Americans should be pleased with the job done by former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who relinquished office Thursday after six years in power.
He diversified a struggling economy, sold off most state-owned businesses and, through his embrace of the North American Free Trade Agreement, opened the nation to foreign investors. His war on poverty brought running water, indoor plumbing and electricity to many impoverished areas.All of these measures served to lift the overall standard of living in Mexico, which is good for the United States. Ultimately, Mexican prosperity is the only answer to the steady flow of illegal immigrants over U.S. borders.
But while Salinas took steps to reform much of his country's way of life, he did nothing to weaken the dictatorial powers of the presidency or to reform the Institutional Revolutionary Party that has ruled Mexico since 1929.
These remain the biggest challenges for the new president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon. The way he handles them will to a large extent determine the tenor of Mexico's future relationship with the United States.
Zedillo won't have to wait long to meet these challenges head-on. The party already is facing its worst crisis in 65 years with reformers battling an intransigent old guard.
Some believe these squabbles may have had something to do with the assassinations in recent months of the original presidential candidate and the party's secretary general, who was a leading reformer. A deputy attorney general resigned recently, saying the party was blocking his investigation into the secretary general's death.
Next week, Zedillo could face another bloody rebellion by Indian peasants in the Chiapas state. Guerrillas say they were cheated out of a governorship and may renew fighting if the Institutional Revolutionary Party's candidate is inaugurated Dec. 8.
And perhaps his biggest challenge will come from Salinas, who some observers feel still wants to control the strings of government.
Perhaps Zedillo could solve these problems with force, but that wouldn't do much for the nation's economic and democratic reforms. Surely Zedillo, who earned a doctorate degree in economics from Yale University, understands this. If so, he probably also understands that Mexico can't truly prosper and grow unless it becomes more democratic and the rule of law takes precedence over presidential powers.
That means his own party will have to lose much of its power.
Clearly, the months ahead won't be easy for Mexico. But, thanks to Salinas, momentum is building toward the kinds of change that will help both Mexicans and Americans.