An air of expectancy hung in the atmosphere during the weeks preceding President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon's first State of the Union address, delivered on September 1, 1995. One question buzzed in the minds of all Mexicans: how would Zedillo put the best of all possible faces on the worst of all possible situations? No substantial progress has been made in the Chiapas peace talks; political and electoral reform negotiations have come to a virtual standstill; the economic disaster continues to impose extreme hardship on the majority of Mexicans (despite official assertions that the economy has "hit bottom" and even shows improvement with respect to some macroeconomic indicators); and the justice system --in particular, the Federal Attorney General's office-- has lost all credibility, as evidenced by its bungling of the Colosio, Ruiz Massieu and Polo Uscanga investigations, the Guerrero campesino massacre, and the Tabasco electoral fraud case. What smoke and mirrors would Zedillo produce to extricate himself from this rather thorny predicament?
Rumor had it that the chief executive, faced with such dismal prospects, had considered dispensing with the address altogether-a move that would have contravened Article 69 of the Mexican Constitution. Up to the very day of the address, there existed some doubt as to whether the speech would be a formal "address", replete with statistics and detailed information, or a shorter political "message" which the president would use as a smokescreen to avoid more concrete responses to national problems. Certainly, Zedillo rejected out-of-hand the revised format proposed by the PAN and PRD, which had suggested a question-and-answer session with opposition legislators following the speech. Zedillo's refusal was probably in his own best interests, if not those of democratic debate. In a decision which surely displeased all Mexicans, from grammar school students to business executives, Zedillo called off the national holiday traditionally observed on September 1, ostensibly as another in a long line of austerity measures. Some pundits interpreted the cancellation --rather nastily-- as an artful method of deflecting publicity from the speech.
But the show, as it must, went on--and the ticketholders demanded a refund. Zedillo's oration contained absolutely no surprises and little inspiration. The peroration lasted an hour and a half, considerably shorter than previous presidents' herculean efforts of up to four hours. The speech was short on details and long on ambiguities. Presumably, the former were contained in a hefty report the president submitted to Rosario Guerra, PRI leader of the lower Chamber of Deputies, for the Congress's consideration. The contents of that document have yet to be fully disclosed.
The speech dealt with three main themes: the economy, justice and democratic reform. With respect to the economy, Zedillo asserted that the problems which precipitated the crisis were manifold: the volatile nature of foreign investment, political violence in 1994, and above all, rapidly dwindling internal savings, which diminished from 22% to 16% of GNP during Salinas' term. Many analysts read into these observations, particularly the latter, a clear desire on Zedillo's part to dissociate himself from all responsibility for the crisis.
Zedillo vigorously defended his economic shock plan as having avoided a more acute and prolonged crisis. Although the adjustment programs proposed "drastic" and "painful" remedies-- such as a 10% reduction in public expenditures, raises in public sector prices and tariffs, and an increase in the national value added tax (see Heartbeat of Mexico, numbers 4 and 12, of January 10 and March 13, 1995, respectively, for further information)--"gradualist measures" would have exacerbated unemployment, inflation and the devaluation. The president asserted that due to the now-stabilized exchange rate, a 3.7 billion-dollar trade surplus, lower interest rates and decreasing inflation, the objectives of the programs had been achieved, prognosticating a return to growth in 1996.
Significantly absent were any sense of self-criticism and statistical evidence to support the president's assertions concerning the recovery program and his prediction of renewed growth. The pressing problem of internal debt was also given short shrift: Zedillo spoke vaguely of judicial truces, a moratorium on interest payments, etc., but without mentioning specific programs to implement these ideas.
Again, Zedillo's treatment of this subject fell well short of expectations, with only oblique references to the most urgent problems. For example, the chief executive cited "crimes against distinguished figures in public life", without naming Colosio or Ruiz Massieu. In what many saw as a reference to the electoral fraud case of Tabasco governor Roberto Madrazo, Zedillo cautioned against "sensationalism, rumors and pressure." The June 17 campesino massacre in Guerrero was never even alluded to.
The main thrust of the juridical reforms proposed by the executive is greater independence of the judicial branch and the federal Attorney General to avoid "politicization" of high profile cases. Along these lines, Zedillo promulgated constitutional reform that expanded the powers of the Supreme Court, did away with presidential appointment of judges, and granted Congress the ability to review the constitutionality of laws. Attorney General Antonio Lozano Gracia received big backing when Zedillo expressed confidence in the absolute liberty of the Attorney General to investigate cases unhampered by political restraints.
Although there exists general agreement concerning the benefits of an autonomous judiciary, many opposition politicians pointed out that under Mexican organic law, the Attorney General's office pertains to the executive branch. Thus, in insisting on the legally fictitious independence of the Attorney General, Zedillo effectively washed his hands of responsibility for severe problems of justice challenging the nation.
The buzzword here was "new federalism", a concept which embraces several aspects: 1) decentralization of traditionally federal functions; 2) fiscal reform which distributes tax monies to state and municipal governments more equitably; and 3) more checks and balances between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial powers.
As part and parcel of legislative empowerment, the president spoke of the need for increased pluralism in the legislature. Obviously, this entails electoral reforms which guaranty increased competitiveness between political parties: autonomy of electoral organizations, equal media access, disengagement of the PRI from public resources, etc. Although the president spoke in glowing terms of recent "highly competitive, peaceful electoral processes with results which corresponded to the will of citizens" (conveniently overlooking many elections whose results were highly questionable), he addressed none of the foregoing vital points.
Chiapas was included under the rubric of democratic advancement. Here, Zedillo suggested the need for a new relationship between the Mexican State and indigenous groups which would be embodied in a new Indigenous Rights Act. However, no specifics or even general contours of the proposed law were provided and the EZLN was not mentioned.
As Carlos Castillo Peraza, leader of the National Action Party, concluded, the speech contained many proposals but few details on how to enact them. The most critical problems were dealt with in peremptory fashion or neglected entirely. At a time when imaginative, daring solutions are needed to confront the economic and political crisis in Mexico, President Zedillo offered only facile generalizations and self-congratulatory rationalizations. In this case, no news was bad news.
Javier Medina Ibarra
NOTE TO READERS: The Heartbeat of Mexico welcomes all suggestions, remarks and criticism. If you would like to discuss the topics presented in our articles, or desire further information about the state of affairs in Mexico, please write us at the above address. All electronic correspondence will be answered individually.