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In Mexico, pomp amid tough circumstances. Capital gets decked out to hear litany of woes

If pomp and ceremony -- and words -- can help Mexico with its economic crisis, then this is a good week for the country. There were horses, sabers, automatic rifles, and showers of confetti along Spanish colonial streets . . . and a presidential speech that lasted 3 hours and 38 minutes -- but brought only about one minute of applause.

It was President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado's annual State of the Nation Report.

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Covering it involved a dash across town in a taxi, riding in an open military truck set aside for the press, and running into the National Legislative Palace just a few yards ahead of the President, for the longest speech this writer has ever listened to.

The day began with a hint of breakfast at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, then a taxi ride to the start of the President's parade route.

Members of a mariachi band in their big sombreros and black pants and jackets were playing on a corner near an old church. Several policemen stood talking nearby, visors raised.

Two big green military trucks were already filling up, mostly with Mexican journalists -- almost all male. I climbed aboard. Soldiers with automatic weapons lined the route ahead.

A thin crowd had gathered. Further along the route the crowds were thicker. And midway, most of the huge Plaza of the Constitution was filled with people. According to a Mexican journalist on the truck, political committees transported union members and others to the event. It is also a government holiday.

President de la Madrid was driven up in one car and then switched to a black convertible limousine. Another band struck up a traditional tune. Then we were off, at a pace that forced the military and other escorts alongside the President's car to run. As we rode along, bagfuls of green and red (Mexico's national colors) paper squares were tossed from roofs. Soldiers were on the roofs, too.

But it was a fairly subdued crowd. Except for the first two rows or so, people mostly stood quietly and watched. One group in a caf'e along the route didn't even look up as the President passed by. But from a third-floor balcony, an elderly woman waved.

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Around the main plaza, most of the old colonial buildings were draped with banners of support for the President. On we rode to the legislative palace. President de la Madrid, hair combed straight back and wearing the wide green and red presidential sash, maintained a fixed smile during most of the ride. At the palace, the beautiful, high-ceilinged Chamber of Deputies was packed with officials and other dignitaries. Ordinary people watched from behind security lines outside.

The speech, like the crowds, was somber. There was some good news: Mexico's literacy rate is climbing; educational levels now average sixth grade as opposed to third in l970; life expectancy is up somewhat and birth rates have declined a bit; and public spending on items other than the foreign debt is down.

But the President also discussed the nation's severe problems. He spoke at length about the debt, though without mentioning the amount (close to $100 billion with an additional $10 to $12 bilion in loans expected soon). The President outlined what he called an economic ``crisis,'' but he offered few new specific initiatives on how to combat it.

He promised to sell more state-run industries, crack down on Mexico City's terrible pollution, and keep on ``weeding out'' bad police from the police force.

From a dais with 39 men and two women on it, he called on Mexican women to take a more active role in society. The audience, except for the few who dozed off, was attentive but quiet. Only once during the speech was there a second or two of scattered applause, after remarks praising the military.

The President is ``very definitely staying the course,'' proceeding on what he promised in his campaign four years ago, says John Christman, an American businessman here. But the President made it clear that ``Mexico is expecting more help from the [international] banking community,'' he says.

Outside, after the speech, I walked by a man selling Mexican flags. How many had he sold during the day?

``None,'' he said, looking discouraged.

Later I wished I had bought one, just to make his day a little brighter.

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