Mexico's Coming Backlash

WHAT COULD GO WRONG

Americans tend not to think much about Mexico, home to their 100 million neighbors. When they do, most U.S. policymakers take the stability of their NAFTA partner for granted. Worst-case scenarios are rarely entertained; the danger signs are minimized or ignored.

There are many reasons to be optimistic as Mexico steps into the 21st century. The country has put the worst days of election fraud behind it and opposition parties have made steady inroads against the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Fiscal responsibility has become the norm, large chunks of the economy have been privatized, the central bank operates with great transparency, and NAFTA annually generates $174 billion in two-way trade. These transformations are all signs that a democratic free-market revolution is in process. So why worry?

The answer is that backlash too often follows revolution. It is no easy task liberalizing the oldest single-party regime in the world. The year 2000 will bring Mexico a presidential election that, amid rising civic sophistication and popular discontent, could oust the PRI for the first time in 70 years. This bespeaks progress in Mexico's ongoing democratization, but it will strain the country's fragile new institutions. Nor is it easy for the country that launched the first social revolution of the twentieth century to completely jettison statist ideology. Economic reforms have been only partially consolidated and so remain susceptible to swings in the political pendulum. Meanwhile, drug lords increase their power while revolutionaries, nostalgic for a Marxist past, struggle to establish their own. And the ghost of Luis Donaldo Colosio, a PRI presidential candidate assassinated in 1994, still haunts the landscape with the specter of political violence.

Mexico totters, pulled in one direction by the inertia of its authoritarian past and in another by the wobbly momentum of a democratic future that that is barely 11 years in the making. The sobering worst-case scenarios that follow are by no means inevitable. They are Mexico's nightmares: possible futures that could become real should the country fail

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