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Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy
by Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004
Hardcover, $30.00 (594 pages)
ISBN 0-374-22668-7
 
 
 
The authors, Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who have covered Mexico for The New York Times for several decades, boxes their superbly researched book with the emergence of democracy in that illusive, enigmatic country whose government has been struggling for most of the second half of the 20th century.

Beginning “Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy” with the day in 2000 when its current president, Vicente Fox, was elected at the end of a long period of domination by the Partido Revolutionario Institutional or PRI, the authors digress to the dramatic beginning in 1910 when the revolution set the stage for change. Then authors meander their way through the maze of problems that led up to Fox’s election as the opposition candidate of Partido Accion Nacional or PAN. It is a long, amazing, and bumpy ride.

The authors begin with the earlier 19th century revolution when Father Miguel Hidalgo and Captain Ignacio Allende took up arms against the Spanish who had ruled the New World for almost 300 years. After both leaders were killed and beheaded, their fight for independence ended after 11 years of battle with General Agustin de Iturbide crowning himself emperor. He was followed by numerous other strongmen or caudillo-style leaders, including Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who was president for 11 different terms between 1833 and 1855, during which time his army was defeated by Sam Houston and he signed away Texas and lost Mexico’s northwestern lands, including California. In the 1860s, before and after the reign of Maximilian, after French troops invaded Mexico, Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, was a president who brought about massive reforms, reduced the power of the Catholic Church and established principles of individual rights and the rule of law.

These reforms proved to be short-lived when Porfirio Diaz came into power and remained president for more than 30 years. The authors write: “Diaz was a master of the Mexican art of pragmatic politics. He regarded political debate as so much ‘scandal’ that distracted from his modernizing program to maintain order, expand the economy, and unify the nation with national roads and railways.” He rewarded his rich friends and perpetuated the hacienda system of economics that basically followed the old European system of fiefdoms with a few rich families, operating out of great centrally located haciendas, controlling hundreds of thousands of acres and thousands of peasants.

In early 20th century, Francisco I. Madero, wrote a political manifesto that drew a picture in opposition to Diaz-style dictatorship, calling for free elections and individual liberties. A well-educated man from a well-to-do family, Madero engineered the ouster of Diaz and became president himself. After little more than a year in office, he was assassinated by a friend of General Victoriano Huerta, who became president.

After more than a decade of fighting the revolution, which was little more than a many-sided civil war, led by Pancho Villa in the north, Emiliano Zapata in the south, Huerta forces, and troops led by Generals Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregon, the latter two each became president and each was assassinated in office.

Finally, a peace was called. Another revolutionary general, Plutarco Elias Calles, called for an official party to represent the ideals they had been fighting for. Again, in 1938, President Lazaro Cardenas not only called for drastic reforms he nationalized the oil industry, redistributed the land, and organized factory workers, government bureaucrats, and schoolteachers. He renamed it the Party of the Mexican Revolution. But it was not until 1946 that it was restructured as PRI and “its rules of conduct became part of the civic decorum, as routine as Sunday Mass for Catholics,” the authors tell us.

It is shown how the PRI became synonymous with heavy-handed corruption and ego-centered political power that resulted in such atrocities as the killing of hundreds of demonstrating students at Tlatelolco in 1968, the absence of aid after the earthquake of 1985 in downtown Mexico City, the illegal and violent activities during elections around the country that were symbolized by the gubernatorial elections in Chihuahua in 1986, the growth of narcotics trafficking in the 1990s, and the prevalence of the crime of kidnapping. The authors detail the problems that were exacerbated by the presidencies of Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo.

Detail is piled upon detail, all fascinating and relevant, showing the reason for the rise of the country boy cowboy politician, Vicente Fox, who became the first opposition candidate to win the presidency, opening the doors for democracy. The authors point out that Mexico had the perfect opportunity for dictatorship or a communist regime throughout the 20th century. However, unlike many other Latin American countries, it veered away from either, keeping itself primed for democracy.

They write: “Mexico was changing because Mexicans were changing. When the authoritarian system was founded in 1929, the population was just 16 million. During the four decades of development that followed, the population tripled, to 48 million in 1970. Then widespread use of birth control led to a plunge in the fertility rate. In 1965 women had seven children on average; by the 1990s only three. With smaller families to care for, Mexicans spent more of their money on their children’s education, and women worked or spent more time outside the home. Life expectancy rose from 61 to 70 years for men and from 65 to 75 for women. The infant-mortality rate dropped from 31 to 22 deaths per 1,000 live births in just seven years during the 1990s, despite the economic crisis. During the same years university enrollment jumped by 42 percent.”

Throughout the rich historical narrative the authors interject personal observations of the events and personalities they witnessed. Comparing the U.S. with Mexico, they point out that “democratic government in the United States was born in the last decades of the 18th century with a brilliant constitution and tremendous grassroots vigor. Yet it took U.S. democracy eight decades to abolish slavery, and after a full century urban corruption as bad as any seen under the PRI was proliferating in the New York slums controlled by Tammany Hall. Did U.S. democracy produce efficient economic policies? The United States had experienced a century and a half of democratic government when the Great Depression put a third of its workers onto soup lines.

“Democracy does not guarantee good government, but it is a set of rules and a culture for resolving differences that allows citizens to limit misgovernment. Mexicans had been building their democracy in earnest for more than three decades, and it was a work in progress. They were now directing a drama in which Vicente Fox, Lopez Obrador, and the lawmakers of the newly independent Congress were temporary players. If those politicians faltered, Mexicans now had the power to call forth other leaders to more boldly carry forward the nation’s agenda.”


 

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

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