Democracy Is in the Streets

Democracy Is in the Streets

If you found George W. Bush’s 2000 victory in Florida difficult to stomach, imagine being on the losing side of Mexico’s 1988 presidential election.


If you found George W. Bush’s 2000 victory in Florida difficult to stomach, imagine being on the losing side of Mexico’s 1988 presidential election. Early results on election night showed the opposition candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas on his way toward a victory that would end six decades of one-party rule. But then functionaries from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) switched off the computer terminals where opposition leaders were tracking the vote count, claimed that technical problems had made the results unavailable and announced that their own candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, had won a “smashing and irrefutable triumph.”

Over the coming days reports of irregularities poured in–children marking blank ballots for Salinas, gunmen stealing ballot boxes, and ballots for Cárdenas turning up burned, dumped in ravines and floating in rivers. In thousands of precincts, PRI officials inflated the Salinas vote by simply tacking a zero onto the tally (so, for instance, 73 votes became 730). When opposition representatives challenged this practice in one district, the PRI-dominated electoral committee voted to disregard the complaint. When the opposition protested, the committee president reproached them for disrupting the process, exclaiming, “Please respect our democracy!”

The sham was so brazen, so cynical, that most Americans reading about it are likely to wonder–even after Florida 2000–how anyone could get away with it.

In Opening Mexico, Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon provide the answer, showing how the PRI was able to pull off this and countless other coups, yet ultimately could not stem the demand for democracy in Mexico. The Pulitzer Prize-winning pair, who covered Mexico for the New York Times in the 1990s, have written an insightful and engaging account of the “prolonged, slow-motion, largely peaceful democratic revolution” that culminated in the election of opposition candidate Vicente Fox in 2000. The book is a highly readable primer on recent Mexican history and a fascinating case study of the multiple ways public pressure can undermine an antidemocratic regime. At the same time, it offers important clues throughout the region–feeling disenfranchised.

The book opens on Election Day 2000, with the morning jitters of voters headed to the polls giving way during the afternoon to disbelief and anguish, astonishment and joy, as the rival camps realized where the vote was headed, and culminating in the evening with the decisive moment that transformed Mexico, in the eyes of the world, into a genuine democracy–not when the news media reported their polling results, nor when the Federal Election Institute announced the official tally, but when President Ernesto Zedillo went on national television to do something no PRI president had ever done after a national election: concede his party’s defeat.

Zedillo was the last of twelve consecutive presidents from a regime born of the chaos of the Mexican Revolution–a series of regional rebellions and counter-rebellions that unleashed demands for social justice, left hundreds of thousands dead and led to the creation in 1917 of a constitution that, as Preston and Dillon write, both recognized “the social claims of the insurgent masses” and laid “the groundwork for the restoration of rigorous central authority.”

That central authority was concentrated in the figure of the president, who was chosen every six years in a “stage play” of an election, managed by the PRI to guarantee the official candidate’s victory, “by persuasion if possible, by coercion if necessary.” Each president handpicked his successor, leading some pundits to joke that Mexico had perfected the “one man, one vote” system.

That system produced presidents like José López Portillo, who was elected in 1976 with 91.9 percent of the vote in an uncontested election, then plunged the country into its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and still managed to build himself a retirement compound in Mexico City that included five mansions with tennis courts, swimming pools, stables and a gym. These presidents wielded enormous power with no accountability, choosing not only their successors but also state governors and other key officials, and sharing with the chosen the considerable perks of a lucrative profession. (The profits to be made in public service were such that one Mexico City mayor observed, “A politician who is poor is a poor politician.”)

The power and wealth were also shared with PRI-affiliated labor leaders, whose unions won higher wages and benefits for workers in good times and held wage demands in check in bad, securing millions of votes for the PRI every six years and stifling dissent with ruthless efficiency. “We came to power by the force of arms,” the country’s most powerful union leader once said of the PRI, “and nobody is going to get us out of here at the point of a speech.”

At its apex, Preston and Dillon write, the system was “an electoral democracy with no fair elections; a federation in which all power was centralized in the presidency; and a revolutionary state where the workers were dominated and demobilized.” For several decades, it functioned smoothly, delivering stability, economic growth and basic services to much of Mexican society. But over time, the PRI’s authoritarian populism lost its populist bent and increasingly began to display the sort of gap between rhetoric and performance that is characteristic of regimes that claim popular mandates they could never win in fair elections.

Two cataclysmic events would expose that gap for what it was, reshaping the country’s political landscape and eroding the foundations of PRI legitimacy. The first came in 1968, when student activists began pressing for the release of political prisoners and the repeal of laws used to jail dissenters. Their efforts tapped into deep currents of public disaffection with PRI rule, and they were soon drawing hundreds of thousands of people to street demonstrations. Like its counterparts around the world, this movement was part political protest and part cultural revolution, with students flouting authority in ways that were, in the moral universe of the PRI, entirely beyond the pale–such as gathering in front of the National Palace and shouting at the president inside: “Come on out, Monkey Big-Snout!”

The president at the time, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, did indeed have a sizable snout, a short temper and–when it came to curbing dissent–a heavy hand. Where his predecessors had calibrated their use of coercive force with a certain degree of subtlety, Díaz Ordaz unleashed his security forces on the protesters, detaining and beating students, and imposing a virtual state of siege in Mexico City. The confrontations culminated with a showdown in a public plaza in the Tlatelolco district of the city, when army troops opened fire on the protesters, killing or wounding hundreds. The exact number was never disclosed, as the government trucked away the corpses, cleaned up the streets, prohibited the press from reporting what had taken place and began a cover-up that has lasted three decades.

The second transformative cataclysm was an earthquake in 1985, which brought down hundreds of buildings in Mexico City and buried an untold number of Mexicans–untold, again, because the government suppressed the figures (Preston and Dillon estimate 20,000 dead). The government was slow to respond and reluctant to recognize the scale of the disaster. As offers for help poured in from around the world, President Miguel de la Madrid announced that Mexicans were “ready to return to normal life” and didn’t need foreign help.

Only after a second quake hit and the staggering loss of life could no longer be denied did the government react in a more serious fashion. But, as in 1968, the PRI authorities showed more concern with restoring order than with saving lives. It placed the ruins off-limits to the public, claiming they were unsafe. And, instead of digging, many troops devoted their energy to blocking the neighbors, relatives and thousands of students who turned out to assist in rescue efforts. The official rescue attempt was lackluster, and the authorities, seeing the buried bodies as potential sources of disease rather than potential survivors, sent in heavy equipment to clear the rubble.

Again it was the university students who stood up to the government, clashing with troops who sought to prevent them from digging in the ruins and lying down in front of bulldozers sent to clear the rubble. At the site of a collapsed hospital, students managed to stop the bulldozers long enough for rescuers to tunnel through to a maternity ward and rescue eight babies.

In addition to saving lives, these spontaneous rescue brigades, and the nongovernmental relief efforts that followed, generated a new conviction among many participants that, by banding together, they could address the needs of Mexican society better than the PRI regime was willing or able to. “We had a sense of the possibility of action and a conviction that we had to act collectively,” one student leader recalls in the book. And this conviction would help to fuel the political movement that led to Cárdenas’s strong showing in the 1988 election and the subsequent formation of his new political party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).

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.

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.

In December 1994, Mexico’s next president, Ernesto Zedillo, inherited an overvalued peso, a staggering $25 billion of short-term, dollar-pegged debt, foreign reserves that could cover only half that debt and lingering stock-market jitters provoked by the Zapatista uprising and the two assassinations earlier in the year. The new administration’s plans to maneuver the country out of this precarious situation began to unravel when–after a nearly yearlong cease-fire–the Zapatistas struck again. News that the guerrillas had occupied thirty-eight villages (although they had in fact only occupied one, and briefly at that) prompted the Mexican stock index to plunge, which in turn prompted the finance minister to devalue the peso, which led investors to panic and, within a few days, the economy to crash.

It was clear to Zedillo that the old PRI system was crumbling and could no longer provide the stability (not to mention social welfare) that had been its central promise. While he shared Salinas’s neoliberal worldview, he also identified democracy as a prerequisite for flourishing markets. Moreover, Preston and Dillon write, “with the economy in ruins, more political freedom was all Zedillo had to offer opposition leaders to win a minimum of their cooperation for the harsh fiscal recovery program” he pursued to address the country’s economic woes. So he pushed additional electoral reforms through Congress that consolidated the independence of the elections agency and made it virtually impossible for the PRI to steal another election.

This story lends some credence to the free-marketeer mantra that economic liberalization promotes democratic change. But if neoliberals helped make Mexico’s democracy, they did so in response to circumstances that were not of their own choosing. Salinas’s democratic reforms were necessary to attract foreign investment; Zedillo’s, to clean up the mess after the investors fled. What is perhaps most ironic is that–by facilitating the flow of capital in and out of Mexico–the neoliberals helped make it possible for a band of poorly armed indigenous peasants from the rainforests of Chiapas to hit them where it would actually hurt: Wall Street.

Preston and Dillon have done a very skillful job of weaving together a wide cast of characters and complex series of events into a single story about the PRI’s slow surrender to Mexico’s democratic forces. It would have been interesting had they delved more into what “democracy” really meant to the diverse actors in their story, and what was at stake for the most marginalized sectors of Mexican society (especially those likely to worry more about their next meal than the next election). Still, in their recounting of the Tlatelolco massacre, the 1985 earthquake and many other crises, they provide a powerful portrait of what was wrong with the PRI and why its defeat in the 2000 election was so thrilling for so many.

The question the book leaves largely open is how much Mexico’s vote for change would actually change Mexico. What sort of democracy had Mexicans made?

As Preston and Dillon point out in a short but sobering epilogue, the exhilaration of election night would not last long. Mexico had a new head of state–but not a new state. Fox would have to work with the institutions the PRI had created. And, although it is not the subject of their book, Preston and Dillon provide a vivid sense of some of the problems he would inherit as president.

The most basic problem was the longstanding and habitual subordination of law to politics. It was a problem that predated the PRI, to the centuries of caudillo rule, in which a ruler “could not be on the wrong side of the law, since he was the law.” The PRI had merely added a veneer of justification by using its revolutionary pretensions to justify its authoritarian methods. Thus, for instance, officials who fixed elections could argue (and even believe) that, as “a revolutionary regime,” the PRI had “a historical obligation to retain power.”

The pernicious effect of this ends-justify-the-means ethos is most evident in the area of law enforcement, where the practice of torture and the denial of due process have been widespread. The book recounts several prominent criminal convictions that were widely celebrated as victories for justice in Mexico but would be better described as miscarriages. Many Mexicans cheered, for example, when the Salinas administration prosecuted a ruthless and corrupt union boss. But, as Preston and Dillon show, the conviction was based on a coerced confession to trumped-up charges, backed by planted evidence and the testimony of brutally tortured witnesses. “That guy probably committed a lot of crimes,” the police investigator in charge of the case told them. “But he didn’t commit the ones that Salinas put him in jail for.”

Ernesto Zedillo gets credit in the book for being the first president to respect legal restraints on the exercise of his powers. His relative passivity had its downside, however. When asked, for instance, about his failure to intervene in human rights cases, Zedillo explained that his responsibility was to strengthen the rule of law, not to dictate how the justice system should do its job. Preston and Dillon present this response as a matter of conviction rather than an artful dodge. However, as they point out, “his argument seemed to be that it was all right for a major figure in the government party to get away with covering up a mass murder as long as the President didn’t interfere with the judicial proceedings.” (They also point out that Zedillo didn’t object when PRI lawmakers shut down investigations into his own campaign finances and allegedly “fishy” payments he had authorized in the past.)

Years of authoritarian rule had not prepared Mexican law-enforcement officials to enforce the rule of law. If anything, it had refined their capacity and taste for crime. Police officers, Preston and Dillon write, “did not strive to prevent or punish crime; they administered it.” And as the PRI presidents shed their authoritarian powers, their ability to contain police criminality diminished.

The problem was not limited to law enforcement. Corruption was rampant throughout the government and the PRI-affiliated unions, providing an alternate source of income and power that would survive the end of PRI rule. Preston and Dillon tell a revealing story of a progressive reformer in Mexico City’s first PRD administration who set out to eradicate corrupt practices among garbage collectors, which included requiring tips from all the households on their routes and siphoning off gasoline provided for the garbage trucks. The union leaders told him they would happily end these practices if their members were given decent wages–something his budget would not allow. The other alternative would be leaving the city’s garbage to fester on the streets. “When you govern,” the would-be reformer told Preston and Dillon, “you realize that you don’t have enough money to change the old machinery…. You have to keep going with the old systems so that the city can keep going.”

For years Mexico was known as Latin America’s “perfect dictatorship” because of the PRI’s exceptional ability to co-opt as well as coerce, to deliver tangible benefits to large portions of its population even as it lined the pockets of its party leaders and union bosses. The PRI’s relative “perfection” helps explain why it took Mexico longer than other countries in the region to make the transition to electoral democracy.

But Mexicans seem to be wasting little time catching up with the rest of Latin America in discovering the limits of what they can achieve through their elections. In countries throughout the region, economies are contracting, poverty growing, income inequality widening, political institutions failing, corruption scandals blossoming and–as a result of these trends–democracy has been losing its luster. It is more painfully clear than ever that full democracy requires more than fair elections. It requires that government officials be accountable for their actions–especially when those actions are criminal. And it requires that they address the basic needs of their populations.

Accountability was a central theme of Fox’s presidential campaign. He promised to end years of official impunity for government abuses. But once in office he confronted a dilemma similar to that of the municipal reformer with his garbage collectors. In Fox’s case, it was the fact that the PRI remained the largest force in congress. Hoping to win their support for his reform agenda, Fox chose not to pursue accountability for the PRI’s past misdeeds. He reneged on his campaign promise to launch a truth commission. Instead he named a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute past human rights abuses but failed–at least until recently–to provide him with the resources and political support needed to carry out an enormously difficult assignment. (Only in recent months has the special prosecutor’s office begun to receive more substantial government cooperation and political support–and in February, after two years in operation, it made its first arrest.) In the area of corruption, meanwhile, Fox has done little to hold former officials accountable for their crimes or to clean up the corrupt institutions they left behind.

What has Fox gotten in return? Nothing, according to his former foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda, who recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The decision to avoid a clean break with the past in exchange for the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party’s support for reforms turned out to be futile. We ended up with the worst of both worlds: no reforms, no settling of scores with Mexico’s recent history and the country virtually paralyzed.”

Mexico’s situation may be less dire than that of other Latin American countries. Yet foreign investment is shrinking, unemployment is growing, the limited gains from NAFTA appear to be evaporating in the face of Chinese competition and Fox is already being described as a lame duck, even though two years remain in his term.

For decades, Mexicans struggled to end an authoritarian system that concentrated all its power in the hands of the president. It is therefore ironic, if understandable, that the hottest political topic in Mexico today is not any of the reforms that are urgently needed to address deficiencies in the justice system, the tax code, the labor laws and the provision of basic services to impoverished populations. It is, rather, who will be the next president.

The leading contender for the 2006 election is Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD, who has proven to be an effective and very popular mayor of Mexico City (though his image has been tarnished somewhat in recent weeks by a corruption scandal involving current and former PRD officials in the city government). Another prospective candidate is Fox’s wife, Martha Sahagún, whose interest in the job has provoked a heated polemic over the proper role of the first lady. A third is Castañeda, who trails badly in the polls but brings a series of ideas for reforms that could contribute to a national debate that is currently lacking.

If history is any guide, however, real change will come only when Mexicans mobilize once again to demand it.

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