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MEXICO: A Sure Winner

4 minute read

The dusty plaza of Navojoa in the Mexican state of Sonora was a sea of straw-colored Stetsons. Campaign placards floated above the farmers, providing a little shade from the intense noonday sun. A psychedelic rock band with gigantic amplifiers competed with ranchero singers, backed by trumpets and violins, across the square. As the din crescendoed, railway workers forming a canyon through the crowd swung their matracas (rattles) wildly. With hand stretched high in salute, a robust man in a white guayabera (tropical shirt) jogged up to the speaker’s platform. The crowd broke into a roar: ” Viva Lopez Portillo!”

There have been similar campaign scenes all across Mexico lately, as the country’s 25 million registered voters prepare to go to the polls July 4 to elect their next President. Unlike the U.S. electorate, however, Mexicans already know who will win. He is José López Portillo, 56, who was Finance Minister in the present government and the personal choice of President Luis Echeverria Alvarez to succeed him. Because Mexican law limits a President to one six-year term, the incumbent customarily chooses the next standard bearer of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (P.R.I.), which has dominated Mexican politics since 1929. Moreover, the failure of the tiny Partido de Accion Nacional (P.A.N.) to agree on a candidate left Lopez Portillo without even token opposition.

Nonetheless, López Portillo mounted a grueling campaign to get acquainted with the voters, only a few hundred of whom had even heard his name when Echeverria picked him last September. Since then, his campaign bus Quetzalcoatl (for the plumed serpent of pre-Columbian lore) has logged 40,600 miles, traversing the countryside from the humid south to the High Sierras.

Into Law. Why does a sure winner bother to campaign? As one supporter puts it, “The campaign is vital. The candidate learns firsthand the state of the nation. He learns the problems and also the opportunities of development.” A relative latecomer to Mexican politics, Lopez Portillo is also believed to be working out the goals of his new administration, which will take over the reins of government on Dec. 1. The son of a Mexico City schoolteacher, López Portillo grew up in what he calls a “typical middle-class family.” While attending the National University he became friends with Echeverria. Echeverria went into politics, López Portillo into law. But after 13 years as a professor at the National University, he accepted the first of a series of government posts, in which he earned a reputation as an exceptional administrator and a fiscal specialist.

López Portillo will take office at a time when his country’s economy is on the upswing. Mexico weathered the worldwide recession better than most countries in the hemisphere; the gross national product last year increased 4.5%, to $80 billion. Inflation, currently 15%, hit hard, but at a time when other developing countries were clobbered by high oil prices, Mexico has been opening up new oilfields and has even begun exporting petroleum. Many voters, though, are restless about the failure of a supposedly revolutionary party to solve such nagging social problems as high unemployment (estimated at 30%) illiteracy (27%), corruption, a top-heavy bureaucracy and blatant tax evasion.

Washington, at least, is looking forward to the new regime. Echeverria has tried to lessen his country’s dependence on the U.S., and his attempts to pursue an independent Third World policy have not made Washington very happy. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who met Echeverria’s successor on his recent Latin American trip, was impressed with López Portillo’s sense of humor and his knowledgeable reliance on a trained staff. State Department experts believe that López Portillo will be pro-U.S., and point with satisfaction to a series of meetings he has already held with Western state governors and U.S. business and labor leaders on attracting American investment. An open-ended invitation to the next President to visit Washington has already been extended.

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