Mexican Renaissance


The Making of a Democracy

By Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon

Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- 594pp -- $30

Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once called Mexico the "perfect dictatorship." It was ruled for 71 years by a political party that skillfully co-opted and manipulated every interest group imaginable: labor unions, peasants, business titans, garbage collectors, street vendors, and intellectuals. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which emerged after the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution, held on to power by judiciously distributing the fruits of corruption and through blatantly fraudulent elections. It was omnipresent.

That's why Mexican voters' bold decision in July, 2000, to knock the PRI off its throne was such an impressive feat. The story behind that accomplishment, and the creation of an "imperfect democracy," is the subject of Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy by Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon. It's a highly readable and revealing account of the country's dramatic recent history.

The authors, longtime Latin America correspondents who headed The New York Times' Mexico City bureau from 1995 to 2000, trace the first cracks in the system to 1968, when the Mexican Army opened fire on middle-class student protesters at Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City, killing dozens or perhaps hundreds. The government refused to reveal details, and there wasn't much the largely muzzled press or weak political opposition could do about it. But anger over the PRI's betrayal of the public trust began to build. Disgust spread after the devastating earthquake of 1985, to which the government responded so ineptly that citizens spontaneously formed rescue brigades that later spawned grassroots political organizations.

The result: A bottom-up revolution that started with public demands for the PRI to recognize opposition candidates' election victories around the country. This movement culminated in far-reaching electoral reforms that allowed President Vicente Fox's triumph in 2000. Once the PRI was out, the new government approved a law opening government records to public scrutiny and began investigations into the 1968 massacre and into political disappearances of the 1970s. It may have taken three decades, but people power finally prevailed.

The book focuses on key individuals who contributed, as Mexicans are fond of saying, "their grain of sand" to the country's transformation. There's a dissident labor organizer, Arturo Alcalde, who suffered repeated beatings in a still-unfinished effort to introduce independent unions and better working conditions into the foreign-owned maquiladora factories along the U.S.-Mexico border. There's ex-corporate lawyer Santiago Creel, former militant leftist Jose Woldenberg, and political-scientist-turned-human-rights-activist Sergio Aguayo, all of whom became effective citizen watchdogs over the political and electoral reforms. And there are numerous journalists who refused the cash-stuffed envelopes traditionally used to control the press and who courageously began to expose the PRI's unsavory workings.

Profiles of two Ivy League-educated Presidents are instructive. Carlos Salinas' audacious economic reforms and quasi-imperial exercise of presidential powers set the stage for an economic and political crisis that prompted Ernesto Zedillo's steely fiscal discipline and ground-breaking political reforms. Indeed, the Mexican politician who is most sympathetically presented is Zedillo, the dour economist who accidentally became President when the PRI candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated in an apparent act of party fratricide in 1994. Zedillo was initially mocked as a political novice who bungled the peso devaluation. Yet he managed to engineer an economic turnaround that won Mexico an investment-grade rating from international agencies. His biggest legacy, though, was his behind-the-scenes maneuvering to introduce internal democracy in the PRI and to make sure the party respected the results of the 2000 elections.

In their Pulitzer Prize-winning work for the Times, Preston and Dillon focused heavily on international drug trafficking. Their chapter on that subject is rich with detail on how drug kingpins corrupted the country's police, army, and the upper echelons of the political class. The narcotics trade remains the biggest threat to Mexico's democracy.

To fully understand why the country's complex political culture was so resistant to change, one needs to look back to the harsh, top-down rule of pre-Hispanic times; the avoid-conflict-at-any-cost philosophy that resulted from the bloody revolution; and Mexico's complicated relationship with the U.S., which in 1848 seized half of the nation's territory. While the book deals briefly with that legacy, one wishes it had delved more into recent Washington-Mexico City relations. The authors argue that Mexico's democratic transformation was largely a homegrown phenomenon, "one of the few major developments in the country's modern history that was not shaped by invasion or intervention by the United States." Perhaps. Yet the U.S., eager to maintain stability along its southern border, for decades turned a blind eye to the PRI's corrupt and undemocratic rule. When Salinas fell in disgrace, Washington finally pulled the plug. Its financial bailout of Mexico during the 1995 economic crisis carried humiliating conditions: Mexico had to offer its sacrosanct oil-export revenues as collateral for the emergency loan and allow U.S. inspectors free access to the central bank's closely guarded records. To many in Mexico's elite, these concessions were the final straw--evidence of how the corrupt, flawed political system endangered their sovereignty. It was time for Mexicans to take their country back.

Mexico's new democracy has hit some rough patches since the authors left in 2001, as they note in an epilogue. Fox seems to have lost some of his drive. And the opposition-dominated congress, reluctant to see Fox succeed, has blocked major reforms. That has kept the government from making progress on vital national challenges such as modernizing the educational system, where the emphasis on rote, passive learning fails to prepare Mexicans either to question their politicians or to compete in the global economy. Unless Mexico's leaders show that democracy can deliver a better life to long-suffering voters, the public could opt for the facile promises of undemocratic populists along the lines of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. That would be an unfortunate unraveling of Mexico's battle for political choice.

Postscript: In a country where national leaders, even if reviled, were publicly treated with the deference once afforded to pre-Hispanic kings, the death in February of ex-President Jose Lopez Portillo provided more evidence of just how much Mexico has evolved. Lopez Portillo's spending orgy during the 1970s oil boom left the country in ruins and ended in the disastrous 1982 devaluation of the peso, which he had vowed to defend "like a dog." For years thereafter, he was greeted in public by Mexicans who barked at him to mock his failures--even as they kept their distance from the still-venomous beast that was the PRI system. When Lopez Portillo died, few PRIistas showed up at the wake. His legacy was excoriated in some periodicals, mocked or virtually ignored in others. The pri may yet return to power, but it has been humbled. Mexicans today are more self-confident, exhibiting a determination to defend the democracy they've so painstakingly constructed.

By Geri Smith

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