Opposition in Mexico

September 25, 2007

THE PRO-NAFTA FORCES IN WASHINGTON
tend to discount the notion that free trade could face
significant opposition insi'de Mexico. They consider the
forces behind left-of-center leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas to
be anachronistic populists exploiting mass discontent after
one decade of recession and six of single-party rule. Even ob-
servers who welcome the emergence of strong left-leaning
dissension in Mexico believe the Cardenistas are economic
know-nothings waging an otherwise admirable campaign for
democratization.
Domestic Mexican politics haven't been ignored. The
pro-NAFTA coalition seems genuinely convinced that Sali-
nas' plans for market liberalization and integration enjoy
sufficiently broad public support to survive the 1994 political
transition even if that transition is more genuinely demo-
cratic than in the past.
Not a few corporate supporters of the U.S.-Mexico pact
privately share the assumption of critics that the PRI owed its
1988 victory or at least its victory margin to systematic
vote-rigging. But they tend to view the show of opposition
strength as more a protest vote against decades of PRI rule
than a rejection of the de La Madrid-Salinas economic
program. Some argue that even after discounting for priis:a
ballot alchemy, the supporters of Salinas and the PAN's
Manuel Clouthier together comprised a solid majority bloc in
favor of candidates espousing free-market policies.
They also point to unpublished opinion polling since the election some of it bankrolled by pro-NAFTA business
groups that shows President Salinas consistently getting
far higher approval ratings than his party or his chief oppo-
nents. These polls also purport to show a remarkable absence
of popular distrust of U.S. foreign investment and a general
welcoming of closer cross-border ties if the result is job
creation and better wages.
The post-1988 disarray within the Cardenas coalition
reinforced the view that Mexico is moving inexorably to-
ward the deregulated economic model championed by Sali-
nas. The endorsement of similar policies in every other major
economy in the region despite the diversity represented by
presidents Aylwin, Couor, Gaviria, Menem and Perez has
further contributed to a sense of historic inevitability about
U.S.-Mexican market integration.
T
HERE ARE FLAWS IN THIS CONVENTIONAL
wisdom that lead to an overestimation of domestic
Mexican enthusiasm for free trade and an underestimation of
opposition potency in disputes framed in economic terms.
The Cardenas voters are often incorrectly assumed to
comprise a not-quite-literate rural bloc in rebellion against
MexicoCity technocratsand nostalgic forthe PRI's paternal-
istic, corporatist past. Salinas supporters are presumed to be
motivated by their comprehension and endorsement of the
need for free-market economic reform. Cardenas voters are
seen as driven by "politics"; the Salinas backers are viewed
as "economic."
In fact, according to the official returns, rural voters were
the only solid pro-Salinas faction. In the center and north of
the country, the educated urban vote was split mainly be-
tween Cardenas and Clouthier, with the former getting the
greatest support from the nominally PRI-affiliated union
members and government workers who had been the heart of
the government's big-city coalition. Some of the most stun-
fling Cardenas successes in 1988 came in areas that exem-
plify the Salinas export-oriented manufacturing model, such
as the fast-growing blue collar suburbs of Toluca and Tijuana.
Often overlooked by NAFTA proponents on both sides of
the border is the fact that the Cardenas forces enjoyed great
credibility among Mexico's center-left majority precisely
because they were identified with certain economic policy
positions. Chief among these was a long-standing opposition
to the development of a large export oil industry and the
massive foreign borrowing it required.
Implicit in all three 1988 presidential campaigns was the
premise that the Mexican economy had been badly misman-
aged at least since the mid- 1970s. Private sector supporters
of both Salinas and the PAN say things began going seriously
awry under the "statist" and deficit-financed policies of the
Echeverrfa Administration (1970-1976), culminating in the
sexenio-end devaluation of the peso. Critics on the Left focus
more on the LOpez Portillo (1976-1982) decision to triple
Pemex's production and make it a major oil exporter for the
first time since the 1938 nationalization. But these analyses
and their constituencies overlap. Neither Echeverrfa nor
LOpez Portillo have many vocal defenders today. The Carde-
nas campaign drawing on traditional Mexican autarky and
the maverick anti-exporting activism of coalition leader
Heberto Castillo reminded voters of the prescient neo-
cardenista warnings that I 970s borrowing for oil develop-
ment would lead directly to debt, recession, and dependence
on volatile world commodities markets.
The center-right National Action Party (PAN), despite its
free-market philosophy, has also voiced strong misgivings
about the way NAFTA is currently framed and the effective
exclusion of both national legislatures from the negotiating
process.
It would be prudent for NAFTA advocates to pay closer
attention to the economic arguments of the opposition. If its
concerns are ignored entirely, and NAFTA does not propel
Mexico into sudden prosperity, a future non-PRI govern-
ment could well demand a thorough renegotiation.

Tags: NAFTA, free trade, Mexico, Politics, opposition


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