Issue 10, August 2009
The colonial government of New Spain was dominated by elites – both European born (peninsulares) and their descendants in Mexico (criollos). Ties with the Spanish throne and the Catholic Church enriched these elites with land and political power. Mixed blood populations (mestizos) were eventually allowed into the ranks of the political classes; indigenous peoples and those of African (slave) descent were marginalized. The association of political clout with land and wealth would go on to characterize Mexican politics for centuries to come.
Independence and Revolution
Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1810, but it was not until 1821 that the new republic was recognized. The early years of Mexico’s government were marked by internal chaos and external vulnerability. European powers and the United States immediately sought to exert influence in the vacuum created by Spain’s departure. Within one generation after independence, Mexico’s leaders fought and lost the Mexican-American war, and ultimately were forced to cede half of the new republic’s territory to the US. Brief occupation by France followed.
The last part of the 19th Century was marked by the semi-dictatorship of President Porfirio Diaz, and a march towards civil war. Land, power, and burgeoning industry became increasingly concentrated in elite hands, leading to considerable tensions which exploded into the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The next ten years saw intense skirmishes between liberal and conservative factions, along with rural peasant rebellions led by Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata. Presidential turnover was high as coups, murders, and forced resignations were frequent. These occurred with the involvement of the Mexican military, which was at the time influenced by an America concerned about the chaos reigning across the border.
Matters stabilized somewhat with the end of the Revolution in 1920 during the Obregon and Calles administrations. The precursor to Mexico’s dominant political party, the PRI, was created in 1929 as a loose umbrella incorporating various heirs of the Revolution. The “unrealized ideals of the Revolution” (defined differently by different groups), would come to form the basis for opposition to the PRI for decades to come.
The 20th Century brought modernization and economic expansion, yet the associated benefits were unevenly distributed as power became further concentrated in an elite class comprised of PRI officials, large landowners, and captains of industry. The influence of the Catholic Church declined; oligarchy prevailed. Corruption increased as the lines between public and private sectors were blurred; extreme poverty persisted alongside great wealth. Pervasive economic inequality kept rebellions simmering in rural areas and contributed to migration. Organized crime flourished amid weak judicial and law enforcement institutions and mechanisms. Leaders in Mexico City found it difficult to project authority throughout the country.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, economic crises challenged the mandate of the PRI. Public suspicion of foreign influence grew as IMF and US bailouts of the economy challenged Mexico’s economic sovereignty with mandatory structural adjustments. The government’s lackluster response to the devastating 1985 earthquake further eroded confidence in the PRI. Election fraud was suspected after a PRI victory in the election of 1988.
Despite popular opposition, the Salinas Administration secured ratification of NAFTA and other free trade accords that opened the Mexican economy up to the global marketplace. Another financial crash and a Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas went on to threaten the government and led to the PRI’s unseating at the hands of the opposition, first in Congress in 1997, then the Presidency in 2000.
The 21st Century
In 2000, the PRI lost the Presidency to PAN candidate Vicente Fox, ending 70 years of one-party rule in Mexico. However, Fox’s promises of reforms went largely unrealized due to a number of contributing factors, including:
By 2006, it looked as though another upstart party would move into the Presidency, as Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD gained ground against PAN candidate Felipe Calderon. Fox tried to neutralize Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, with an impeachment campaign over alleged corruption in an effort to clear the way for Calderon. Calderon ended up winning the election with a margin of only one-half of one-percent. Amid charges of electoral fraud, the country was paralyzed for over two months while the verdict was contested. After a very public fight, Calderon entered the Presidency with a weak mandate. Despite this, Calderon exceeded initial expectations by managing to pass some electoral, pension, and tax reforms. He also initiated a vigorous military campaign against organized crime and drug cartels, mobilizing thousands of Mexican soldiers to supercede corrupt local law enforcement officials in places wracked by drug violence, like Juarez. In the mid-term elections of July 2009, Calderon’s PAN party lost Congressional seats as well as state and local offices to PRI candidates. Most view recent PAN defeats as a referendum on the Calderon Presidency as the economic crisis and drug violence continue.