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Miguel de la Madrid: “I inherited problems, and left problems”

1 April 2012

Miguel de la Madrid died this morning, was immediately cremated and has already received about as much in the ways of obsequies as the ex-President could have expected.  The first of the Ivy-League presidents (de la Madrid, Salinas, Zedillo and Calderón), de la Madrid’s tenure (1982-1988) was the beginning of Mexico’s adherence to the U.S. inspired (and imposed) “Washington Consensus”.  For the Washington Post, de la Madrid is something of a hero for forcing the massive sell-offs of government enterprises.

Mexico’s foreign debt was indeed crushing when de la Madrid entered Los Pinos.  The outgoing Lopez Portillo administration (in which de la Madrid had served as Secretarío de Hacienda — Treasury Secretary) had taken out massive loans to finance public works, often unnecessarily, counting on the huge Canterell oil field and the steep rise in oil prices, to cover the interest payments.  Canterell was not nearly as large an oil field as initially believed, and the sudden drop in oil prices left the government on the hook for the massive loans to U.S. banks… who themselves would be in serious trouble were Mexico to default.  That the banks had “encouraged” Mexican officials to take out massive loans after offering kickbacks of up to ten percent on the total amount borrowed, sort of makes it difficult to justify the Post’s claims that de la Madrid’s  “saved his country from economic collapse.”

Whether that is true or not (perhaps Mexicans would be better off today if there hadn’t been privatization, or — at the very least — privatization without much

thought given to the true value of the state enterprises, or the buyer’s ability to provide services to the public) de la Madrid is better know for not saving his country from a very different collapse.  The de la Madrid Administration’s response to the 17 September 1985 earthquake, the nation’s worst natural disaster, was matched in recent North American history only by George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

The Democratic Opening of 1985

That immediate relief and rescue operations mounted by the survivors of the quake themselves probably had more to do with the political change that eventually followed de la Madrid’s tenure than any other act (or, rather, non-act) by the political establishment.  For de la Madrid to take credit for the “democratic opening” would be like Strom Thurmond taking credit for the Civil Rights Act of 1965 in the United States.

If that sounds harsh, it may be a bit unfair… de la Madrid claims he was misunderstood, or misunderstood the question, when asked if he had been involved in the highly irregular and dubiously legitimate election of his successor, Carlos Salinas, who was losing to popular democratic rival, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, until an “unexplained” fire stopped the vote count and installed another Harvard educated economist at Los Pinos (with the inevitable financial mess that seems to follow Ivy-League economists when they enter Latin American politics).

His only seriously positive role was in his government’s brokering peace agreements in Central America, and in withstanding pressure from the Reagan Administration to back the reactionary and murderous regimes imposed upon Mexico’s neighbors… and in keeping open Mexico to refugees from those conflicts.

About the most that can be said about the de la Madrid years is that there were no public scandals… no messy public fights with the first lady over presidential mistresses, as Lopez Portillo and Díaz Ordaz had to endure, or inconvenient siblings, like Carlos Salinas’ brother, Raul (and no dead ex-brother-in-laws to explain away).  That de la Madrid had a gay son was widely known (and the subject of salacious gossip at the time), but with Mexicans much more reticent about prying into the private lives of others than in the United States, what attacks were launched against de la Madrid were political and not personal.

Out of office, de la Madrid was allowed to sink into obscurity.   Even when he occasionally made eye-brow raising comments (such as calling Carlos Salinas a crook) or startling revelations (such as his own role in throwing the 1988 election) they were seen more as confirmation of widely held assumptions, and the former president’s very existence was more or less forgotten.  Earlier false reports of his death (he had been in poor health for several years, and his death at age 77 was no shock) were taken in stride, meriting at most a brief mention in the Mexican press.

While the political class, and the professional politicians pay tribute to one of their own, and Time Magazine has an excellent obituary, perhaps the best and fairest comment on de la Madrid was made by one who might be considered the late President’s political antithesis:   Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The loss of any human being is lamentable.  We should show respect for the dead… for any person, for any citizen, and for an ex-President of Mexico.

Moises Pablo / EPA

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