Carlos Salinas de Gortari (born 1948) was elected president of Mexico in 1988. He quickly moved toward an economy based more on free market principles than on state control and toward better economic relations with the United States. He is, perhaps, best known for his role in negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Born on April 3, 1948, in the small town of Agualeguas, Nuevo León, only about 25 miles from the United States border, Carlos Salinas de Gortari was raised in a politically active Mexican family. His father, Raul Salinas Lozano, had served the state of Nuevo León in the national Senate and in 1958 became Mexico's secretary of industry and commerce, a position he held for six years. The younger Salinas, after having received his undergraduate degree in economics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, entered the graduate program at Harvard University. Compiling an excellent academic record and writing a dissertation on "Production and Political Participation in the Mexican Countryside," he was awarded a Ph.D. in political economy in 1978.
In 1982, Miguel de la Madrid, one of Salinas' former economic professors, became president of Mexico and appointed his ex-student to a major cabinet position secretary of planning and budget. After a few years of observing his young cabinet minister's high level of performance, the president also began grooming Salinas to succeed him in the nation's highest office. In the summer of 1988, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, then only 40 years old, won the Mexican presidency in the closest presidential election of the 20th century. With strong opposition from both the right and left, Salinas, the candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (P.R.I.), won the office with less than 51 percent of the popular vote. Some political analysts argued that the election had been fraudulent and that the winning candidate in reality had not received the constitutionally required majority vote.
Inheriting a country in which the government's political legitimacy was in question and which many believed was on the verge of economic collapse, Salinas had an inauspicious start. Like many of his predecessors, he asked his citizenry to tighten their belts and accept a new round of austerity measures in the effort to bring about some semblance of economic stability. In effect, he was asking the poor to accept their miserable squalor. But he did have a plan, and within a year he had begun to depart noticeably from the more timid approaches of his immediate predecessors.
While never relinquishing the mantle of "Revolutionary" leadership, Salinas de Gortari demonstrated clearly that he planned to move his country in a more conservative direction during his first two years in office. He surprised many with an early announcement that Mexico, a country with a long history of anti-clericalism, should seek to normalize its relations with the Roman Catholic Church. In February 1990, the president named a personal representative to the Vatican and a few months later, during Pope John Paul II's visit to the country, indicated Mexico should establish formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
In an even more startling change of direction, President Salinas, observing the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, also let it be known that he would place his presidential faith less in continued statism and more in the dynamics of the free market. The new economic policy saw his government strike out against organized labor and adopt a strong stand against even the powerful petroleum workers and copper miners unions. The president also wanted the government to divest itself of costly, inefficient, and bureaucracy-laden government companies, the so-called parastatal corporations. He began selling off dozens of them to the private sector, including the government-owned airline, Aeromexico, and the large Cananea Copper Mines in the northern state of Sonora. A new, more lenient attitude to foreign capital became integral to government policy. Salinas believed that foreign capital should be encouraged, not feared, and had his congress enact legislation easing the 1973 foreign investment law which restricted foreigners to 49 percent ownership of Mexican enterprises.
The most dramatic shift of all was Salinas' announcement in the spring of 1990 that Mexico would enter into negotiations with the United States for the purpose of establishing a free trade agreement. This policy was in direct conflict with the economic model embraced by every Mexican president since the revolution. The historical tradition had been one of economic nationalism and the subsidizing of Mexican products for the purpose of keeping foreign competition out. Now, for the first time, a Mexican president, seeing trade barriers and international suspicions recede in Western Europe, admitted publicly that his country's economic future would inevitably be linked to that of the United States and that Mexico's interests could be best served by eliminating barriers to the free flow of goods and services across the international line that separated the two countries. It was a calculated gamble and one which precipitated a lively debate within the country. But many political realists agreed with the president's assessment. The idea of a Latin American common market continued to be no more than a chimera and Mexico found herself with few alternatives to stimulate badly needed economic development. Integrating Mexico's economy with that of the United States, Salinas concluded, was reasonable, prudent, and potentially beneficial.
Salinas' policy of restructuring the economy, providing social programs, and attacking corruption in government and some labor unions proved popular with the Mexican electorate. Salinastroika was the word coined to describe the transformation in Mexican economy when Salinas took office.
In the mid-term congressional elections of 1991 the P.R.I. candidates won by a margin far greater than the vote that put Salinas into office.
Salinas' critics belittled his attempts to improve the living for the Mexican populace. In 1993, statistics claimed more than 70 percent of the population earned less than needed to purchase food and meet basic nutritional requirements and about 30 percent had little or no access to health care. In 1994, these numbers were paired with the peso and foreign debt crisis that occurred shortly after he left his post, giving critics more fuel for their fire.
On March 23, 1994 presidential candidate and Salinas' rival Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated. Salinas has denied any involvement with the murder and rejected rumors he argued with Colosio days before the shooting. He alleged the death of Colosio was a personal and political blow against him.
Nov 30, 1994 was the last day of Salinas' presidential term . Less than one month later, the peso devaluation began, marking Mexico's most debilitating economic crisis to date.
Salinas' predecessor, President Ernesto Zedillo, exiled Salinas from Mexico in March of 1995. Since that time, reports and rumors of the ex-president in New York, Boston, Canada, Cuba, the Bahamas and Dublin, Ireland remain ambiguous.
The Mexican government moved against Salinas' brother, Ral Salinas, who allegedly stashed $83.9 million in Swiss bank accounts under false names while working in the government. Ral's wife, Paulina Castańón, was also jailed in Switzerland in a narcotics money-laundering investigation. Swiss authorities suggested the money in Rual Salinas' accounts might have come from drug traffickers, according to the New York Times . It is also alleged that Salinas' sister, Adriana, is under investigation for fraud that may have made her millions richer.
Salinas denied any involvement in the money scandal. "My brother Raul's deception is unacceptable to me," Salinas said in a New York Times interview.
Further Reading on Carlos Salinas de Gortari
There is no English-language biography of Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Two recent studies of Mexican politics, Judith Adler Hellman, Mexico in Crisis (2nd ed., 1983); and Daniel Levy and Gabriel Székely, Mexico Paradox of Stability and Change (2nd ed., 1983), provide context for his economic policies. Michael C. Meyer and William L. Sherman's The Course of Mexican History (4th ed., 1990) contains a brief section on the Salinas administration.