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A Brief History of Mexico
Part Five: The Rise and Fall of the PRI
By Steven Alexander
After 50 years of self-destructive civil war, 30 years of brutal dictatorial rule and 20 years of bloody revolution…Mexico needed a break. That break came in 1929, when the National Revolutionary Party (PNR) took control of the federal government, finally bringing the revolution to an end. Much like the Democratic Party in America, the PNR was a “big tent” that included all the various and diverse racial, social and economic groups of Mexico. They agreed to fight for their special interests within the party and not in the streets or on the battlefield. The PNR later changed its name to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and ruled Mexico for a total of 71 consecutive years. Every six years, a new presidential successor would be chosen by the party leadership and then confirmed by the rubber stamp of a public election. With overwhelming popular support and only token dissent, the PRI created what has often been characterized as “the perfect dictatorship.”
In 1934, Lazaro Cardenas became president of Mexico. At the time, Cardenas was a 39-year-old veteran of the revolution and former governor of Michoacan. He had gained the trust and respect of the Mexican people due his reputation as an honest politician. Under his guidance, Mexico instituted a series of socialist reforms that truly changed the country. The large ranchos were broken up and the land was redistributed to the “campesinos” (peasant farmers) for use as “ejidos” (communal farms). A public education system was built to benefit the children of all classes. The railroads, telephones and utilities were nationalized. The holdings of the powerful American and British oil interests were confiscated and turned over to Pemex (Petroleos Mexicanos), the government-owned monopoly that still controls oil production and distribution in Mexico. Freedom of expression, religion and the press were not only guaranteed by the constitution but encouraged by Cardenas during his six years in office.
With a respite from the interminable warfare, the arts flourished. There was a new sense of nationalism in the country and a separate, unique Mexican culture emerged. Reflecting the population as a whole, this new culture was a mix of Spanish and native traditions. Mariachi became the national music, folk dancing became the national ballet and the “charreada” (rodeo) replaced bull fighting as the national sport.
Diego Rivera was the iconic personification of this new culture. Rivera showed great promise as a young art student and, in 1907, at the age of 21, he went to Europe to further his studies and broaden his horizons. It was there that he first dabbled in Cubism, Post-impressionism and Communism. By all accounts, he also did more than his fair share of drinking and womanizing. In 1921, Rivera returned to Mexico. Various government agencies commissioned Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Siqueiros to decorate public buildings with huge murals glorifying the Mexican Revolution and the common people of Mexico: farmers, workers, natives, mothers and children. The art world took notice and titled their collective work “Mexican Muralism.” The unique style and subject matter of their canvas paintings become known as the “Mexican School.”
Once the heavy hand of censorship was lifted, the Mexican film business blossomed. Mexico became a major producer of motion pictures and dominated the Spanish-language market for decades, a period known as the “Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.” The big stars were Dolores del Rio, Maria Felix, Pedro Armandariz and, of course, comedian Mario Morena, better known as Cantinflas. During the 1950s, at the high point in his career, Cantinflas was the highest paid and most recognizable movie star in the world. In 1946, the Emilio Fernandez-directed film, “Maria Candelaria,” won a Grind Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival. And, in 1950, Spanish-born director Luis Bunuel won international acclaim and the best director award at Cannes for his Mexican film, “Los Olvidados” (The Forgotten Ones).
The new freedom also applied to the native people of Mexico. Free once again to speak their own languages and practice their traditional religions, the native people literally came out from hiding. One of them was Maria Sabina, a Mazatec “curandera” (faith healer). In 1955, Maria Sabina invited R. Gordon Wasson, then the retired editor of Life magazine, to participate in a magic mushroom ceremony in her humble earthen-floored Oaxaca home. Although Wasson may not have been the first Westerner to actually eat psilocybin mushrooms, he certainly was the first one to write about the mystical experience in Life magazine. His article piqued the interests of Aldus Huxley, Alan Watts and Timothy Leary…to name but a few. The article also brought a great deal of notoriety to Maria Sabina. The encounter between Wasson and Sabina gave rise to both the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s and a spiritual reawakening throughout Mexico. Maria Sabina died in 1985 at the age of 91. She is revered as the “spirit woman” of Mexico.
Corruption flourished as well. Over time, the PRI became increasingly separated from the goals of the revolution and the example of honest government set by Cardenas. The party built a political machine that ran Mexico like the Democrats ran Chicago. “La mordida” (the bite) became a way of life. Cops, judges, municipal officials, union leaders, legislators and presidents all took a bite of the apple in the form of bribes, kickbacks and payoffs. Embezzlement, extortion and fraud within the various governmental entities were commonplace. Proceeds from drug trafficking not only fattened the wallets of the PRI pols but helped spur the economy as a whole. The entire country was on the take. Mexicans didn’t necessarily make a value judgment when it came to all of this graft and corruption. Right or wrong, that’s the way it was. It was how “la sistema” (the system) worked. It took a series of tragic events over a long period of time in order to shock the Mexican people out of their complacency.
The first shock came in 1968. In that year, the international student movement was at its peak. There were student demonstrations throughout Europe, the U.S. and Latin America. In Mexico City, massive demonstrations broke out just days prior to the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics, which were being hosted in the Mexican capital. The whole world was watching as Mexican army troops and federal police opened fire on a crowd of students gathered at a public plaza in the Tlateloco section of Mexico City to protest against police brutality and repression of dissent. Officially, the government claimed 40 students were killed. The demonstrators claimed thousands were dead. Subsequent investigations place the death toll at around 400. The Mexican people never forgave the government for killing their children.
Then there was the earthquake of 1985. A giant 8.1 tremblor struck off the Pacific Coast of Mexico but did most of its damage in Mexico City, which was largely built on unstable landfill in Lake Texcoco. An estimated 10,000 people died and sections of the city were flattened. Although no one could hold the government to blame for the earthquake, they found plenty to blame in the mismanagement of the relief effort that followed. Relief aid was doled out according to your standing within the PRI. The higher your position in the party, the more aid you received. People who did not belong to the party got no aid at all.
And then there was the shock of Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Salinas was elected president in 1988 in a disputed election. The new computer system that was installed to count the voting quickly and accurately mysteriously “crashed” on the night of the election. Years later, Miguel de la Madrid, Salinas’ predecessor as president, admitted that election officials shut down the computer and declared Salinas the winner when early returns indicated he would lose.
Government corruption reached a peak during Salinas’ six years in office. His brothers quickly became very wealthy, with foreign bank accounts stuffed with hundreds of millions of dollars from unexplained sources. One brother, Raul, had his $110-million Swiss account frozen. Most of the money was later returned to the Mexican government once they were able to satisfy Swiss authorities that the money was misappropriated from public coffers. Raul also spent 10 years in a Mexican prison after being convicted of ordering the murder of Jose Ruiz Massieu, then head of the PRI and Salinas’ former brother-in-law. Another brother, Enrique, was found dead in Mexico City. His cause of death was asphyxiation by a plastic bag taped firmly over his head. At the time of Enrique Salinas’ death, he was under investigation by French authorities for money laundering. Raul has since been released from jail, pending his appeal. Investigation continues by Mexican, U.S., French and Swiss authorities into the financial dealings of the three Salinas brothers and the numerous allegations of their involvement in drug trafficking.
Salinas was a big booster of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). According to Salinas, in order to comply with the terms of NAFTA, the ejido lands that were used for communal farming needed to be privatized. The constitutional provisions that guaranteed communal use of these ancestral farmlands were amended and ownership was divvied up among those with hereditary claims to the lands. Once NAFTA went into effect, the campesinos found that they could not compete with large-scale agribusiness and the introduction into Mexico of cheap American corn. Much of the ejido lands were sold to agribusiness corporations and the farmers migrated to the cities or to the U.S. The populations of Mexican cities mushroomed and what was once a steady trickle of illegal immigration into America became a flood.
On Januray 1, 1994, the day that NAFTA went into effect, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) arose in armed resistance to the federal government of Mexico. With the overwhelming support of the local native population, the Zapatistas actually took control San Cristobal de las Casas and several small villages in Chiapas. They overran a small military post, chased out the government officials and set up their own civil administration. The Zapatista ideology was a mixture of Marxism and Nativism. Their heroes were Che Guevara, Emiliano Zapata and Maria Sabina. They demanded autonomy from the federal government and the right to preserve their ancestral way of life, including communal farming.
The immediate reaction of the Salinas regime was massive armed retaliation against the 3,000-man (and woman) Zapatista army. But the wholesale slaughter of indigenous people who were struggling for their land rights was unacceptable to the vast majority of Mexicans and yet another example of how far the PRI had strayed from the goals and aspirations of the revolution. Bowing to public pressure, the government agreed to a ceasefire after 12 days of intense blood-letting. The Mexican army retook the city of San Cristobal but allowed the Zapatistas some measure of autonomy over a small area in Chiapas. The shaky truce has held for most of the past 15 years. The Zapatistas now use the media and the Internet in a nonviolent effort to press for reforms that would give more autonomy to the native people of Mexico. The hooded Zapatista spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, is considered a heroic figure by many Mexicans.
Perhaps the biggest shock of all was the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994. It was an election year and Colosio was chosen as the presidential candidate of the PRI. The 44-year-old Colosio was young and handsome, intelligent and well educated. He had a beautiful wife and two lovely children. Colosio claimed he would clean up the government, prosecute corrupt officials and make Mexico a decent place for people of all races, religions and classes to live and raise a family. The comparisons to John Kennedy were unavoidable. For one brief shining moment, the Mexican people actually had someone they could believe in. Then, on March 23, 1994, at a campaign rally in Tijuana, Colosio was shot in the head with a .38 caliber handgun at point blank range.
Who killed Colosio? Mario Aburto Martinez, a 23-year-old factory worker with no motive, is serving a 45-year sentence as the official lone perpetrator of the crime. But few Mexicans accept the lone-gunman theory. The autopsy indicates there were two bullet wounds…coming from two different directions. A suspected second gunman was arrested by Tijuana police the day of the murder…and then released within 24 hours. Three members of Colosio’s private security detail were later arrested as conspirators in the crime…and released 10 months later without charges ever being filed. The Tijuana chief of police was assassinated shortly after announcing he would pursue his own investigation into the crime…one of more than 20 people connected to the assassination who have since been murdered. There are many more unanswered questions about who killed Colosio. If you ask Mexicans who did it, most will tell you it was “la sistema.”
In a close but relatively legitimate election, the PRI’s replacement candidate, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, was elected president in 1994. An economist by trade, the 43-year-old Zedillo was certainly an intelligent and well-meaning man. But he took control over a government in turmoil and a country in crisis. Not only did he have to deal with an armed insurgency in Chiapas, the scandals involving the Salinas brothers and the fallout from the Colosio assassination but, within a month of taking office, the Mexican economy collapsed. The time had come to repay the excessive borrowing of the Salinas regime…and Mexico was broke. The peso took a nosedive, losing half its value. Zedillo arranged for a $50-billion bailout from the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Although the economy recovered and the bailout was repaid ahead of schedule, the PRI had lost all credibility with the Mexican people. After 71 years of continuous one-party rule, the time had come for a change.
Next Month: Part Six: Democratization
Steven Alexander is a former journalist and award-winning sports writer. He is retired and lives in Ajijic.