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Carlos Salinas de Gortari and His Legacy

Summary and Keywords

Mexico’s President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) came to power amidst crisis and controversy in 1988. Using a variety of old and new strategies and innate political skill, he largely surmounted the political crisis, gaining popularity and legitimacy for himself and support for the PRI, handing power off to his hand-picked successor six years later. During his six-year term, he implemented a series of neoliberal reforms, privatized state-owned enterprises, and overhauled and restructured the Mexican economy, turning the nation into a leading manufacturing exporter and one of the most open economies in the world. This included the historic signing of a free trade agreement with Canada and the United States in 1992. Yet many of the gains and achievements were tarnished by events in 1994. In the aftermath, Salinas would become one of the most reviled presidents in Mexican history.

Keywords: 1988 election, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), neoliberalism, PAN (National Action Party), PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), Raúl Salinas de Gortari

The sexenio or six-year term of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari from December 1988 to December 1994 ranks as one of the most pivotal and controversial in modern Mexican history. Marked by a fundamental restructuring of the economy symbolized largely by the signing of the historic North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and the United States in 1992 and an end to the policies and rhetoric of the Mexican Revolution—a trajectory that would continue to shape Mexico for the ensuing decades—Salinas also came to represent a president who stole office as a result of electoral fraud, wrought economic ruin, engaged in high-level corruption that enriched his brother and his cronies, utilized secret pacts and repression to rule, and engendered a pattern of violence that stretched from the killing of opposition supporters in the 1988 campaign to the insurrection of the Zapatistas in the south and the assassination of the ruling party’s presidential candidate (and Salinas’s hand-picked successor) in 1994. Touted as a young (40 at inauguration), modernizing, technocratic reformer who took office amidst deep political and economic crises, Salinas gained popularity both within the country and beyond during most of his term, but events in the waning year would undermine those sentiments and interpretations, eventually casting him out as one of the most reviled political leaders in the nation’s history. From the changes he fostered to the challenges and destruction he left behind, his legacy and influence remain unmatched in contemporary Mexico.

The son of a prominent politician (his father, Raúl Salinas Lozano, served as secretary of industry and commerce in the late 1950s) with links to many others, Salinas represented the quintessential Mexican technocrat. Born in Mexico City, he studied economics at UNAM (National University), received graduate degrees (two MAs and a PhD) in public administration, economics, and political economy from Harvard, and rose rapidly through the ranks of the party and the government in areas related to finance. Starting in 1969 as an advisor to future president Miguel de la Madrid, he followed his mentor, holding a string of positions within the Treasury Department and later in the newly created Secretariat of Programming and Budget. Upon de la Madrid’s election to the presidency in 1982, Salinas then became secretary of the ministry formally occupied by his predecessor. His election as president in 1988 was thus his first and only elected position.

Historical Context of the Salinas Presidency

Economic crisis and harsh austerity measures during the “lost decade” of the 1980s created mounting pressures for political change in Mexico’s one-party–dominant, authoritarian regime. Opposition parties, particularly the staunchly independent PAN (National Action Party, est. 1939), openly pressed for free and credible elections and mobilized the growing social discontent to challenge the long-ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party, est. 1928) at the polls. At the same time, the growth of independent civil society organizations, human rights groups, and others, together with existing business and labor organizations, began to struggle for a greater role in the system, challenging the state’s and the PRI’s corporatist and authoritarian controls. As the government prioritized the servicing of its massive foreign debt to international commercial banks, it found that it had few spoils to help shore up or buy support. Even once tolerable levels of political corruption began to draw heavy criticism in the wake of the economic crisis, further undermining the legitimacy of the PRI-controlled government: a system once referred to by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as “a perfect dictatorship” (see “Democratizing Mexican Politics 1982–2012”).

Salinas’s selection by his mentor as the PRI’s presidential candidate and the subsequent election only served to deepen the political crisis. What initially began as an organized challenge from the PRI’s leftist faction the Corriente Democrático to pressure de la Madrid to open the nominating process eventually led such major political figures as Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the son of popular president Lázaro Cárdenas, and Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, a former PRI leader, to abandon the party and assemble a broad electoral alliance to run against the PRI.1

Historically, the greatest threats to PRI’s rule have come from the ranks, and none was greater than the Cárdenas-led Frente Democático in 1988. Amidst widespread allegations of voter fraud and the infamous crash of the computer system while reporting early results the night of the election, Salinas was declared the victor with a mere 50.4% of the vote. Though only a plurality was needed to win, no PRI candidate for the presidency had won less than 70% of the popular vote in 60 years. Today, most observers acknowledge that Salinas likely “won” only through the use of fraud (the actual ballots, housed in the basement of the congress building were eventually destroyed, no recounts were ever allowed). Even at the time, both the left and right opposition refused to recognize Salinas’s questionable victory. To surmount the immediate challenge, Salinas bargained with the PAN leadership to forge the Compromiso Nacional por la Legitimidad y la Democracia. The PAN agreed to reverse its hardline opposition, allow Salinas to take power, and block further review of the ballots in return for future political/electoral reforms. Though victorious, the controversial election magnified the level of popular discontent, deepened the crisis, and effectively delegitimized the incoming president. Moreover, the election left Salinas’s PRI with a small four-vote majority in the Chamber of Deputies (and for the first time, the PRI lost four seats in the then sixty-four-seat senate) making it impossible for the president’s party to act alone to alter the Constitution. The abrupt rise and growth of the cárdenista faction, mobilizing former members of the PRI alongside the traditional socialist and nationalist left, also meant that the new president faced strong organized opposition from both the right and the left. Soon after the election, the newly mobilized and independent left led by Cárdenas became the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) and directly challenged the PRI’s nationalist revolutionary credentials.

Managing the Political Crisis

It was clear by the time Salinas took office in late 1988 that the political status quo had become untenable. In order to surmount the deep and intertwined economic and political crises, Salinas desperately needed to first establish his legitimacy and credibility as a reformer. Strategically orchestrated and skillfully implemented, his approach combined old and new political tactics, change and continuity, and the rhetoric of reform and modernism. Relying first on an age-old tactic, he lashed out at institutionalized and entrenched corruption purging from office and jailing a host of prominent political figures. They included the financial giant Agustín Legoretta, arrested for tax evasion; entrenched union leaders Joaquín Hernández Galicia (“La Quina”) and Salavador Barragán Camacho of the powerful petroleum workers union and Jongitud Barrios of the teachers union; and the police chief José Antonio Zorrilla Pérez, arrested for the murder of prominent journalist Manuel Buendia, among others. Such tactics would fit part of a broader pattern developed during the sexenio in which Salinas periodically removed governors and others at will as a mechanism to centralize presidential control, ensure discipline and loyalty, ease tensions, resolve crises, and garner popular legitimacy. Such measures were normally touted as evidence of Salinas’s seriousness to transform Mexico by confronting the privileges of entrenched and corrupt leaders.

Second, Salinas crafted a strong political alliance with the broad right. This included the private sector, particularly big business, the PAN, the Catholic Church, and even the United States. The neoliberal economic changes—discussed in detail below—clearly favored the business sector as well as U.S. interests. Salinas nurtured a close, personal alliance with the nation’s economic elite, particularly those who stood to benefit from his economic programs. He provided personal access to major business leaders and incorporated business into the policymaking process, even allowing them a major role in negotiating the details of NAFTA. In return, he garnered private sector funding for the PRI and also recruited members of the business community to run for public office under the PRI banner.

In a similar fashion, Salinas reached out and created a working alliance with the PAN whose popularity and appeal had grown substantially as a result of the 1980s crises. Owing to the PRI’s small majority in the Chamber of Deputies, Salinas had little choice but to gain the support of the PAN to push through major economic and political reforms, many of which required constitutional revisions, particularly given the ideological affinity. Building on the pact crafted to ease PAN opposition to his taking office, PRI–PAN cooperation continued throughout the term. In return for PAN support in passing a series of constitutional reforms2 setting the stage for major economic and political reforms, Salinas granted the PAN greater political/electoral space, allowing it to win state and local elections outright in various parts of the country, including the first gubernatorial win in 1989 in Baja California. On a number of occasions, in what became known as a form of “second round” elections, Salinas ordered upper-level negotiated solutions often favoring the PAN to resolve post-electoral conflict in state elections. Such moves eased tensions but were often made against the wishes of local PRI officials.

In bridging an alliance with the right, Salinas also fundamentally altered church-state relations. Historically, an opponent of the more leftist, anti-clerical leanings of the Mexican Revolution as embodied in the Constitution of 1917, the Catholic Church and its faithful emerged as outspoken critics of the government’s human rights record and electoral fraud and had increasingly come to support the PAN (sometimes referred to as a Christian democratic party). To address these issues, in 1991 Salinas, with PAN support, pushed through five major changes to the Constitution that recognized the legal status of the Church (thus re-establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican), legalized convents and monasteries, permitted foreign priests, granted the clergy the right to vote and criticize the government as private citizens, and allowed religious organizations to publish newspapers and promote their views in the media. The reform not only eased tensions with the Church, it also helped dampen growing middle-class opposition and steal some support from the PAN (see “Catholicism in Mexico, 1910 to the Present”).3

Salinas’s reformist alliance with the right also included a new approach to the United States. Though Mexico had a long and distinguished history of an independent foreign policy vis-à-vis the United States—Mexico, for example, was the only Latin American country not to break diplomatic ties with Cuba—and even a leftist, nationalistic and anti-U.S. bent to its ideology and identity, Salinas viewed the United States as less a threat and more an opportunity. Downplaying the nationalism of the past and subordinating foreign policy to the demands of economic and social development, he sought to establish an “era of new friendship” with the United States.4 From the U.S. perspective, the strikes against corrupt labor leaders, the modernizing rhetoric, the historic break with the leftist ideology of the Mexican Revolution, the neoliberal economic policies, membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Salinas’s interest announced early on to negotiate a free trade deal all elicited widespread praise in the press and among government officials. Officially, the United States hailed Salinas as a reformer bringing about much-needed change to Mexico.

A third reformist strand centered on Salinas’s efforts to strengthen the PRI both internally and electorally. Created from the seat of power in 1929 by former President Elias Calles, the PRI by this time was suffering major internal divisions. It had lost much of its electoral appeal, and the party’s once-efficient machinery had become archaic and inefficient. To ease the divisions and halt the flood of militants to the PRD, Salinas reversed the earlier trend toward “technocratic” leadership, filling his political cabinet with officials with extensive bureaucratic and political experience and strong ties to the past. This “hybrid” team of technocrats controlling economic policy and seasoned professionals handling the political posts not only facilitated a hard-line approach toward parts of the opposition, it also helped concentrate Salinas’s own powers over the party.5 In centralizing control, Salinas played a major role in selecting the party’s nominees for public office (referred to as unity candidates), often choosing more competitive and popular candidates with local ties, and removed and replaced problematic state and local leaders seemingly at will. In fact, during the six-year period, he removed a total of sixteen governors (Mexico has thirty-two states) for a variety of reasons. To revitalize the party and better prepare it to compete in highly competitive elections, he also oversaw the massive injection of resources into the party’s campaigns, much of which came from public coffers, and modernized and professionalized the campaigns. Most importantly, to bolster support among the nation’s poor—historically the party’s base, he crafted PRONASOL (National Solidarity Program)—a targeted social assistance program that effectively bypassed state and local bureaucratic agencies to provide aid directly to community-based organizations set up specifically for the program. The government donated materials for local public projects while the local organizations provided the labor (and presumably increased votes for the PRI in return). The well-funded program helped mobilize supporters while also giving the government some degree of political leverage. While providing much needed funding for local communities and financial and organizational resources to support the PRI, it also strategically targeted areas of leftist opposition to help undercut the support of the rival PRD.6

The political alliance with the right and the policies that nurtured it clearly departed from the more nationalistic, anti-clerical, and socially liberal ideology of the Mexican Revolution. In a clear ideological break with the past, Salinas developed and employed a new rhetoric that touted his policies as modernizing, democratizing, and part of Mexico’s opening to the world. He labeled as social liberalism his approach to economic reform and social assistance and even offered a vision of a new relationship with the United States, one based on mutual respect and equality. In turn, the traditional narrative rooted in the principles of the Mexican Revolution came to be associated with the cardenista challenge represented by the PRD.

But despite the modern and democratic rhetoric, Salinas nonetheless relied on the older tactics of repression, authoritarianism, and electoral fraud to confront and surmount the nationalistic-left challenge. He adopted a hard-line policy toward unions, for example, blocking strikes, and undermining the spread of independent pro-democratic unions that increasingly challenged the official corporatist unions tied to the PRI. He relied on government controls and the distribution of spoils to discipline labor leaders while at the same time implementing a series of harsh anti-labor reforms. Facing a threatened strike at the historically symbolic Cananea Mining Company in 1989, for example, the government declared the state-owned firm bankrupt, reorganized it, and resumed operations under a new labor contract. But the most repressive approach during the period was reserved for the threat from the PRD. As part of a clear divide-and-conquer strategy, Salinas handled the PRD differently than the PAN. Seeking to instill fear in the middle class and the United States while helping to justify the deployment of security forces and the use of repression, he maintained a media campaign designed to discredit the cardenista left. Ads and columns placed in the Mexican and U.S. press, for example, warned of communists among Cárdenas’s ranks and portrayed the opposition as violent.7 At the same time, Salinas permitted or directly orchestrated electoral fraud to block any electoral advances of the PRD. And where the PRD governed at the local level, he made use of government resources to try to sabotage their efforts. He also used the Solidarity program to undermine the PRD’s base of support. And he used outright repression. According to the PRD, 250 of its militants were killed during the Salinas sexenio, including the assassinations of Francisco Ovando, a campaign advisor to Cárdenas, and Roman Gil, his assistant during the 1988 electoral campaign in the state of Michoacán.8 At the time, Americas Watch pointed to the “increasing reliance on the military to resolve political problems” and the use of the criminal justice system “as an instrument to intimidate the far left.”9

Bolstered by a carefully managed and PRI-affiliated media and the return of moderate levels of economic growth, Salinas largely succeeded in surmounting the steep political challenges, at least for the first five years of his term. During this period, he projected a sense of confidence and optimism that seemingly spread throughout society. By October 1990 he enjoyed a 66% approval rating, which would rise to 80% by January of 1992. In fact in 1993, the prominent political analyst Denise Dresser claimed, “Salinas has beat Cárdenas at his own game: he has now presented himself as the agent of change.”10 A series of electoral reforms negotiated with the PAN that both strengthened the PRI’s hold on the government while also opening the process itself bolstered the level of confidence in the electoral system, while changes within the PRI led the party to run a new breed of more popular candidates, distancing itself somewhat from its more corporatist and corrupt past. Clear testimony to the effectiveness of the reforms, the PRI garnered over 60% of the national vote in the mid-term elections of 1991, boosting their number of seats in the 500-member Chamber of Deputies from 266 to 310. It also swept the six gubernatorial posts in play at the time, all but one senate seat, and even prevailed in its weakest territory, the Federal District (Mexico City). In 1993, the PRI continued to register huge victories in state and local contests with post-election protests and instability on the decline. Most of the favorable vote for the PRI reflected the reformist image of Salinas. When asked the reasons for voting for the PRI in 1991, for instance, the public usually pointed to his actions.

Managing the Economic Crisis

In addition to and yet feeding the political crisis, Salinas also inherited a major economic crisis. During the prior sexenio growth averaged a mere 0.1% annually, real wages fell significantly while unemployment and the informal economy grew, the value of the peso dropped from roughly 25 pesos per dollar in 1981 to over 2,000 by 1988, inflation galloped, peaking at 159% in 1987, social spending plummeted, and the nation wrestled with fiscal, monetary, and current account imbalances.11 Salinas’s predecessor, President de la Madrid, sought to address the massive debt crisis and economic collapse initially with budget cuts, austerity, and U.S. and IMF-led renegotiations of the foreign debt, but by 1985 initiated a process of economic opening and neoliberal restructuring. He removed or reduced tariffs and non-tariff barriers, pursued a wage and exchange rate policy designed to promote exports and curtail imports, eliminated a range of price controls, began to liberalize the financial sector to bring in foreign investment, and placed domestic public debt with private domestic financial institutions rather than the nationalized banks. He initiated Mexico’s entry into the GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, subsequently the World Trade Organization [WTO]), and privatized a number of state-owned firms (see Neoliberalism and Free Trade in Latin America).

Salinas continued, hastened, and deepened the initiatives begun by his former mentor and eventually would become even more closely associated with the structural transformations that marked this period. Fully embracing the neoliberal reforms championed by the international financial community and the United States, Salinas continued to pry open Mexico’s once-closed and domestic-oriented economy to the world. He fully liberalized the financial system opening the country to foreign investment; privatized over 250 state-owned industries, including the largest firms such as the banks, the state-owned television station, the telephone monopoly Telmex, and others; eliminated social subsidies and ended price controls; forged private-public alliances to help build needed infrastructure; and revamped the government’s social assistance programs. Perhaps the achievement for which he is best known is NAFTA. Though the process of opening to and integrating with the U.S. economy had clearly begun under his predecessor, NAFTA symbolically and institutionally locked in the neoliberal structural reforms, fundamentally altering the nation’s economic direction.12

The dramatic policy shift truly transformed the structure of the Mexican economy. Within a decade, Mexico would go from being a relatively closed, import-substitution–driven economy to one of the most open economies in the world. Rooted in an export-promotion strategy in which Mexico sought to maximize its proximity to the U.S. market and establish itself as a manufacturing base, exports (primarily to the United States) doubled from $30 billion in 1988 to almost $61 billion by 1994. Under NAFTA, which formally took effect January 1994, exports to the United States would climb to over $100 billion by 2000. This period also saw a dramatic boom in the maquiladora industry (assembly operations mainly along the U.S. border)—a program that officially started back in 1965—largely as a result of the steep reductions in the cost of labor. Integration with the United States symbolized by NAFTA and the maquiladora industry was greatly facilitated by the government’s policies to open the financial sector and aggressively recruit foreign investment into manufacturing plant and equipment, franchises, and the stock market. Ending regulations limiting investments, foreign companies poured into Mexico to take advantage of cheap labor and the Mexican middle-class market. As a result, foreign direct investments and portfolio investments taking advantage of high domestic interest rates climbed from roughly $3 billion in 1988 to over $33 billion in 1993.13 As economic integration with the United States expanded, Mexico reduced its volatile reliance on the exportation of oil, though the government would continue to rely on oil as its primary source of revenue. Providing its northern neighbor with autos and auto parts, electrical machinery, electronic equipment, and textiles, Mexico essentially became the new industrial belt of the United States during this period. Though this process actually predates Salinas, most attribute this pattern to his policies

The 1994 Reversal of Fortunes

By the end of Salinas’s fifth year in office, his achievements seemed apparent. Approval ratings were high, modest levels of economic growth had been restored, inflation tamed, real wages were creeping upwards somewhat, and the PRI had reasserted its grip on power. But these victories began to unravel during the final year of the term largely as a result of three unrelated events that plunged the country into political and economic turmoil. The first event occurred on New Year’s Day 1994—the day NAFTA took effect—when the previously unknown EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) guerrilla army took control of a handful of towns in the poor southern state of Chiapas. Under the slogan of “never again a Mexico without us,” this modern indigenous movement led by the charismatic Comandante Marcos captured the nation’s and the world’s attention. Politically, the Zapatistas not only exposed the poverty and exclusion of the nation’s indigenous, they also crystallized the negative effects of the neo-liberal reforms, the renewed authoritarianism, and Salinas’s failure to transform Mexico into a first world nation as promised.14 The second event shaking the presidency took place more than three months later and more than 3,000 kilometers away in Tijuana, Baja California: the assassination of the PRI’s presidential candidate and Salinas’s hand-picked successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, on March 23 during a campaign stop. The first high-level political assassination since the killing of President Obregón in 1928, the event captured on video suggested deep and simmering divisions within the party, including speculation that Salinas himself may have ordered the murder. As a result, it forced Salinas to select an untested technocrat, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, his former Secretary of Education and Colosio’s campaign manager, as a late replacement candidate. Finally, the third and perhaps even more devastating event occurred over the course of the year: extensive capital flight with portfolio investments dipping from $28.9 billion the prior year to $8.2 billion, provoking a sharp reduction in the country’s total reserves from over $25 billion to $6.3 billion.15 While fed in part by the other two events, the capital flight was hastened in large part by increases in U.S. interest rates over the course of the year and Salinas’s growing reliance on short-term debt and steadfast refusal to adjust the nation’s overvalued exchange rate. While a currency devaluation certainly would have been risky during an election year and might have shown weakness, economically the approach adopted was untenable.

Despite the tumultuous events, in December 1994 Salinas formally presented the presidential sash of office to his hand-picked successor: a clear sign of his success at maintaining PRI’s decades-long control of Mexico. While an early ceasefire following initial repressive actions under Salinas and subsequent negotiations with the Zapatistas under both Salinas and Zedillo contained the spread of the guerilla movement, the festering economic problems left by Salinas proved to be far more destructive. Upon taking office, Zedillo, as expected, devalued the Mexican peso, allowing it to float; but instead of stabilizing the economy and the fiscal situation, the measure unleashed a vicious cycle of financial decline, capital flight, and economic collapse. Over the course of the next year, thousands of businesses went bankrupt, including many of the recently privatized banks. Personal and public debt skyrocketed, the middle class shrank, and poverty increased. With economic growth at -6.2%, the collapse undermined most of the gains registered during the Salinas era. And while Salinas publicly blamed Zedillo for mishandling the currency adjustment, President Zedllio, observers, and the general population would come to pin the blame on Salinas.

In an unprecedented and shocking move that further shaped the iconic image of Salinas, in late February 1995, President Zedillo ordered the arrest of Salinas’s brother, Raúl Salinas, for masterminding the murder of the head of the PRI’s legislative delegation and his own former brother-in-law, José Francisco Ruíz Massieu. Subsequent investigations and the arrest of his wife in Switzerland revealed Raúl Salinas’s use of passports under false names and secret bank accounts in the United States and Switzerland totaling more than $300 million dollars. The dramatic arrest of Raúl Salinas—who was released ten years later under the administration of Vicente Fox for lack of evidence on the murder charge and exonerated on the money laundering charge, and never prosecuted by the Swiss government—and the allegations and unanswered questions came to be seen in Mexico as a symbol of the deceit and corruption surrounding the presidency of Carlos Salinas. For Salinas, it represented a political vendetta against him and his family.

In response to the deteriorating situation and the arrest of his brother, Salinas fled the country, first to Cuba and later to Ireland, where he remained throughout much of the Zedillo presidency. From self-imposed exile, he authored México: A Difficult Step Toward Modernity and, a few years later, The Lost Decade: 1995–2006. Neoliberalism and Populism in Mexico.16 Both tomes highlight his administration’s accomplishments, the virtues of his policies, and how Zedillo’s policies rather than his own provoked the economic collapse.

The Salinas Legacy

Despite the success registered during the period and his appeal and popularity, both the economic reforms and the political reforms of the Salinas era largely failed to modernize or democratize the country. Politically, the absence of needed internal party reforms, the concentration of power in the presidency, increased controls over labor, electoral fraud, and the fusion of state and party all failed to bring about Mexico’s long-awaited political opening, despite certain liberalizing trends and the growth and awakening of civil society. By contrast, repression, human rights abuses, corruption, and impunity continued to dominate the political scene. Failures of the economic measures could be seen not only by the 1995 crisis, which required a financial bailout from the United States totaling $50 billion, but also by the failure of NAFTA and the neoliberal reforms to produce more than moderate levels of economic growth, create jobs, or address poverty and inequality. Though the impact of the trade agreement has been sharply debated, many studies show that it has failed to effectively address the nation’s problems or facilitate sustained development. An assessment of NAFTA’s impact after its initial decade by the Carnegie Endowment, for example, noted its failure to keep pace with the growing demand for jobs, the fall in real wages, the decline of domestic industry and peasant-based agriculture and resulting inability to stem the flow of poor Mexicans to the United States, and its environmental impact.17

Many analysts attribute the failures of the neoliberal reforms under Salinas to his centralized and exclusionary policymaking style as well as to the corruption and cronyism enveloping the reforms.18 Privatization of many state-owned enterprises not only benefited a selected few of the nation’s economic elite, exacerbating Mexico’s already high levels of inequality, but the related restrictions and exclusions guaranteed exorbitant short-term profits. Whether considered a sign of success or not, the number of Mexican billionaires on the Forbes list climbed during the Salinas years from one in the early 1980s to 14 by 1994. Many of those on the list would amass much of their fortunes as a result of the privileged sale of the state-owned companies, including Carlos Slim, who purchased Telmex; Roberto González, who acquired Banorte; and Salinas Pliego, who gained control of Televisión Azteca.

Despite Salinas’s stated intentions to modernize Mexico and join the ranks of first world nations, the period would come to be seen as leading to worsening poverty, joblessness, years of sluggish growth, and growing inequality. Despite his stated intention to democratize Mexico, end deep-seated corruption, and establish the rule of law, the Salinas years would come to be seen as a period of authoritarian retrenchment and corruption symbolized by the results of privatization schemes that benefited business leaders with a close personal relationship with Salinas and his brother Raul’s ability to amass hundreds of millions of dollars that many still believe originated from the opaque discretionary accounts controlled by the president and/or influence peddling. And despite his intentions to continue his political career by being named director general of the WTO upon leaving office, Salinas was forced to live in self-imposed exile.

Though still largely vilified by the public decades after relinquishing office, many reports indicate that Salinas, who now resides in Mexico, has contact with members of the current government of President Enrique Peña Nieto (including the young president himself) and that he exercises influence from the behind the scenes. Belief in the extent of his ongoing influence in Mexico reflects in part his iconic status as well as an acknowledgment of his vast political skills. Indeed, few have influenced Mexican politics and ignited the passions like Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Discussion of the Literature

Many works on the Salinas era were produced during or immediately following his time in office. Philip L. Russell and Andres Oppenheimer both offer overviews of the period from a largely journalistic perspective.19 Enrique Krauze provides a classic historical look at the Mexican presidency, including the Salinas period.20 Luis Javier Garrido presents the most detailed look at the rupture in the party leading up to and following the historic 1988 election.21 Miguel Angel Centeno and Stephen D. Morris offer a political science perspective on the nature and limits of the reforms of the period.22 For an analysis of Salinas’s background, career trajectory, and political alliances, see Roderic A. Camp, “Camarillas in Mexican Politics: The Case of the Salinas Cabinet.”23 For further readings on the rise of civil society organizations and their impact, see Joe Foweraker and Ann Craig, Popular Movements and Political Change in Mexico.24 For a thorough overview of the constitutional and legal reforms during the period, see Jorge A. Vargas, “Mexico’s Legal Revolution: An Appraisal of Its Recent Constitutional Changes, 1988–1995.”25 The most important work on the Zapatista uprising is Neil Harvey, The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy.26 Among the reform measures, PRONASOL attracted substantial analysis mainly from political scientists seeking to determine its political and strategic use. They include Denise Dresser, Neopopulist Solutions to Neoliberal Problems: Mexico’s Solidarity Program,27 and Juan Molinar and Jeffrey Weldon, “Electoral Determinants and Consequences of National Solidarity.”28 Reports on human rights during the period can be found at Americas Watch or Amnesty International. For an overview of Salinas’s views of the United States, see Stephen D. Morris, Gringolandia: Mexican Identity and Perceptions of the United States.29 A number of works explore economic restructuring. Major works include Nora Lustig, Mexico: The Remaking of an Economy,30 Manuel Pastor Jr. and Carol Wise, “Mexican-Style Neoliberalism: State Policy and Distributional Stress,”31 and Judith Teichman, Privatization and Political Change in Mexico.32 Studies focusing more specifically on NAFTA and its impact include John J. Audley, Demetrios G. Papademetriou, Sandra Polaski, and Scott Vaughan, NAFTA’s Promise and Reality: Lessons from Mexico for the Hemisphere;33 Ricardo Grinspun and Maxwell A. Cameron, The Political Economy of North American Free Trade;34 Nora Lustig, Barry Bosworth, and Robert Z. Lawrence, North American Free Trade: Assessing the Impact;35 and Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Jeffrey J. Schott, NAFTA Revisited: Achievements and Challenges.36 On the privatization of banks and the aftermath, see the study by Irma Eréndira Sandoval Ballesteros, Crisis, Rentismo e Intervencionismo Neoliberal en la Banca (1982–1999).37 Finally, Carlos Salinas himself offers an account and detailed analyses of his time in office in México: Un Paso Dificil a La Modernidad.38 He also provides a critical appraisal of his successor Ernesto Zedillo in La Decada Perdida: Neoliberalismo y Populismo en México (1995–2006).39

Primary Sources

Primary source materials for the Salinas presidency include the annual Presidential Informes delivered to the Chamber of Deputies as mandated by the Mexican Constitution. These have been compiled by the Centro de Documentación, Información y Análisis by the Cámara de Diputados, LIX Legislatura and are available online. Additional primary source materials include the president’s Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 1989–1994 (Mexico City: Secretaría de Progamación y Presupuesto), the blueprint for the government’s program issued in the initial year of a presidential term and the North American Free Trade Agreement available online at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Further Readings

Audley, John J., Demetrios G. Papademetriou, Sandra Polaski, and Scott Vaughan. NAFTA’s Promise and Reality: Lessons from Mexico for the Hemisphere. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004.Find this resource:

    Camp, Roderic A. “Camarillas in Mexican Politics: The Case of the Salinas Cabinet.” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 6 (1990): 85–107.Find this resource:

      Centeno, Miguel Angel. Democracy within Reason: Technocratic Revolution in Mexico. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

        Cornelius, Wayne, Ann Craig, and Jonathan Fox, eds. Transforming State-Society Relations in Mexico. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1994.Find this resource:

          Foweraker, Joe, and Ann Craig, eds. Popular Movements and Political Change in Mexico. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1990.Find this resource:

            Luis Javier Garrido. La Ruptura: La Corriente Democrática del PRI. Mexico: Grijalbo, 1993.Find this resource:

              Harvey, Neil. The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                Hufbauer, Gary Clyde, and Jeffrey J. Schott. NAFTA Revisited: Achievements and Challenges. Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 2005.Find this resource:

                  Lustig, Nora. Mexico: The Remaking of an Economy. Second edition. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1998.Find this resource:

                    Morris, Stephen D. Political Reformism in Mexico: An Overview of Contemporary Mexican Politics. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1995.Find this resource:

                      Oppenheimer, Andres. Bordering on Chaos: Mexico’s Roller Coaster Journey toward Prosperity. Boston: Back Bay Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                        Salinas de Gortari, Carlos. México: Un Paso Difícil a La Modernidad. Barecelona, Spain: Plaza y Janes, 2000.Find this resource:

                          Sandoval Ballesteros, Irma Eréndira. Crisis, Rentismo e Intervencionismo Neoliberal en la Banca (1982–1999). Mexico City, Mexico: Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias, 2011.Find this resource:

                            Teichman, Judith. Privatization and Political Change in Mexico. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.Find this resource:

                              Vargas, Jorge A. “Mexico’s Legal Revolution: An Appraisal of its Recent Constitutional Changes, 1988-1995.” Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 25, no. 3 (1996): 497–560.Find this resource:

                                Notes:

                                (1.) On the rise of the Cardenista left, see Luis Javier Garrido, La Ruptura: La Corriente Democrática del PRI (Mexico City, Mexico: Grijalbo, 1993).

                                (2.) The political-electoral constitutional changes passed in 1990 under Salinas included the creation of the Federal Electoral Institute as an independent, autonomous body and the Federal Electoral Court (Article 41). These changes were implemented through the Code of Electoral Institutions and Procedures (COFIPE) which replaced the Federal Electoral Code of 1986. A second series of changes were passed in 1993 in preparation of the 1994 elections which doubled the number of senators per state, blocked any party from obtaining more than two thirds of the 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, restricted funding to political parties, sought to ensure equal access to media for parties during campaigns, increased sanctions for violations of COFIPE, and officially recognized the role of national electoral observers (see Jorge A. Vargas, “Mexico’s Legal Revolution: An Appraisal of Its Recent Constitutional Changes, 1988–1995.” Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 25, no. 3 (1996): 497–560).

                                (3.) On the constitutional and legal changes related to the Church, see Vargas, “Mexico’s Legal Revolution.”

                                (4.) For an overview of Salinas’s views of the United States see Stephen D. Morris, Gringolandia: Mexican Identity and Perceptions of the United States (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005).

                                (5.) Roderic A. Camp, “Camarillas in Mexican Politics: The Case of the Salinas Cabinet.” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 6 (1990): 104.

                                (6.) On PRONASOL and its use politically in support of Salinas and the PRI, see Denise Dresser, Neopopulist Solutions to Neoliberal Problems: Mexico’s Solidarity Program (Current Issues Brief 3, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego, 1991), and Juan Molinar and Jeffrey Weldon, “Electoral Determinants and Consequences of National Solidarity,” in Transforming State-Society Relations in Mexico, ed. Wayne Cornelius, Ann Craig, and Jonathan Fox (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1994), 123–141.

                                (7.) Larry Rother, “Mexicans in Opposition Finding Unity Elusive,” New York Times, October 22, 1988, 2; Clyde H. Farnsworth, “Washington Talk: Foreign Affairs, Ad About Turmoil in Mexico Seeds a Mystery in Washington,” New York Times, October 31, 1988, 16.

                                (8.) Cited in Guillermo Correa, “Manchado de sangre, de principio a fin, el sexenio de Carlos Salinas de Gortari,” Proceso 729 (1994): 6.

                                (9.) Americas Watch, Human Rights in Mexico: A Policy of Impunity (New York: Americas Watch, 1990) and Unceasing Abuses (New York: Americas Watch, 1990).

                                (10.) Cited in Mexico NewsPak 1, no. 3 (1993): 3.

                                (11.) Economic figures are taken from Manuel Pastor Jr. and Carol Wise, “Mexican-Style Neoliberalism: State Policy and Distributional Stress,” in The Post-NAFTA Political Economy: Mexico and the Western Hemisphere, ed. Carol Wise (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 45.

                                (12.) For a review of the economic reforms under Salinas, see Nora Lustig, Mexico: The Remaking of an Economy, 2d ed. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1998).

                                (13.) Pastor and Wise, “Mexican-Style Neoliberalism,” 45.

                                (14.) Neil Harvey, The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

                                (15.) Pastor and Wise, “Mexican-Style Neoliberalism,” 45.

                                (16.) Carlos Salinas, México: A Difficult Step Toward Modernity (Barcelona, Spain: Plaza and Janes Editors, 2000); Carlos Salinas, The Lost Decade: 1995–2006. Neoliberalism and Populism in Mexico (Madrid, Spain: Debate Publishers, 2008).

                                (17.) John J. Audley, Demetrios G. Papademetriou, Sandra Polaski, and Scott Vaughan, NAFTA´s Promise and Reality: Lessons from Mexico for the Hemisphere (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004).

                                (18.) Judith Teichman, Privatization and Political Change in Mexico (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995).

                                (19.) Philip L. Russell, Mexico Under Salinas (Austin, TX: Mexico Resource Center, 1994); Andres Oppenheimer, Bordering on Chaos: Mexico’s Roller Coaster Journey Toward Prosperity (Boston: Back Bay Press, 1998).

                                (20.) Enrique Krauze, La presidencia imperial (1940–1996) (Barcelona, Spain: Tusquets Editors, 1997).

                                (21.) Luis Javier Garrido, La Ruptura: La Corriente Democrática del PRI (Mexico City, Mexico: Grijalbo, 1993).

                                (22.) Miguel Angel Centeno, Democracy Within Reason: Technocratic Revolution in Mexico (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994); Stephen D. Morris, Political Reformism in Mexico: An Overview of Contemporary Mexican Politics (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1995).

                                (23.) Roderic A. Camp, “Camarillas in Mexican Politics: The Case of the Salinas Cabinet,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 6, no. 1 (1990): 85–197.

                                (24.) Joe Foweraker and Ann Craig, eds., Popular Movements and Political Change in Mexico (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1990).

                                (25.) Jorge A. Vargas, “Mexico’s Legal Revolution: An Appraisal of its Recent Constitutional Changes, 1988-1995,” Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 25, no. 3 (1996): 497–560.

                                (26.) Neil Harvey, The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

                                (27.) Denise Dresser, Neopopulist Solutions to Neoliberal Problems: Mexico’s Solidarity Program (Current Issues Brief 3, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego, 1991).

                                (28.) Juan Molinar and Jeffrey Weldon, “Electoral Determinants and Consequences of National Solidarity,” in Transforming State-Society Relations in Mexico, ed. Wayne Cornelius, Ann Craig, and Jonathan Fox (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1994), 123–141.

                                (29.) Stephen D. Morris, Gringolandia: Mexican Identity and Perceptions of the United States (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005).

                                (30.) Nora Lustig, Mexico: The Remaking of an Economy, 2d ed. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1998).

                                (31.) Manuel Pastor Jr. and Carol Wise, “Mexican-Style Neoliberalism: State Policy and Distributional Stress,” in The Post-NAFTA Political Economy: Mexico and the Western Hemisphere, ed. Carol Wise (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 41–81.

                                (32.) Judith Teichman, Privatization and Political Change in Mexico (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995).

                                (33.) Audley, et al. NAFTA’s Promise and Reality: Lessons from Mexico for the Hemisphere.

                                (34.) Ricardo Grinspun and Maxwell A. Cameron, eds., The Political Economy of North American Free Trade (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993).

                                (35.) Nora Lustig, Barry Bosworth, and Robert Z. Lawrence, eds., North American Free Trade: Assessing the Impact (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1992).

                                (36.) Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Jeffrey J. Schott, NAFTA Revisited: Achievements and Challenges (Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 2005).

                                (37.) Irma Eréndira Sandoval Ballesteros, Crisis, Rentismo e Intervencionismo Neoliberal en la Banca (1982–1999) (Mexico City, Mexico: Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias, 2011).

                                (38.) Carlos Salinas, México: Un Paso Dificil a La Modernidad (Barcelona: Plaza y Janes, 2000).

                                (39.) Salinas, La Decada Perdida: Neoliberalismo y Populismo en México (1995–2006) (Madrid, Spain: Debate, 2008).