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Mexico's Man Of Change Leaving With Mixed Legacy

MIXED in among soap operas and United States reruns on Mexican television these nights is a commercial that portrays the ``six years of progress'' of an unmentioned but obvious star: President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

In the commercial, young Mexicans, dubious about their future, exist in a black-and-white past of mud-clogged streets and villages without schools. Then they burst into a full-color present where happy workers lay sewer lines and children romp in new schoolyards.

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The ad campaign fails to point out, however, that the wealth gap between Mexico's prosperous and poor widened during Mr. Salinas's six years in power.

Also missing is an ironic acknowledgment that Salinas, who gained a reputation for trying to reduce the power of Mexico's paternalistic presidency, has had to rely, in fact, on the existing political structure to bring about change.

Tomorrow, when Salinas gives his final official address, he is expected to note accomplishments such as the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the development of a more pluralistic society that allows more voices to be heard. Salinas: Man of Change, Tradition

With one eye on the job of leading the new World Trade Organization - Salinas, who leaves office Nov. 30, hopes to beat Italian and South Korean contenders - he will no doubt emphasize his central role in converting Mexico from a closed and nationalistic economy to one determined to grow by competing on the international market.

Yet while the significance of the change in course that Salinas charted for Mexico is not in doubt, many analysts and observers say Salinas's economic program has been a mixed bag. The very presidencialismo, or all-powerful presidency, that Salinas relied on to force through change may be the most negative legacy he leaves his country. Even admirers say that for democracy to take in Mexico, the rule of law must supersede the traditional rule of personality.

``No one disagrees that the Salinas years have been a very important period in which Mexico changed its sense of nationalism and attached its future to the future of other countries,'' says Roderic Camp, a Mexico specialist at Tulane University in New Orleans. ``But the jury is still out on his economic policies mainly because the benefit has yet to reach the ordinary working Mexican.''

The taming of inflation, an extensive privatization program, a huge increase in foreign investment, and a mature economic partnership with the US and Canada are among the economic accomplishments that analysts equate with the Salinas years.

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But even Jorge Cambiaso - an economist so ``up'' on the Salinas economic program that he wrote a plain-language pamphlet explaining to Mexicans why they should be optimistic about the future - says the departing president leaves behind some serious question marks.

``The changes are profoundly positive,'' says the director of economics at Mexico City's Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, but at least three leftovers - slow growth, high interest rates propped up by a too-high current accounts deficit, and an insufficient transfer of resources to the poor - will trouble the future, he adds.

Perhaps the darkest mark on Salinas's place in history books will be his use - and even encouragement - of Mexico's traditionally unbridled presidential power. ``Presidencialismo is even stronger at the end of a [term] of supposed increased democracy, but its defects are all the more visible,'' says Victor Durand Ponte, a sociologist at the National Autonomous University here.

He offers as an example, ``the increasingly evident lack of public confidence in security and social justice,'' which he says ``results from a judicial system heavily influenced by the executive.'' In Mexico, Mr. Durand says, the courts are more accountable to the executive branch - and more open to corrupting influences - than they are to the public they are supposed to serve.

Some disagree, arguing that a strong executive has been a factor of Mexico's stability and modernization through this century. While that may be true, says Lorenzo Meyer, a prominent historian and critic of the Salinas presidential style, that stability has come ``at very high cost: the corruption of public administration and justice and the degradation of civic life.''

Mexico's continuing reliance on that centralized power is showing its limits as the country's stability, which has been much vaunted in the Latin American context, is shaken by mounting social problems and power struggles that coincide with the year-end transfer of power to a new president. But except for a few notable changes, such as autonomy of the central bank, Salinas chose to use that power, not to change it.

``It will take a courageous person to essentially reduce his own power for Mexico to attain the goal of decentralized and balanced democracy,'' Mr. Camp says. ``Salinas may have made it possible for his successor to accomplish that, but he himself didn't do it.''

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