Carlos Salinas de Gortari (born April 3, 1948) was President of Mexico from 1988 to 1994.
Salinas promoted privatization of state industries and free trade agreements, most notably NAFTA with the United States and Canada. Many believe that his government lacked legitimacy because he won the elections in suspicious circumstances involving a complete shutdown of the computer systems that were concentrating the results of the vote in 1988. That impression was reinforced when at a later date the Mexican Congress voted (the majority of the opposition included) to destroy without opening it the electoral documentation that could prove otherwise.
During his presidency Salinas opened a three-year dialogue with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation armed indigenous revolutionary movement. He offered a ceasefire after a few days of fighting in 1994.
He left the presidency internationally acclaimed as an economic genius, campaigning for head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), but less than a month after he left power new president Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon (Salinas's minister for budget and planning and, later, his minister of education) devalued the Mexican peso (by approximately 200%), plunging Mexico into a deep economic crisis known as the December Mistake.
The December Mistake
A key event in recent Mexican history, it refers to newly arrived President Zedillo's devaluation of the Mexican peso, the blame for which is usually placed with the outgoing Salinas administration. Although experts agree that devaluation was necessary, it is the method employed that earned the event its name – a few days after a private meeting with major Mexican entrepreneurs in which his administration asked them their opinion of a planned devaluation, Zedillo suddenly announced his government would let the peso's exchange rate float freely against the dollar, by stopping government measures to keep it at a fixed level (by selling dollars, assuming debt and so on). That resulted in the peso shifting from 3 pesos for 1 dollar to 10 pesos for 1 dollar in a week (although in the interim it was sold for up to 30 pesos for 1 dollar in some regions). Mexican businesses with debts to be paid in dollars, or that relied on supplies bought from the US suffered an inmediate hit, with unemployment and suicide being common. Enterprises whose executives attended the meeting with Zedillo's office didn't have problems – they quickly bought dollars and restated their contracts to be paid in pesos. To make matters worse, the devaluation announcement was made in mid-week, Wednesday, and for the remainder of the week foreign investors fled the Mexican market without any government action to prevent or discourage it until following Monday when it was too late.
The December Mistake caused so much outrage Salinas didn't dare return to Mexico (he was campaigning worldwide for WTO head at the time) and it made clear his influence (if any) on the Zedillo administration was over.
Salinas was blamed for supposedly ignoring the economics problems of his administration, and, his prestige lost, he exiled himself to Ireland, where he eventually married again. Although he is free to return to Mexico and does so from time to time, he always stirs controversy. His brother Raúl went to jail accused of masterminding a political assassination of a member of their own party and of committing fraud while working for the government during Carlos's presidency.
In the last years of Zedillo's term, Salinas came to Mexico to announce the publishing of his highly controversial thousand-page book, Mexico: A hard step into modern times. Written during his stay in Ireland (it was his full time job, in effect) and full of citations of press articles and political memoirs, it defended its achievements and blamed Zedillo for the crisis after his administration. Denying all acussations against him, including plotting of Luis Donaldo Colosio's murder, his visit shocked the political scene of Mexico, with surprise interviews (most arranged by him as part of his book's release) in major media. A few days later, however, illegal recordings of a conversation between jailed brother Raúl and one of his sisters were leaked to the media, and their conversation about who really owned the family fortune and Raúl's imprisonment quickly put an end to the affair.
The book proved as controversial as Salinas itself – literally a thick volume with quite small printing, every page filled with footnotes and margin notes. Its objective value is questioned since it is clearly a document written in self-defense, but it still remains a prime source of material for the scholar, telling us how Salinas viewed himself – and proving his selfish egotistical pride, critics add. One group of bank debtors formed after the December Mistake (El Barzon) declared their outrage at what they saw as profiteering from their tragedy, and took the decision to transcribe the whole book, respecting even its layout, and to give it away electronically, and they did just that, in spite of legal threats from the publisher. Salinas probably didn't mind – he didn't need the money, and he had already announced that he would donate a copy to each public library in the country.
It seems unlikely Salinas will ever be brought to trial for any of the many (and mostly unproven) verbal accusations against him, but his low popularity and the changing times his permanent return to Mexico unlikely, and his political career looks irremediably over.