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Democracy Is in the Streets | The Nation

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Democracy Is in the Streets

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Opening Mexico offers numerous other examples of popular protest and collective action, ranging widely in their origins, tactics and political orientation, but all contributing to the collective momentum toward democratic change. Fox's conservative party, for example, the National Action Party (PAN), responded on several occasions to dubious results in gubernatorial elections by organizing marches and mass civil disobedience, and by rallying the support of people across the political spectrum.

About the Author

Daniel Wilkinson
Daniel Wilkinson covers Latin America for Human Rights Watch. His book Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror,...

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The most famous recent example is the uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, which burst onto the scene on New Year's Day of 1994, when it captured several towns in Chiapas and, with them, a place on television screens and in newspaper headlines throughout Mexico and around the world. The ragtag army of several thousand Mayans was able to hold the media spotlight far longer than it held the towns, allowing their spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, to inveigh against the vices of the country's political system on international prime time.

Although the Zapatistas would achieve few of their expressed aims, their justification for taking up arms--that the fraudulent electoral system left them no alternative--did compel Mexico's establishment to seek to prove them wrong. Within weeks of the uprising, the leaders of the PRI, PAN and PRD signed an agreement committing their parties to fix the electoral system; within months they made good on this commitment by passing legislation that greatly improved the way Mexico managed its elections.

If collective protest was the primary engine of democratic change in Mexico, there were also numerous individuals who played decisive roles in shaping its direction and impact. These included journalists, intellectuals, labor leaders, politicians and, yes, even presidents. One of the most interesting aspects of this story is how successive PRI administrations recognized the need to cede some control or risk losing it altogether, and implemented the reforms that ultimately led to the re-gime's demise.

President Salinas, for example, emerged from the 1988 election as a sore winner but soon realized he needed to repair the damage that the electoral debacle had done to Mexico's image abroad if he was going to accomplish what became the central objective of his presidency: the creation of NAFTA. He needed to show skeptical Americans, among other things, that Mexico had an active opposition. So he entered into talks with the PAN (while continuing to wage political warfare against Cárdenas and the PRD) and conceded to the conservative party's demands for the creation of a nonpartisan Federal Electoral Institute to manage elections.

There were limits, however, to the reforms Salinas was ready to contemplate, as he made clear when he declared, in a state of the union address, that "electoral democracy cannot be attained by engaging in practices that jeopardize the country's stability or the continuity of its institutions."

Salinas delivered on NAFTA--but not on stability. The day the treaty went into effect, the Zapatistas launched their uprising in Chiapas, and in the following months the political establishment was rocked by the assassinations, in broad daylight, of his chosen successor, presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, and the secretary of the PRI, José Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

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