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Will Fox be a Mexican Jefferson?

by Itai Sneh on Jul 9, 2000

Itai Sneh

         What a difference 71 years can make. Since 1929, following decades
of civic unrest, internal warfare and repeated U.S. military interventions,
the PRI, the Spanish acronym for the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party,
has controlled Mexican politics.

         The party's name suggested revolutionary zeal, but in fact it
brought genuine institutional stability to several generations who
preferred authoritarian rule and a centralized government to chaos.

         The PRI incorporated every powerful element in Mexican society –
the church, the army, the professional-business class, the landowners, the
urban middle class and the trade unions. It created vast monopolies while
oppressing the peasants and workers who formed the bulk of the population.

         The system foiled all potential opponents through brutality,
patronage and corruption. The emigration of millions of Mexicans to the
United States served as a safety valve against demographic pressures and
economic downturns.

         So why the change now?

         January 1, 1994 is the date future history books will designate as
the beginning of the end of the PRI domination. The North American Free
Trade Agreement came into effect and transformed Mexico's situation in the
world. Meanwhile, the Chiapas uprising led by indigenous Marxist militants
exposed the socioeconomic fault lines in Mexican society.

         The center could hold no more. Forces of globalization coupled
with a decaying party and a restive electorate cracked it. The
assassination of a PRI candidate in mysterious circumstances nearly lost it
the 1994 elections.

       Thereafter the economy took precedence over the government. Being a
NAFTA partner diminished the importance of the state as the sole arbiter of
labor and political issues. The concomitant opening of the markets hurt
several domestic giants in the oil and telecommunication
sections. The increased mobility of skilled young people dampened loyalty
to the PRI.

         Exposure to universal standards of human rights militated against
the traditional abuses in police conduct, which violated individual
liberties and collective rights. Demands for better work
conditions, civic freedoms and land reforms grew.

         Both glasnost and perestroika were in the air; now they merged,
although the outgoing leader, Ernesto Zedillo, fell short of being a
Gorbachev. The PRI did not implode, but it could no longer count on
traditional loyalties. The growing maturity of Mexican politics became
apparent in the considerable openness in the process of selecting
candidates, as opposed to handpicking by incumbent party leaders or cabals.
The final contenders used relatively sophisticated advertising.

         The opposition candidate elected on July 2, Vicente Fox Quesada,
was cautious and not so populist as to alarm entrenched powers. His message
was relatively conservative, highlighting political evolution and law and
order, not a revolution or a purge.

         Fox exuded a business-like, cooperative approach. Perhaps the
decisive element was his ability to listen. Fox was receptive to public
opinion and to shifting agendas in different generations and various parts
of Mexico, and assembled a professional and competent team of advisers.

         The one-time Coca-Cola executive projected an image of a regular
guy with a big mouth. But he also utilized an able cadre of
damage-controllers and planners. He struck the right chord in an electorate
eager for a change.

         But will President Fox be a Jefferson? In 1800, the United States
experienced its first peaceful turnover of power from elected officials of
one party to their opponents. Thomas Jefferson then presided over a process
of democratization facilitating the foundation of a genuine Empire for Liberty.

         The Revolution of 1800 recast American politics. Only the
sectional crisis that culminated with the Civil War rivaled it in
importance. With few exceptions, elections ever since have been hotly
contested. Their results reflected the public will (with the possible
exception of 1876). The United States became a democracy in which real
issues and changes of policy affected by popular desires became the norm.

         If the transfer of power in Mexico proves smooth, it will
establish a precedent. If Fox manages to sidestep the dinosaurs of
bureaucracy, and if the PRI will abandon its strongholds of feudal power,
and if the huge stratum of people dependent on patronage and favoritism
will yield, then Mexico may merit acceptance into the community of
democracies.


Itai Sneh is an assistant professor of history for world civilizations, human rights and international law at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York.