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Mexico’s Zedillo Hands Over Power

December 1, 2000

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ He earned his place in history not by great acts or speeches, but by admitting defeat _ something his more colorful predecessors never even considered.

President Ernesto Zedillo, who on Friday handed over the presidency that the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had held for 71 years, left office as impenetrable as the day he was sworn in six years ago.

Zedillo’s steely, often grim determination to find order in a country known for chaos, to impose a free-market modernity in an often backward nation, won him respect if little affection.

It was probably that inveterate fear of disorder that led Zedillo on July 2 to appear before the nation on television to say that opposition candidate Vicente Fox had won the election.

With protests and violence frequent under the PRI’s fraud-ridden system, Zedillo convened talks on electoral reform early in his term, then refused to do what past presidents had done _ use his power to prop up his party.

Why break a seven-decade tradition? Throughout his term, it was chaos, disorder, backwardness that hurt him most, that called forth the few displays of emotion from a man who kissed his wife in public just once while in office.

His jaw locked in pain, Zedillo toured Mexican towns devastated by hurricanes, mudslides and floods. In a recent interview, he said a 1997 massacre of 45 Indians ``was the saddest thing that happened in my administration.″

As a 17-year-old student, Zedillo had been roughed up by soldiers during the 1968 democracy movement that ended in another massacre at Mexico City’s Tlatelolco plaza. ``It was a decisive moment,″ he later said.

Zedillo had been closely touched by chaos. He became the ruling party’s presidential candidate in 1994 only after the assassination of the first choice, Luis Donaldo Colosio.

Twenty days after he took office, the jury-rigged economy left behind by his predecessor, Carlos Salinas, crashed, forcing a devaluation of the peso and Mexico’s worst recession since the 1930s.

Zedillo _ who writer Guadalupe Loeza sums up as ``gray, insipid, uninspiring″ _ was suddenly left to sell one of the harshest economic adjustment campaigns in the nation’s history.

He unswervingly implemented the program _ tight anti-inflation controls that resulted in a 30-percent drop in wages, and a $100 billion bailout of private banks. Mexicans hated it.

Still, by the end of his term, the economy was growing at about 7 percent per year, and his approval ratings were near 70 percent.

It was never clear that Zedillo wanted personal popularity. Unlike past presidents, he didn’t slap his name on soaring public works projects or use grandiose slogans.

He said little after conceding that Fox won the elections, even as enraged members of the ruling party tore down his pictures and booed the very mention of his name.

Manuel Bartlett, a hard-line PRI legislator, reflected their sentiments when he said: ``It’s absurd to call Zedillo a great democrat, because he lost. He’s a loser.″

Explaining his motivations, Zedillo talked about his mother, who he said _ in words that could be applied to himself _ ``had a deep sense of discipline, maybe almost extreme at times.″

``My mother said that you should never expect recognition for doing your duty,″ Zedillo said. ``That was what I did, my duty.″

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