A Nation Warped By Strongmen


A History of Modern Mexico, 1810-1996

By Enrique Krauze

HarperCollins 872pp $35

In Mexico, 1994 saw the Zapatista guerrilla uprising, two major political assassinations, presidential elections, and a brutal currency devaluation. That year, prominent Mexican historian Enrique Krauze was engaged in examining another difficult time in Mexican politics: 1968, when army troops massacred hundreds of student demonstrators just a week before the opening of the Mexico City Olympic Games. Among Krauze's sources was Juan Sanchez Navarro, a septuagenarian executive and influential player during several decades of Mexico's history, whom I happened to be interviewing when Krauze telephoned him. Sanchez Navarro, who after the 1968 killings was summoned for consultations with then-President Gustavo Diaz OrDiaz, gave inside details to the historian. Then, after hanging up, he observed: "I don't envy Enrique! Dramatic history is being made every day--he'll never catch up!"

Krauze did manage to find a stopping point, however. The result is Mexico: Biography of Power, A History of Modern Mexico, 1810-1996, an important contribution to the literature on Mexico's turbulent and fascinating past.

The 872-page tome goes back to pre-Hispanic days, but concentrates on the leaders of the past two centuries. It's an approach that helps explain how Mexico got into its sticky predicament: a system that for nearly 70 years has lavished near-dictatorial power on the President, backed by a rubber-stamp congress and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which stole elections and public money to maintain itself in office. That unhealthy imbalance of power, which encouraged Presidents to embark on ego-driven megaprojects during their six-year terms, has been the major force that has pushed Mexico's economy into a series of abrupt economic surges and plunges over the decades.

Krauze sees the strong-President system as a natural result of Mexico's long history of domination by all-powerful leaders, including the Aztec tlatoani emperors, a Spanish king and his greedy viceroys, and a misguided European emperor backed by Napoleon III. A series of strongmen called the shots from independence in 1810 through the Mexican Revolution and the unrest that continued until 1940. Since its creation in 1929, the PRI has claimed to uphold the ideals of the revolution--land and labor rights for the peasants and term limits for public officials. But as the PRI is today attacked from all sides for its corruption and antidemocratic practices, the revolution seems distant indeed.

Krauze has carved out an impressive niche among Mexicanologists, writing books filled with anecdotes that provide revealing insights into leaders. His focus on Mexico's leaders--the "great man" approach to history--seems particularly appropriate here and makes this book, however long, a fascinating read. Readers learn, for example, of the many exploits of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, a military hero of the years just following Mexico's 1810 independence from Spain. Craving glory, Santa Anna ceremoniously buried his amputated leg with full military honors after losing it in battle. When he later fell from public grace, mocking protesters dug up the leg and paraded around with it--foreshadowing the ridicule to which future Mexican leaders would be submitted at the ends of their public lives.

We also learn about early 20th century revolutionary hero Francisco I. Madero, nicknamed "the apostle of democracy," who believed he received messages from the spirit world ordering him to overthrow dictator Porfirio Diaz. Then there's former President Jose Lopez Portillo, who governed from 1976 to 1982 and considered himself a reincarnation of sorts of the mythical founder of Mesoamerica, the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl.

As interesting as Krauze's book is, however, its failure to provide an in-depth look at Mexico's more recent history--the last decade or so is only briefly summarized--may leave readers imagining that the country's current political upheaval is just part of the same crazy historical pattern and will lead nowhere. In fact, dramatic political reforms have been implemented since 1994 that promise to make the July 6 congressional, gubernatorial, and Mexico City mayoral elections the fairest ever held. The PRI is expected to lose Mexico City and could surrender its congressional majority.


Krauze was the favorite intellectual of Miguel de la Madrid, President from 1982 to 1988. Even so, Krauze says that leader missed a key opportunity to democratize Mexico when he refused to accept opposition party PAN's 1986 gubernatorial victory in the state of Chihuahua. Although Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose own presidential election in 1988 was tainted by fraud, would later recognize several key opposition victories, Salinas erred by giving a higher priority to dramatic economic reforms than to significant political change, the author says.

Krauze asserts that Mexico's only hope of breaking its boom-bust economic cycle is to move quickly toward democracy by reducing the power of the presidency. That is easier said than done: President Ernesto Zedillo's efforts to relinquish some powers have allowed some antidemocratic elements of his own party, the PRI, to fill the leadership void. Now that Mexico's playing field is more level, it will be interesting to see whether voters send more opposition representatives to the congress to achieve a true balance of power.