“It doesn’t matter to me if Mexicans make fools of each other;
what I will not tolerate is that Mexicans do it.”

—Pancho Villa

The world remembers the 2000 U.S. presidential election, with its hanging chads, overvotes, undervotes, and esoteric attempts to “discern the intent” of the voter.  Irregularities people thought did not and could not happen in the United States were happening and coming into public view.  Imagine my embarrassment, as an American living in Mexico since 1991.  Only four months earlier, on July 2, 2000, Mexico had held her presidential election.  In contrast to ours, the Mexican election went smoothly and resulted in a peaceful change of regime, after 71 years of one-party rule.  It was the first peaceful regime change in Mexican history.

The American media were—and still are—largely focused on Vicente Fox, the winner of the 2000 election, who took office five months after being elected.  The real story, however, goes much deeper than the election of one candidate.

The saga is told in Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy, by Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon, two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters for the New York Times.  Their book is certainly worth reading, both for seasoned Mexico-watchers and those who know little of our southern neighbor.  Preston and Dillon have written what is probably the best summation in English of what happened—a decades-long struggle for democracy, orchestrated by no single leader or movement but resulting from a combination of factors.  The authors have lived in Mexico (both speak and read Spanish fluently) and have conducted extensive research into modern Mexican political developments, interviewing an impressive number of the principal personalities involved in Mexican politics.

When I consider the transformation of Mexico, I think of my Mexican mother-in-law, Bibi Orduña.  She labored for years as an activist in the Partido Acción National, which eventually became a vehicle for the successful Vicente Fox campaign.  During elections, Bibi served as an observer in the polling station.  That was an important task, especially as the government of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional is so adept at pulling dirty tricks on election day.  On one occasion, PRI activists ordered Bibi to vacate the premises so they could get down to the serious business of switching ballot boxes, or some such shenanigans, without witnesses.  Bibi, however, is a determined lady and refused to budge.  So they gave up.  She, and thousands of activists like her—not the party bosses—deserve the real credit for the opening up of Mexico’s political system, as Preston and Dillon make clear.

The PRI held power for 71 years, utilizing a combination of patronage, electoral hijinks, and, as a last resort, violence.  Skillfully, it structured Mexican society so that it held all the levers of temporal power.  Votes were purchased with a combination of patronage and outright bribery.  When that was not enough, dirty tricks were employed.  Under the PRI, vote-stealing became an art form.  Entire boxes of pre-marked ballots were exchanged for the real ones, the lights went out when it was time to count ballots, party activists voted multiple times in various polling sites, and so forth.  Imagine a U.S. political party incorporating the Democrats and the Republicans, the AFL-CIO, the oil companies, Wall Street, the most influential intellectuals, and just about anybody else who is anybody, and you have an idea of what the government was like in Mexico for most of the 20th century.

The voluntary organization of civil society outside of the PRI was discouraged, the Catholic Church was marginalized and excluded from power, and education was in the hands of the ruling party.  Labor was “organized”—by the PRI.  Though violence was only employed as a last resort, that was certainly no comfort to its victims.  In 1968, hundreds of student protestors were gunned down in the Tlatelolco Plaza on the eve of the Mexico City Olympics.  In 1971, another student massacre occurred.  The Mexican government conducted a dirty war against leftist protestors from the 60’s to the 80’s that is only now coming to light, and, from time to time, journalists were eliminated.  Yet violence was definitely not the weapon of preference of the PRI government, which preferred co-option of potential dissidents and handouts to calm the proletariat.

Mexico’s economy was statist and protectionist, yet, at the grassroots, the free market was never snuffed out.  The PRI’s economic program was marvelously flexible, capable of moving toward or away from state intervention at will.  The PRI system never crossed the line into totalitarianism; that simply was not necessary.  (After all, this was the pre-internet era, and the Mexican government held a monopoly on newsprint.)  Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa dubbed the PRI “the perfect dictatorship”: It maintained all the forms of a democratic state, complete with a constitution, regular elections, an executive, a congress, and a judiciary.  In reality, however, the executive was the only branch that mattered; the Mexican Congress served only as a rubber stamp for the president, as did the courts.  State governors were even appointed by the president.  Certainly, the PRI provided stability, and the depoliticization of the military prevented military coups.  Reelection was forfended by term limits.  The Mexican president was limited to one six-year term, after which he was free to depart with his loot, having chosen his successor in the dedazo ritual.  The successor dutifully stood in the regularly scheduled sham election, and the cycle started all over again.

Part of the genius of the system lay in its mechanisms for controlling factional strife within the PRI.  Personal ambition and factionalism were channeled into the service of the party by the distribution of attractive positions and other rewards to the ambitious, in return for loyalty.  The PRI system outlasted the Soviet Union, the Nazis, and various socialist governments.  Apart from its “revolutionary nationalism,” the party really did not have a clear ideology and sometimes would change policy or even reverse itself.  The important thing was always to hold power.  As the years went by, however, fissures began to appear in the massive one-party structure.  And, after decades of economic growth, the system, beginning to stagnate, failed to deliver the goods.

Opening Mexico leads the reader through the history of the past several decades to demonstrate how Mexico was gradually opened up.  The Tlatelolco massacre of 1968 showed the terror that the system could wreak when pushed to the wall.  Although the government quickly sought to cover the atrocity over, too many people had been affected to keep it entirely under wraps.

The failed presidency of José López Portillo (1976-1982) was another mark against the credibility of the PRI.  López Portillo, recently passed away, now faces God’s justice.  As far as his earthly performance as president of Mexico, it would be almost comical if not so damaging to the life of an entire nation.  At the beginning of his term, Mexico being awash in oil money, López Portillo proclaimed that his task was to “administer abundance.”  The announcement was followed by massive government spending (and its attendant corruption), then by the oil crash in 1981.  In 1982, near the end of his term, a desperate López Portillo nationalized Mexico’s banks and forced the conversion of bank accounts in dollars to pesos at below-market prices.  The result, of course, was that Mexico’s economy was in the deep freeze for the next few years.

The 1985 earthquakes in Mexico City demonstrated the PRI’s utter helplessness in dealing with crisis.  Preston and Dillon deserve credit for casting light on the government’s response and on how the political situation exacerbated the national tragedy.  Approximately half of the buildings that collapsed in 1985 had been constructed by the Mexican government.  (In contrast, centuries-old Spanish colonial structures were barely affected.)  At first, Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid refused foreign help.  Then the government attempted to bulldoze the ruins even before searching for survivors!  A newly activated citizen movement delayed the bulldozing until the rubble could be searched.  Some survivors were found, including eight newborn babies in a maternity ward, who would have perished in the rubble under the bulldozers.  The tasteless banality of the PRI system was also displayed on this occasion.  Following the earthquakes, the authorities of a government housing complex put up a mural boasting that, in this housing facility, there were “ONLY 472 DEAD.”

During the PRI’s waning years, more open media allowed people to see the extent of the party’s corruption.  Gen. Gutierrez Rebollo was chosen as the nation’s drug czar and was removed only nine weeks later when his own partnership with the Juárez cartel came to light.  Then there were the antics and tasteless ostentation of corrupt plutocrat Raúl Salinas, brother of President Carlos Salinas, who was jailed at the beginning of the Zedillo administration.  The corruption of these and other members of the PRI constellation are presented in vivid detail by the authors.

Slowly but surely, the PRI system was cracking, and citizen movements of one form or another were grasping power.  At no time, however, did widespread violence or revolution erupt.  Both the government and the opposition would step back before plunging into the abyss.  In 1988, when millions of Mexicans were enraged by the national election results, leftist opposition leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas refused to ignite massive civil disobedience, although he surely could have done so.  Failures were balanced out by successes.  In 1989, an opposition candidate finally became a state governor, and, in 1997, the PRI lost its majority in the Cámera de Diputados, the lower house of the Mexican Congress.

Opening Mexico describes the last two PRI presidencies—those of Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) and Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000)—and recounts the peso crash at the beginning of the Zedillo administration.  The authors attribute the crash (which effectively reduced everybody’s salary, including mine, by half) to the poorly handled transition between the administrations of Salinas and Zedillo.  However, Zedillo, the last PRI president, certainly deserves credit for his immediate recognition of Fox’s opposition victory and his avid cooperation in the transition of power.  Had he listened to hotheads in his own party, things could have turned out quite differently.

Preston and Dillon rightly assert that Mexico’s democratization owes little to the direct influence of the United States.  And that should give pause to those who believe that we can easily democratize Middle Eastern nations that differ from the United States even more than does Mexico, which is, at least, a Western nation.

There were some American influences.  For example, PAN activists in Chihuahua state read and utilized an American campaign book to learn how to manage their own campaigns.  The real reasons for Mexico’s transformation, however, were social, political, and economic.  It was driven by the Mexican people.

Certainly, American campaign advisors were discreetly engaged by Mexican politicians to advise their campaigns.  In the 2000 presidential campaign, PRI candidate Francisco Labastida hired James Carville as a campaign advisor.  (Carville foisted upon Labastida a campaign slogan that translated very poorly into Spanish, but it was utilized anyway.)  Vicente Fox, not to be outdone, retained the services of Dick Morris.  When all was said and done, though, it is doubtful that these gringo hired guns had much to do with the outcome of the election.

Jimmy Carter tried to put his finger into the pie as well, serving as an election observer during the 2000 election.  At first, he complained to the Mexican government of alleged irregularities but was rebuffed.  After it was clear that the election results favored Fox by a wide margin and that there was no evidence of widespread cheating, Carter changed his tune.  (The former U.S. president actually asked to appear on Mexican television to announce the election results.  Needless to say, this went over like a lead balloon.)

Today, Mexico is a healthy and rather rambunctious democracy, with an authentic division of powers.  Gone is the one-party state, replaced by three principal parties, none of which is capable of dominating the political scene.  The Congress is independent of the presidency, and even the Supreme Court has, of late, ruled against the executive branch.  Freedom of the press has advanced by leaps and bounds since the old days, when the government held a monopoly on newsprint and bought off the media (or used skullduggery against independent journalists).  At one time, criticizing the president was strictly prohibited; now, no public figure is off limits.  One nightly news program features puppet shows lampooning the president and other politicians.

I do not mean to suggest that everything in Mexican democracy would satisfy an American constitutional conservative, as there is little opposition to big government.  There is a centralization versus federalism debate, but it revolves around how much the federal government is doling out to the states, not around how much real power the latter can exercise.  Few people would pay much attention to the technical distinction between a democracy and a republic; in fact, the terms are used interchangeably.  Leaders of all of the parties exercise an inordinate amount of power over their party candidates.  (In Mexico’s system of proportional representation, a large percentage of the members of Congress are chosen directly by party leaders rather than by the electorate.)  In any case, Mexico is a much more centralized state than the United States; therefore, we have to see the country’s transformation in a Mexican context.   Historically, government in Mexico has alternated between the extremes of authoritarianism and anarchy.  The development of a peaceful balance of power is thus quite noteworthy.

We should not expect, nor demand, that Mexico (or any other country) adopt wholesale our system of governance.  On the other hand, there are elements of Mexico’s system that we might consider emulating in our country.  The Mexican voter-registration system is far superior to our slipshod “motor voter” regime.  In Mexico, every registered voter has a voter ID card provided by the government.  This card bears the voter’s photograph, fingerprint, and a holographic image to prevent counterfeiting.  Every Mexican polling station has a book containing a photograph of each voter in the precinct, which is available to the poll workers and observers from various parties.  If doubt exists as to a voter’s identity, the poll workers can simply look up his name and see if the photo matches.  Upon voting, the voter’s thumb is smudged with ink to prevent him from voting at another polling station.  This effective system played no small part in helping to ensure a smooth election in 2000.

Opening Mexico is not the definitive treatment of Mexican history and society in the 20th century.  Many social trends go unmentioned or appear only as they relate to political developments.  Completely absent from the book is any treatment of Mexico’s racial stratification, with its mostly white elite and darker-skinned lower classes—a system that, in any case, remains unchanged by political democratization.  Also lacking is a consideration of what Mexico’s democratization means for U.S.-Mexican relations.  I would contend that Mexico’s democratization is good for the United States in the long term, while not necessarily indicating better relations in the short run.  This observation particularly applies to the subject of immigration, Mexico’s number-one foreign-policy initiative.

All the major political actors—left, right, and center—are in agreement on that issue.  All Mexican political parties and all major media organs actively promote increased Mexican emigration to the United States, meddling in U.S. internal affairs, and the retention of the loyalties of Mexican-Americans.  There is quite simply no room to negotiate on this issue.  Thus, the “migratory accord” promoted by politicians on both sides of the border amounts to a de facto Mexican veto of U.S. immigration policy.  The best thing we can do for Mexico is to tighten up our own immigration policy, thereby forcing her government to put Mexico’s own economic house in order.  On other issues, room for cooperation exists under a rubric of mutual interest.  We seem to have moved beyond constant bickering over the drug trade, which is just as well, since that mega-industry is not going to decrease as long as there is such a substantial market for illegal drugs in the United States.

At the end of Opening Mexico, the authors express a rather dismal view of the accomplishments of President Vicente Fox in the four years since his election.  There is no doubt in my mind that the Fox candidacy was the best option for Mexico in 2000.  As president, however, Fox has failed to show the leadership skills necessary to accomplish substantive reforms.  The fault is not all his.  Now that the imperial presidency no longer exists, the Mexican chief executive must share power with the Mexican Congress.  Neither side has really taken the bull by the horns to hammer out the necessary reforms required for Mexico’s future and the good of Mexico’s people.  That may require a whole new team, a new president and congress after the next election, in 2006.

One way or another, Mexico’s one-party state is definitely a thing of the past.  The nation finally has a multiparty division of power.  What must follow is the construction of a successful economy, which can provide employment for Mexico’s citizens within Mexico.  Perhaps another book will be written to tell the story of how that dream was made reality. 


[Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy, by Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 594 pp., $30.00]