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Broken Promises in Mexico

by Francis Adams on Mar 14, 1997

President Clinton will soon be traveling south of the Rio Grande for a summit with his Mexican counterpart Ernesto Zedillo. Their talks will no doubt include bilateral trade, illegal immigration, and joint efforts to combat drug trafficking. Political reform in Mexico should be added to this agenda.

When President Zedillo was inaugurated three years ago he promised the Mexican people sweeping political reforms. Acknowledging that the nation’s electoral system favored his own Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Zedillo called for a series of measures to level the playing field.

This promise of political reform won praise in Washington. President Clinton hailed Zedillo as a true champion of democracy and predicted a new era in Mexican politics.

Today these words of praise ring hollow. Zedillo has shown little commitment to reform. In fact, he recently supported legislation which gutted proposed changes to Mexico’s electoral system, thus ensuring few limits on campaign spending and continued PRI dominance of the media. 

Zedillo’s actions should constitute a wake-up call for President Clinton.

Why do we go through this same process every six years?  First the PRI installs a new president who promises a dramatic break from the past and wholesale political reform. The U.S. champions this leader as a genuine democrat and ensures continued support. Once it becomes apparent no substantive reform is likely, we place our hopes in the next PRI government.

Zedillo’s immediate predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gotari, was also hailed as a democrat and reformer when he first came to power. He went on to preside over one of the most corrupt governments in the nation’s history.

United States policy should be based on a realistic appraisal of Mexican politics. The PRI’s six decades of electoral dominance derives from a combination of patronage, fraud, and repression.

PRI officials oversee a patronage network which includes most of the major business associations, professional groups, labor unions, and peasant organizations. Public resources are openly distributed in exchange for electoral support.

The ruling party has also relied on fraud to ensure electoral victory. Immediately following the 1988 presidential election, for example, opposition ballots were found floating down rivers, scattered along roadways, and tossed into trash dumpsters.

When all else fails, direct state repression is deployed against political opponents. Independent labor and peasant organizers are frequently targeted for harassment by security forces and human rights groups have documented numerous cases of politically motivated arrests, imprisonment, and disappearances.

President Clinton should raise these harsh realities of Mexican politics during his upcoming visit.  To champion President Zedillo as an agent of change, and lend our continued support to his government, betrays the aspirations of those Mexicans genuinely struggling for democracy.


Francis Adams is an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia and a writer for the History News Service.