party president Jorge de la Vega condemned the CD, recommending that those who could not abide by the party's rules should resign. Months later, the PRI leadership formally "condemned, rejected, and denounced" Muñoz and Cárdenas, rendering them persona non grata within their own party.

Ostracized by his former party members, Cárdenas declared himself an independent candidate for president on July 3, 1987. Backed by a coalition of leftist parties that eventually dubbed itself the National Democratic Front (Frente Democrático Nacional--FDN), Cárdenas advocated a "return to the original principles of the Mexican Revolution." The candidate's familial heritage infused this message with legitimacy and had considerable emotional appeal for the Mexican voter. Nationalistic policy prescriptions, such as repudiation of the foreign debt and the redistribution of oil exports away from the United States, appealed to the poor, whose lives had clearly not improved under de la Madrid's administration. Like most Mexicans, Cárdenas was mestizo. The prospect of rule by someone other than an elite, light-skinned técnico further added to Cárdenas's appeal.

Many in the PRI recognized the threat posed by Cárdenas's candidacy. In response, the party leadership attempted to make it appear that the presidential nominating process had been made more pluralistic. On August 14, 1987, de la Vega announced a list of six candidates for the nomination, including Salinas, but not Cárdenas. The convention formally nominated Salinas on October 4, 1987. Salinas began his campaign having to defend unpopular policies against a popular rival at a time when his party's solidarity and influence were in question. Despite Salinas's pronouncements mandating electoral probity, the July 1988 elections appeared to most observers to be fraudulent. The most serious incidents were the deaths of two key aides to Cárdenas, Xavier Ovando and Román Gil, which were never adequately explained.

Post-election reports by outside observers and voter interviews indicated that much of the rural vote experienced some degree of tampering; the FDN and the PAN had insufficient observers to monitor such elections. After much delay, the election commission declared Salinas the winner on July 13, 1988. The surprise was the total number of votes for the victor--50.36 percent. The low total, which itself spoke of manipulation, demonstrated the people's disaffection with the PRI.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress