Latin Pols Cry Freedom


Latin America, for all its political drama, maintains a certain normalcy—no matter who takes over, the masses' lot rarely changes. But some analysts predict that the current tilt toward free enterprise south of the border may become more of a full-fledged alignment than its proponents intend.

July presidential elections in Mexico pitted Carlos Salinas de Gortari, nominee of the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), against surprisingly strong challengers from the left and right. Not surprisingly, he won—amid charges of election fraud. (The party hasn't lost a national election since gaining power in 1929.) But Salinas's message of deregulation and increased foreign investment is hardly standard PRI fare.

Indeed, it closely resembles the platform of one of his electoral rivals: Manuel Clouthier del Rincon, a businessman and the nominee of PAN, a center-right party. PAN represents Mexico's resurgent northern states, where flourishing maquiladoras—assembly plants that turn foreign parts into finished goods for export to the United States—account for a large majority of Mexico's nonoil exports. PRI's Salinas has greeted this new economic and political power with promises of freer trade and reduced government spending.

In Brazil, President José Sarnay is promising similar reforms. "We intend to untie our economy so that it may enjoy the winds of freedom," he says. Import taxes will be reduced or eliminated, regulation curtailed, and state-owned industries privatized.

And in the current Venezuelan presidential race, upstart rightist candidate Eduardo "El Tigre" Fernandez is relying on a free-market platform to combat the popular candidacy of leftist Carlos Andres Perez. Perez is remembered chiefly for nationalizing Venezuela's oil industry at the height of the 1974 oil boom and plowing the revenue windfall into state control of many industries—those Fernandez now wishes to privatize. Faced with Fernandez's surprising political strength, even Perez has added economic liberalization to his vocabulary.

Rather than signifying the inevitable march of free-market ideology, these cases represent the triumph of realism among Latin political establishments. It's hard to buy votes when the country is in bankruptcy, observes Alejandro Chafuen, a Latin America specialist with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in San Francisco. Promoting economic growth is not only rewarding—it's necessary to maintain power.

But tactical use of free-market reforms may backfire on the politicians, Chafuen says, because new zones of economic vibrance tend to acquire their own immunity from state manipulation. Chafuen and others predict that Latin politicians, old hands at "accommodation politics," will be too wise to bite the hand that feeds them—and their country.