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DOING THE RIGHT THING IN MEXICO

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President Salinas of Mexico has moved in the right direction to restore peace in the impoverished southern state of Chiapas, where a New Year's uprising of Indian peasants spoiled the government's celebration of the new North American Free Trade Agreement.

Following reports of military overreaction in pursuing lightly armed rebels who briefly took over several towns, Salinas declared a unilateral cease-fire as long as his troops are not attacked. The president also offered pardons to insurgents who lay down their arms.And in what may be the most fruitful of his responses to an eruption that has taken more than 100 lives, he sent a skilled negotiator, former Foreign Minister Manuel Comacho Solis, to head a mission of conciliation in the inflamed region.

These actions by a worried Salinas, whose long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party faces more determined opposition in elections to come, suggests growing insight about the disparities between haves and have-nots in Mexico.

The discrepancies are not only in economic well-being but in political power and respect.

People in the poorly developed countrysides want to be heard in the policymaking councils of Mexico City. And this seemingly simple desire requires a more open, competitive democracy than Mexico has achieved so far.

Salinas, in his regular visits to country places including remote Chiapas on the Guatemalan border, should have realized this growing hope among the indigenous peoples of Mexico who know little about NAFTA.

But the president has taken another step indicating he is paying more attention to such problems.

He removed as Interior minister a former governor of Chiapas, Patrocinio Gonzalez, tarnished by charges of corruption and human rights abuses when he headed the state administration.

He was replaced by a leading advocate of human rights, Jorge Carpizo MacGregor, who will have a key role in pacifying Chiapas.

This necessary action by Salinas is a hopeful sign.