Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon

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Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon

On March 29, 1994, Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) named Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon (born 1951) as its candidate for president after the party's original nominee, Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, was assassinated. Zedillo was elected president of Mexico on August 21, 1994.

The selection of Colosio's successor sparked dissent within the PRI, which had governed the country since 1929. Old-guard activists, the so-called "dinosaurs" who inhabited the party's labor and peasant sectors, voiced dismay over the professorial Zedillo, 42, who had earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in economics from Yale and enjoyed a meteoric rise in his nation's financial bureaucracy. Rather than a cosmopolitan "egg-head," PRI's traditional bosses wanted as their candidate a back-slapping, savvy operative in tune with grassroots politics. After two Ivy League-educated chief executives, they longed for someone who appreciated patronage and payola more than econometric models and floating exchange rates. Their favorite was party chairman Fernando Ortiz Arana.

Unfortunately, Ortiz Arana bowed out of the contest, paving the way for incumbent chief executive Carlos Salinas de Gortari to name the individual whom he believed would best serve Mexico's interests. For Salinas it was more important to convince financial decision makers in New York, London, and Tokyo that Mexico would not veer from a liberal trade policy and market-focused reforms than to propitiate ward-heelers in Mexico City, Chihuahua, and Oaxaca.

Zedillo was just the man to calm nervous investors and continue Mexico's version of perestroika, launched in the mid-1980s. Not only were his academic credentials impeccable, but he won praise as research director of Mexico's highly regarded central bank and as head of the FICORCA program that helped private Mexican companies restructure their foreign debt. He also performed brilliantly as Salinas' secretary of planning and budget (1988-1992). In this sensitive position, he emerged as a major architect of Mexico's economic liberalization. He helped convert a 20 percent federal government deficit into a surplus—the equivalent of 4.5 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings agreements in the United States. Along the way he deftly salved the bruised egos of losers in the budget process, while sharply boosting outlays for the antipoverty Solidarity initiative and other social ventures. Moreover, he played a key role in crafting the anti-inflation plan that pivoted on a wage-and price-control pact among government, unions, and the private sector. This scheme slashed price increases from 159.2 percent in 1987, the year before Salinas took office, to 8 percent in 1993— with a further reduction anticipated in 1994.

More ambiguous was Zedillo's record as education secretary (1992-1993). He raised hackles by producing an expensive new grade school text that revised the acutely nationalist interpretation of his country's history. The book, for example, implicated the Mexican Army in the killing of hundreds of protestors in Mexico City in 1968. Such entries, combined with alleged factual errors, led both to the recall of the volume and the decline in Zedillo's political stock. To his credit, the youthful cabinet member bounced back by decentralizing the nation's underfunded, extremely politicized educational system. This move forced the aggressive, strike-prone, 800,000-member teachers' union to hammer out separate accords with 31 different state governments in lieu of negotiating a nationwide contract.

Zedillo began his quest for the presidency by wrapping himself in the mantle of Colosio, whose campaign he had managed. He employed the slain leader's name 35 times in his 20-minute speech accepting the PRI nomination. "Luis Donaldo Colosio was the best man for Mexico," he told a gathering of party leaders. "Let us continue the work that Luis Donaldo Colosio took on."

Zedillo needed to capitalize on the outpouring of sympathy for the martyred Colosio, the popularity of Salinas and Solidarity, a conservative electorate, and the PRI's well-financed electoral machine. The Mexican public, for whom he began the campaign as an unknown quantity, liked the fact that the unpretentious candidate grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Mexicali. As a child, he even sold old cans to scrap dealers. He made it to the top through brains and hard work, not a political pedigree and door-opening contacts.

Although not brimming with enthusiasm, most old-line Priistas climbed aboard Zedillo's bandwagon. He may not have been their first choice, but they realized that party loyalty was a prerequisite for legislative nominations, city council seats, bureaucratic posts, and favorable labor management decisions. Besides, PRI veterans loathed Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, nominee of the left-nationalist Democratic Revolutionary Party and Zedillo's strongest opponent. They regarded Cárdenas, a former governor and son of a beloved, late president, as a Judas. After all, he bolted the PRI in 1987 and challenged Salinas for the presidency a year later. He also sought to make political capital out of the Indian-focused rebellion that erupted in southern Chiapas state on January 1, 1994.

Presidential Administration

After winning the presidential election in 1994, Zedillo began the tough job that lay ahead. It was clear that Mexico's next president needed to gradually marginalize dinosaur politicians, while broadening access to the political process for elements of the business community. Professionals, women, young people, shantytown dwellers, and small farmers all saw the departing regime as representing repression, rigged elections, and corruption. At the same time, Zedillo worked to convince dirt-poor Chiapan peasants and other "have nots" that their country's foreign-educated mandarins cared about their plight, as Salinas attempted to do through Solidarity.

In keeping with his plans for change, in 1995 Zedillo surprised everyone—including his fellow party members— when he announced reforms within the PRI. One change that ultimately failed was Zedillo's decision to draw the Mexican military into the drug war. Within months of appointing General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo to head the federal drug agency, he was forced to dismiss him when he was discovered to have been collaborating with a notorious drug lord. Nevertheless, U.S. President Bill Clinton said that the dismissal proved Mexico was intent on fighting drug trafficking, and certified to Congress Mexico's cooperation in the drug war. Many in Congress, including Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, were displeased with Clinton's certification of Mexico, and moved to reverse the certification.

Such turmoil in the first years of Zedillo's administration only further undermined PRI's flagging influence in Mexico. The PRI hardliners of 1994 did not pack the political wallop they had a generation previously, a trend more fully observed in July 1997 when the National Action opposition party won control of the Congress, as well as many other key positions throughout Mexico. The Mexico City mayorship was lost to National Action politician, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, and two of six governor's races were also lost to the rival party. Zedillo might well be the first Mexican president since 1913 to face an opposition legislature. The shift in power was regarded positively both within Mexico and abroad. President Clinton said of the change, "Anything that adds to Mexico as a democracy is good for our common future." Financial markets approved of the electoral results, as well; the peso gained against the dollar, the stock market rose, and Mexico's bonds rallied.

Born on December 27, 1951, in Mexico City, Zedillo married Nilda Patricia Velasco, an economist. The couple had five children. Although a workaholic, Zedillo was an avid cyclist sometimes seen at cycling events around Mexico City.

Further Reading

For more information on Zedillo, see a major newspaper for results of both the 1994 election, as well as the July 1997 election. □

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Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon

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