Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy by Preston and Dillon
Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy by Preston and Dillon

Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy

Mar 18, 2004

Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon discuss Mexico's extraordinary democratic transformation.


JOANNE MYERS: When Mexican citizens went to polls on July 2, 2000, and elected opposition candidate Vicente Fox as their new president, they did more than simply change their government.

The historic defeat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI) ended seven decades of corrupt, single party political domination and moved Mexico further towards becoming a real democracy.

While the defeat of the PRI, was shocking, our guests argue that Mr. Fox’s victory was hardly unexpected: It had been in the making for years and reflected the will of the people to open their country to democracy.

Our guests today note that there was no Nelson Mandela, no single leader to personify and guide the struggle. Nor was there a single democratic movement, but rather a multitude of initiatives from individuals and groups across the society and the country, which gradually converged as more and more Mexicans became convinced of the need to end the PRI’s despotic rule.

Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon are Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters for the New York Times. They were the paper’s Mexico City bureau chiefs from 1995 to 2000. Their book, Opening Mexico is the story of a people they came to know and respect who worked against great odds to bring democracy to their country and toppled what many consider to be the Mexican equivalent of a monarchy.

This complex transformation of a one-party system, the longest ruling in the world, into a pluralistic democracy is a tale that is rich on its implications for the spread of democracy worldwide.

Please join me in welcoming the authors, Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon. Thank you for joining us today.


JULIA PRESTON: The oppressive hold of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) on every aspect of Mexican life had made it the world’s longest ruling political organization. Through the prolonged, slow motion, largely peaceful, democratic revolution, Mexicans were remaking their society, institution by institution.

We saw them undertake extraordinary reforms. They transferred control of the elections machinery away from the ruling party, which had abused it to perpetrate countless frauds, and put it in the hands of an independent agency that devised one of the most modern balloting systems in the world. They created an array of new political parties to challenge the monopoly of the PRI, and a legislature with real clout, replacing a theatrical Congress whose role for seven decades had been to provide ceremonious applause for the President’s latest impulse. They were imposing limits on the power of the presidency, which had been so absolute and unrestrained by any legislative, judicial, or popular oversight as to make the Mexican chief executive a sort of Mesoamerican monarch.

We met people from all levels of life who were participating in this grand endeavor. Citizen activists were battling vote fraud. Human rights observers were curbing the abuses of the security forces. Grassroots communities were blocking the devastation of forests and beaches by corporations. Journalists were investigating malfeasance. Neighborhood groups were mobilizing to demand prosecution of criminal gangs and corrupt violence. Even the PRI President, Ernesto Zedillo at the time, had opted for a liberalizing role.

While there, we realized how far back we had to look to see the origins of this movement. After 1968, the system never recovered from the blow to its credibility that was seen by a whole generation of Mexicans who were students and young people in 1968. The next phase of the transformation came after the earthquake in 1985. The failure of the government to respond to the earthquake brought out a whole unorganized popular movement in Mexico City.

The nature of the PRI system was demobilizing. The nature of the PRI system was to make Mexicans believe that they had no political initiative of their own outside of the system. After the earthquake in 1985, there was an upsurge of what we call civil society, in which people discovered for the first time, by digging in the rubble and looking for the remains of their family members, and by going to Los Pinos, the presidential palace, to demand new residences and help from the government, that they could organize themselves.

The next phase in this project came in 1986, when people in the northern part of the country reacted to a series of outrageous vote fraud efforts by the government and began to focus more consistently on the effort to reform the electoral system as the objective of the democratic movement in Mexico.

In 1988, the election in which Carlos Salinas came to power is still widely regarded as having been fraudulent, and again shattered the credibility of the system. It also brought forth leaders, most notably Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who began to give a face to the possibility of something other than the PRI system in Mexico.

Carlos Salinas brought sweeping economic reform to Mexico in the form of NAFTA, and began to open the country in economic terms, but undertook no political reform of any depth, thereby putting Mexico in a situation where the opening economy was in total tension with the still-closed nature of the political system.

And then, under Ernesto Zedillo, we had a President who was from within the system but was also an outsider, a man who was never part of the PRI inner circle, and therefore was capable of carrying through on the political and electoral reforms that were needed to make it possible for the opposition forces to come to power through an electoral process.

In July 2000, nearly five years into our tenure as correspondents for The Times, Mexicans took the decisive step toward completing their democratic transition. In the cleanest and most open vote in Mexican history, the nation elected an opposition candidate, Vicente Fox of the National Action Party, to be President, toppling the PRI regime after seventy-one years.

Mexico’s second revolution was accomplished so efficiently and peacefully that not many Mexicans, and even fewer outsiders, grasped the historic dimension of the event. It was the first time in Mexico’s history that state power was transferred from the government, from the rulers, to the opposition by means of a peaceful ballot with free suffrage. It is easy to forget the depth of the authoritarian history in this country and therefore to misunderstand the significance of what happened on July 2.

The making of Mexico’s democracy was distinctive in many ways. There was no single democratic movement, but a multitude of initiatives from individuals and groups across the society and the country. Mexico was spared a change of economic system, since it had remained capitalist even after the 1910 revolution.

Yet, the clash between social classes was not the primary impetus of change. To be sure, along the way rebellions by workers, rural farming people, and Indians, notably the indigenous uprising in the southern state of Chiapas in 1994, served to weaken the authoritarian system, but these protests were part of a broad mix of reform efforts in which the elite also at times participated.

For decades, the PRI system served the interests of business, making crony capitalists wealthy. They resisted change. But eventually the corporate class also supported an orderly transition, accepting that an open system could better serve its interests in a globalized economy.

Mexico’s passage to democracy did not come about as a victory of the ideas of either the left or the right, either liberals or conservatives. At critical moments, the Mexican left, with its bold rejection of the status quo, its nationalism, and its defense of the dispossessed, took the lead in the struggle for greater freedom. But Mexican conservatives, committed to individual rights and a free market economy and often inspired by Catholic faith, were also tenacious in their pursuit of reform.

Over the years, the competition among ideologies and factions was channeled into a system of political parties. These parties when their resolve was tested shunned violence, agreeing to take their disputes to the halls of local and federal legislatures. Religious fanaticism, which has torn apart many countries in times of transition, never arose to embitter the search for democracy in Mexico.

Mexico’s was a negotiated, pluralistic transition with pressure coming from below from a myriad of individuals and groups at the grassroots level, and from above as the PRI and its successive presidents responded to dissidents by mandating change. The stalwarts of the system who gave up bits of their control, however, were most often motivated by self-interest, seeking not to reduce their domination but to perpetuate it.

One of the subjects about which we wrote very little was the relationship between the United States and Mexico in the period that we discussed, the three decades since 1968. We contend that Mexico’s opening to democracy is one of the few major developments in the country’s modern history that was not shaped by invasion or intervention by the United States.

SAMUEL DILLON: I will talk a bit about what has happened in the three years since those elections and some of the changes that have occurred, as well as some of the events that have made Mexico seem immutable or perhaps stuck.

But first, think back to the year 2000. In North America, there were two Presidential elections. In one country, there was turmoil; the ballot counting went on for five weeks, there were charges of fraud. In the other country, there were no charges of fraud; the election results were announced promptly and accurately; the defeated candidate accepted his defeat graciously; the victor, Vicente Fox, was magnanimous in his victory.

The elections in the United States, which considers itself the world’s premier democracy, were an embarrassment. The elections in Mexico were exemplary. That is an extraordinary role reversal.

Mexico’s entire modern political system and culture has been shaped by vote fraud. Even Mexican Spanish is rich with the vocabulary of vote fraud, just as the Eskimos have 100 words for snow. Words like alchemista, the alchemist, a guy who slips in behind the scenes after the election has occurred and rigs the balloting for the ruling party. He takes the lead of defeat and turns it into the gold of victory.

In 2000 this specialized vocabulary of fraud emerged not in Mexico but in Florida—we had the “hanging chad,” the “butterfly ballot.” In Mexico, there were no hanging chads and there were no alchemists in 2000, we saw a democratic revolution in the country.

What has happened in the three years since? Mexico has fallen out of the news. The United States has been focused on Iraq, where the Bush Administration is working to export democracy. Our policymakers are learning that that’s not so simple. The occupation authorities there were hoping to quickly schedule direct national elections. But they can’t. They’re wringing their hands.

What’s the problem? They discovered that the voter lists in Iraq are inaccurate or out of date, political parties are nonexistent or very weak.

In this same period, we have been writing this book, so it has been very difficult for us to avoid making comparisons with Mexico. Voter lists in Mexico—they spent billions of dollars over a decade to create a reliable voter registry that has a digital fingerprint embedded in the national voter identity card. Political parties—Mexicans fought for many years to create and strengthen their opposition political parties.

Democracy doesn’t flow from the barrel of a gun. Mexican democracy wasn’t imported by an occupation army. Mexicans built it themselves. And now that they’ve built it, the views of the Mexican people suddenly matter more than in the past.

By overwhelming margins, Mexicans did not agree with the idea of preemptive war in Iraq. President Fox, unlike Spanish President José María Aznar, did not choose to endorse the war that the Mexican people didn’t approve of.

President Bush seemed to take it as a personal insult that Fox and Mexico didn’t vote with the United States at the United Nations on Iraq. But this was an issue which was completely grounded in Mexican public opinion.

We all have to get used to the new dynamic of a democratic Mexico. One of the issues on which this new dynamic is making itself felt is immigration. Who has put immigration on North America’s agenda now? The Mexican people. Fox picked up on the outrage that many Mexicans feel about the current legal structure that governs labor migration in North America.

We have a vast underclass of undocumented workers living in the United States virtually without civil rights. Last year, nearly 500 Mexicans died crossing the border, seeking to pass guards, to do work that Americans need done and don’t want to do.

Fox as a candidate in 2000 made this an issue, and as a president he pushed this issue more forcefully than any Mexican president before him. Now President Bush has his own proposal. It has some problems, but it is up there for debate. Mexican democracy has set the debate for one of the most pressing social issues in North America. That is new, and from the Mexican point of view it’s a positive development.

Today Mexico is less authoritarian, less presidential, less centralized, more open to the world. Does that mean democracy has solved all the problems? No, obviously not.

What’s the news coming out of Mexico? The headlines are focusing on videotapes that show politicians, some of whom emerged in this long democratic struggle, engaged in acts of corruption. It’s disappointing to see, but democracy doesn’t abolish human greed.

The hope is that Mexico will find the mechanisms to hold its politicians accountable. Is there anything new on that front? Sergio Sarmiento, the columnist, has pointed out one novelty: Mexicans are watching their politicians on television as they commit these corrupt acts. He suggests that the widespread availability of small video cameras will function as an accountability mechanism, but the verdict isn’t in yet.

What we can say for certain, however, is that for ordinary Mexican citizens the rule of law remains a mere aspiration. An ordinary Mexican still has little legal recourse in a dispute with a wealthy Mexican or an international corporation.

On the narcotics front there is good news: top traffickers from all of the major cartels have been arrested. The ties formed between federal officials and the drug mafias during the PRI era are now unraveling. Will that last? Probably not. The drug profits are too great.

There are other mafias. Most of the labor unions and labor confederations are still headed by the corrupt holdovers from the PRI era. Democracy hasn’t arrived yet at the labor marketplace.

Mexico remains badly divided in regional terms, especially north and south. Northern Mexican states have per capita incomes that rival Taiwan and South Korea. The Southern states are more like Guatemala and Honduras. The insurgency in Chiapas is a classic example of this uneven development.

There has been little change in the lives of the workers who live in the shantytowns that surround the maquiladoras (manufacturing plants)along the northern border. Foreign corporations pay $10-to-$12 a day to their workers and virtually no Mexican taxes, so it leaves little money for potable water lines or sewage treatment plants.

During the campaign, Fox promised to attack these problems of social underdevelopment quickly. His central strategy was to focus on an educational revolution. He was going to spend umpteen billions of pesos to improve Mexico’s schools. It has never gotten off the ground.

Fox aspires to carry out reforms to the energy sector to allow private investment into Pemex and other energy companies at the same time that he carries out fiscal reform. Both of these would then free up tax revenues to use for social spending. It has not happened. What’s the problem? He can’t get these reforms through Congress. Why not? Congress has been a democratic institution since 1997. None of the three major parties controls a majority in the Congress. There is legislative impasse, gridlock.

Foreign Affairs reported recently that this impasse had turned Mexico into an “ungovernable democracy.” Let’s put the impasse in context. The United States has some divisive issues as well, such as unfunded Social Security spending, spiraling health care costs. We too have legislative impasse, but I haven’t heard anyone saying that the United States is an ungovernable democracy.

Bill Clinton likes to tell audiences to separate the headlines from the trendlines. He says that in order to understand a troubling headline you need to put it in the context of the trendlines of history—does it fit with the trendlines of history?

When Julia and I were correspondents in Mexico, we were responsible for creating many troubling headlines. We had to write about issues that were often difficult and embarrassing for our Mexican hosts—drug trafficking, army abuses, dysfunctional institutions. We were fortunate enough to stay in Mexico long enough to see past our own headlines, to see that Mexicans were involved in an inspiring national renovation.

In writing our book we had the chance to chart the trendlines, and they were very clear. Mexicans fought an extraordinary democratic struggle and they won a great victory.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you. It’s very refreshing to hear how democracy took a peaceful course rather than the unsettling path it has taken in a few other places where America has imposed its tradition. I’d like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: You didn’t mention the economic side of this democracy. Samuel Huntington, in his article "The Hispanic Challenge" in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, writes in apocalyptic tones about the danger of Hispanic immigration into the United States. He focuses on Mexican immigration, which suggests that there is ahead of us a looming conflict between two different interests: the Mexican interest, the Fox project for North America, and very strong American resistance to that.

Is this one of your trendlines? And is it as optimistic as the rest of what you are thinking about Mexico?

SAMUEL DILLON: Judging by the initial reaction to President Bush’s immigration proposal, which is a proposal designed for big business, and yet has aroused tremendous, emotional opposition from his right wing, yes, we are probably headed for some passionate struggles over immigration in the next years.

There is a movie called “A Day Without a Mexican.” It’s a mock documentary depicting how California would survive for a day if all of the Mexicans that make California run didn’t show up for work. It’s very entertaining, but it’s a sobering documentary.

Our current economy could not exist without the undocumented workers that help us make it happen, and we will have to come to terms with that.

JULIA PRESTON: Since NAFTA, for example, has become a whipping boy in the current campaign, it’s important to look at the agreement in this regard. When we left Mexico in 2001, the Mexican peso was at about 9.4. If I’m not mistaken, it has started to move again in the last six months.

Mexicans will not come to the United States if there is domestic growth in their economy. If you look at the last years of the Zedillo Administration, for example, the fact that NAFTA came into effect and generated extraordinary growth—6 percent, 7 percent, 8 percent growth in the last few years before the election in 2000—created the possibility for Mexican voters to go to the polls and vote for change. They weren’t afraid. It was the first Mexican presidential election in generations when Mexican had not gone to the polls with a fear of economic cataclysm.

But it also generated a whole new possibility for stable investment in Mexico and a different outlook on the country. We have a very deep investment in creating growth in Mexico.

What is Huntington talking about? We’re talking about Mexico and the United States. If you look at Texas, at the Southwest, it was Mexico once. Where do you draw the line? Where do you say “this is not Mexico” or “this is not the United States?” The Southwest of the United States is a new emerging cultural entity.

To give Mexicans the possibility of being established in their own country, coming to our country, moving back and forth, is potentially a culturally and economically rich possibility, and it’s definitely much better for this exchange to take place between two countries that recognize that they deeply share common political values.

QUESTION: Would you comment on the PRI and its reaction to the events in Mexico since 2000? You mentioned a deadlock or difficulty of working in Congress. Could you comment on the extent to which this stems from a diehard PRI that is obstructionist and doesn’t want the Fox project to work?

Has there been any reform in the internal affairs of the PRI? If the PRI were to win the next presidential election, would it re-institute the system that it had in place for sixty, seventy years, or has it adapted and learned that it could be more effective in a more democratic system?

JULIA PRESTON: One of the hallmarks of the PRI when it was in power was that it had an unfailing, keen sense of self-preservation. It was a very non-ideological party. There was always a lot of rhetoric, but the same party that gave Mexico Lazaro Cardenas, who nationalized petroleum and favored a closed economy, also gave the country Carlos Salinas, who did the exact opposite.

In addition, the PRI continues to represent the mainstream of Mexican popular thought. The PRI is a nationalist, secular party; they are opposed to the intervention of the church in national affairs. So at the core of this very corrupt and degraded institution are certain elements which have allowed it to continue not only to survive but be the majority delegation in Congress.

We look closely at former Governor Roberto Madrazo in the book. He spent $31.5 million to win the gubernatorial election in Tabasco in 1994. This was about $185 per vote—much more than Bush spent on his first campaign. There was rampant vote fraud. He managed to avoid prosecution for this. He is a very capable politician, but he represents the old PRI.

The PRI is deeply invested in the lack of success of Vicente Fox. But, as is consistent with its history, it is not a destructive party. It is intent on its own political goal, but in the context of a developing system of party politics.

The PRI aspires to take back power in the next presidential election. In a way, that’s a positive development for Mexico and it says something very interesting about the solidity of Mexican party politics, democratic politics.

QUESTION: If the PRI had managed to rig the votes for so many years, why did they not do so in 2000?

SAMUEL DILLON: Starting at least in 1988, when there was a tremendous electoral conflict, the opposition parties began to pressure for electoral reforms and to modernize the political institutions of the vote. That was what I referred to before about spending the billions of dollars over much of a decade to create voter cards. That was one part of a broader process by which Mexico achieved national consensus on the goal of modernizing its vote system.

The PRI realized after the debacle of 1988 that it had lost tremendous credibility in the world, and over the next years it was pressured and responded to the pressure to reform its system. It became progressively more difficult, especially at the federal level, for the PRI to carry out a fraud.

A second aspect was that Ernesto Zedillo was President, it was a presidential system, and Zedillo was an honest man. He wasn’t going to engage in vote fraud.

I wrote a story about two weeks before the elections in 2000 examining evidence that suggested that there were some PRI stalwarts out in places like the Yucatan, who were still preparing for holdout fraud. But it didn’t happen, and one reason it didn’t happen is because it was a lopsided race. If it had come down to an election in which there were 500 votes separating the PRI from victory, who knows if Ernesto Zedillo would have been able to hold them off.

QUESTION: What would be one main issue where there is the greatest misperception between how America views the emerging democracy in Mexico and the reality of the situation? Is there one thing that you would want people to know that they misperceive?

JULIA PRESTON: Americans don't understand what happened in this country. Americans generally do not understand that the PRI system was an unbelievably sophisticated and complex political system that had its own dynamic and history. It had its own mechanisms, language and lexicon. People in this country don’t understand the patient work that went on all over the country.

At the state level, human rights workers, civil society, neighborhood organizations, all came together, people not only conceiving the idea that Mexico could have a democracy, but learning to live in and practice democracy.

SAMUEL DILLON: There are some stories or some aspects of the transition that have never been known publicly by Americans or anyone else, not even by Mexicans.

One of them would be the role of the army officer corps. It’s a very hermetic institution. If you go back far enough, the army was the armed forces of the PRI. In between elections it was in the garrisons, but at election time it mobilized and the officer corps sent off captains and colonels to be advance men in the election campaign of the official candidate, and planes were put into service.

And then, somewhere along in the 1980s, early 1990s, the allegiance of the army was no longer to a party. There was somehow an osmosis of loyalty that passed from loyalty to a party to loyalty to the constitutional system in Mexico. And so in 2000 there was a seamless transition to supporting that transition.

JOANNE MYERS: In Iraq now we see that religion is dividing the country and preventing it from moving forward. Did the Catholic Church play a role in promoting democracy?

SAMUEL DILLON: There was one very important episode in which the Catholic Church did play a role: in Chihuahua in the 1986 gubernatorial elections. This turned out to be a major episode in the developing democratic momentum. There was fraud, a disputed election, and huge protests.

The Archbishop of Chihuahua ordered all of the Catholic churches to go on strike. He said after the vote, “Someone was robbed last Sunday. That person was robbed on the way to the voting booth, and that person was the Chihuahuan voter.” His homily urged all the priests to shut down the churches in protest.

Eventually, the Interior Minister intervened with the Vatican, and the word came down, “Stop messing in politics.”

But this was the exception. In most cases, the Church did not intervene.

QUESTION: Can you comment on the status of the Indian population in Mexico?

JULIA PRESTON: Like many things in Mexico, there is no single answer to that question. If you want to talk about the Yaqui Indians in the North, they have an entirely different history from the Mayan Indians in the State of Chiapas.

The most prominent news that people have heard about the Indians in Mexico in the last five years is the result of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994. The Zapatistas undertook an unusual, utopian, democratic experiment in their communities in Chiapas. They made it very difficult for outsiders to come to their communities to see what they were doing.

They undertook an effort in autonomous self-rule in Chiapas, which has not been successful because it was violently opposed and strangled by the government, but was nevertheless an extremely interesting effort to preserve the community structures in Chiapas and bring them into the modern system by means of a separatist economic and political program.

The effect of the Zapatista revolution was to polarize the politics with regard to Indians throughout Mexico—you were either for the Zapatistas or you were against them—and it was very difficult for groups that did not have the proto-Marxist view of the Zapatistas to find a political position.

At the beginning of Fox’s term, the Zapatistas propelled a constitutional reform, which would have had a dramatic effect on enfranchising the Indian communities in Mexico.

I would entirely blame Fox for the failure of this initiative. He did not do any of the political lobbying that was necessary. He failed to mobilize his own party to get on board behind this, and one of those rare political moments was lost. It may take an entire generation before a significant national change can be achieved for Indian peoples in Mexico.

QUESTION: What should the United States and Mexico do to continue the opening of Mexico?

SAMUEL DILLON: The current Mexican Government has made its priority clear. It’s up to them to set their agenda. The immigration accord is very important. Since September 11, immigration measures have become so draconian that they don’t keep anybody out; they keep everybody in the United States. It has become a one-way sieve.

This situation has created a tremendous social crisis in this country and in Mexico because so many families are divided permanently in a way that they had never been before.

We must find a way to allow American employers to employ people they need to solve the problem of our own rule of law being undercut. At the moment, there are millions of people in our country and we don’t have any secure way of knowing who they are. There are many aspects of this agenda that we need to work out.

JULIA PRESTON: We need to adjust our foreign policy to recognize that if creating and encouraging democracy is the priority that the Bush Administration has said it is, we need to place Mexico at a much higher level of priority than it is now across the board.

After 9/11, Mexico’s issues were all pushed completely to the back burner. When we went through the UN debate over Iraq, the Administration’s position was “you’re smaller than us; you’ve always voted for us; you have to vote for us this time.” There was no recognition that this was a country that had taken a major step towards realizing a goal that the Administration was stating as its own.

I find it infuriating that the engagement in Iraq is conducted in the name of bringing democracy, when we have an example right on our border of a country that has shown the very hard work that it takes to make this happen and has gone unacknowledged by the United States.

QUESTION: I was on the receiving end of some of your articles when you were in Mexico City and I was at the Embassy in Washington as the [Mexican] Consul Narcotics Liaison Officer with U.S. authorities. Every time one of your articles came out, I had to run up to Capitol Hill to try and spin, explain, or diffuse the criticisms that we received.

Congratulations on a long overdue book. The United States must not forget that Mexico is an important issue in its foreign policy.

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