The Mexican Transition
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The Mexican Transition

Politics, Culture & Democracy in the Twenty-first Century

Roger Bartra

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eBook - ePub

The Mexican Transition

Politics, Culture & Democracy in the Twenty-first Century

Roger Bartra

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About This Book

This book is a collection of essays on the Mexican transition to democracy that offers reflections on different aspects of civic culture, the political process, electoral struggles, and critical junctures. They were written at different points in time and even though they have been corrected and adapted, they have kept the tension and fervour with which they were originally created. They provide the reader with a vision of what goes on behind those horrifying images that depict Mexico as a country plagued by narcotrafficking groups and subjected to unbridled homicidal violence. These images hide the complex political reality of the country and the accidents and shocks democracy has suffered.

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Part I

The Political Transition

Chapter 1

The Dictatorship was not Perfect


1. Transition1

Around midday on Sunday, 2 July 2000, while I was still undecided about going out and voting, I heard the rumour that a survey carried out by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was showing Vicente Fox – the opposition candidate – to be ahead in the votes. It seemed impossible that we could free ourselves of the ruling party in Mexico, after more than seven decades of authoritarianism. ‘This must be some last ditch manoeuvre by the government’s army of vote hunters,’ I thought. Shortly thereafter, I was interviewed on the radio, where I stated that I had not yet decided how I was going to vote and was still thinking it over, but that I would soon go to the ballot boxes. A well-known journalist, Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa, who was also on the programme, asked me with some surprise why it was taking me so long to decide. I answered: ‘It’s a way of criticizing the politicians who have not done their job well – an ironic punishment for the political parties. The high percentage of undecided voters creates a healthy democratic uncertainty.’ We now know that the majority of us undecided voters cast our ballots against the PRI as a push for change. That was why Vicente Fox won the election.
The authoritarian system had stopped functioning adequately many years before. It was evident that the political crisis had begun to corrode the government since 1988, but in 1994 the authoritarian power found itself enormously weakened, fatally wounded. However, so much had been said about the extraordinary vitality of the institutionalized revolutionary regime, and the strength of the ‘perfect dictatorship’ – Mario Vargas Llosa’s curious expression – had been emphasized so much, that we ended up immersed in bitter scepticism. Many of us were convinced the PRI would win the elections again, albeit by a narrow margin, and that transition would sooner or later lead to a new political crisis. I was afraid – and fortunately I was wrong – that the transition to democracy would come to an end due to the fragmentation of a system no longer capable of governing. That seemed to be our tragic destiny: to be governed by a completely outdated, inefficient, and useless system, which despite its abject perfection at one time, would founder, dragging us towards dangerous situations. We would have to wait until some factions of leadership openly accepted the need to negotiate the transition, as had been the case with the post-Franco and post-Communist sectors that emerged in Spain and Russia.
But the dictatorship was not perfect, and it came tumbling down through a surprisingly simple process: it only took the peaceful voting of citizens in clean and democratic elections. What had happened? Powerful forces within the government, encouraged by President Ernesto Zedillo, had neutralized fraud in a considerable part of the semi-public and state machinery. The growth of new democratic processes within the government was not obvious; it was hidden behind the grey and opaque mask of supposed weakness on the part of the executive power. Few recognized the evidence: the weakening of presidential power advanced democracy and generated great confusion in the most authoritarian traditional circles (the ‘dinosaurs’). One of the representatives of authoritarian restoration, Manuel Bartlett, famous for having orchestrated the great electoral fraud of 1988, realized this too late: ‘The president has lost his capacity to lead; he has ceased to be the moral leader of the PRI’, he declared on 4 July. Actually, the presidency had abandoned that ‘capacity to lead’ quite some time before, leading the PRI to its ruin. In order to steer clear of dangerous interference by the PRI, President Zedillo quickly accepted Vicente Fox’s triumph.
The Mexican authoritarian system collapsed in an unexpected way. The extraordinary event amazed many people around the globe. They contemplated the smooth and peaceful beginning of the Mexican transition to democracy with astonishment. Within the country, numerous analysts and intellectuals were stunned and they did not know whether to praise or censure the electoral results. Not many realized that the twentieth century had come to an end in Mexico and that we now inhabited a different country, an unfamiliar territory full of unexpected alternatives. The progressive intellectuals believed they saw a strange conservative victory led by an incongruent charlatan that would continue the cristero tradition and converge with the neoliberal politics of Carlos Salinas de Gortari inspired by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. A senior PRI historian, Vicente Fuentes Díaz, criticized President Zedillo with rage: ‘Let us not forget that sixty years ago General Cárdenas prevented the Right, led by Almazán, from taking over the government.’ Most certainly, patriotic fraud in the name of the institutionalized revolution successfully took place for the first time in the 1940 election. Lázaro Cárdenas, himself, had justified the authoritarian power: ‘The conservatives in Mexico,’ he wrote in December of 1935 when confronting Calles, ‘enemies of the social programmes of the Revolution, want the type of democracy that is practiced in the capitalist states to be in our government policy; that is, freedom for their interests and imposition of their criteria’.2 General Cárdenas promptly applied this doctrine in 1940. In 2000 many experienced the defeat of the PRI as if it were the triumphant return of the ghost of Juan Andreu Almazán, perhaps the real winner of the 1940 elections, despite his fifteen thousand recognized ballots (as opposed to two and a half million for Manuel Ávila Camacho). The Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, possibly saw this spectre the night of 2 July, and for that reason refused to congratulate Vicente Fox; he justified his action saying that ‘what is happening is a tragedy for the country’.
The supposed tragedy lay in the fact that Mexican society, besides having been the object of marketing manipulations, had suffered a displacement toward conservatism. This idea is incorrect. Vicente Fox and his group were a political expression of the Centre-Right, with strong modern pragmatic overtones. The mass of votes he received reflected an even wider range, since it included an enormous sector of the population that, in an act of simple good sense, opted to end the ‘perfect dictatorship’. The strictly conservative ingredients were left marginalized as much by the overwhelming pragmatism of the ‘friends of Fox’, the independent group that supported him, as by a society fed up with corruption and fraud. However, it seems that some hardcore reactionary and conservative sectors – lodged in both the National Action Party (PAN) as well as in the Church or in business corporations – interpreted the events in the same way as the hard-core Left or the backward PRI: they believed Vicente Fox’s victory was an invitation for the conservatives to take over the State machine.
For the Fox administration to be able to maintain an oscillating balance between the Centre and the Right during his entire six-year term depended on many very complicated factors. Foremost among them were the critical processes both the PRI and the PRD were going through. Economic and financial interests that had traditionally been represented by the PRI, were predictably shifted in an opportune manner to support the new administration. A section of technocracy did the same. The PRI remained propped up by the right wing of the unions, the most backward campesino organizations, the corrupt remains of a ramified reactionary bureaucracy and restoration groups promoted by certain regional influences. Some sectors of the PRI tried to metamorphose their political organization into a modern party in order to escape the restoration temptations that would lead it to suicide, but they were not able to do so entirely. During the first months of his government, President Fox lightened the pressure on the PRI when he became fearful of the following danger: if the members of the PRI were unable to recycle their party, instead of depositing its dead body into history’s garbage dump in a civilized manner, they would leave a putrefying cadaver in the middle of society, causing alarming contamination and much provocation. The inveterate authoritarian party took advantage of that respite to recover its position in the 2003 elections.
The PRD, whose foundation was closely linked to the hopes of ending the authoritarian regime, experienced the transition to democracy as if it were attending its own funeral. In a certain way this is true: the mixture of hard-core positions, sectaries, blustering patriots and populists predominant in the leaders of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas’s campaign, failed completely. The PRD and its confusing allies unsuccessfully presented the voters with a slightly leftist version of the old revolutionary nationalism, the withered culture that had typified the official party for decades. But the former official party, in its attempts to renovate itself, now threatens to invade the left-of-centre territory that the PRD occupies in order to recover its old dominions. The alternative the Left has always had – the social democratic direction – continued to be attractive, albeit somewhat weakened. The PRD should have pursued that option in order to transform itself into a modern and dynamic party, but it could not put a stop to its permanent state of internal agitation because it was not able to abandon its habit of gulping down often indigestible, outdated ideas and backward social movements.
During the latter years of the twentieth century, the country was governed by a corrupt and terribly authoritarian right wing under a nationalist, revolutionary, and Carranza-influenced guise. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a democratic and pragmatic Right is governing. Its inclination is towards the centre of the political spectrum. It is full of unknowns, itself unaware of which profile it is acquiring. In this essay I will attempt to clarify some of these unknowns and look for guidelines for interpreting the strange transition process. I have wanted to put a personal mark on these pages, at the risk of being excessively subjective, because discovering the keys to the Mexican political system has been an obsession of mine throughout my intellectual life, and the desire for the authoritarian system to come to an end has been a permanent force motivating my reflections for more than forty years.

2. Conspiracy

In these times of disenchantment, when there is little faith in scientific and philosophical paradigms, any attempt to discover rules and tendencies in social and political structures may seem like an old-fashioned romantic scheme. Nevertheless, I dare to defend the idea that the social sciences are not irrevocably buried in sterility: I believe that it is possible to find profound processes, explain them, and to some extent, predict certain situations. To defend this idea, I will paradoxically utilize an image which does not come from scientific method, but rather from the universe of political adventure and literary intrigue: conspiracy. Also paradoxically, I will call on the vicissitudes of some personal experiences, which directly or indirectly, have thrust me into the conspirative currents of political and social life.
Many years ago, in 1973, I took part in a bitter debate with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, at that time the most celebrated sociologist in Latin America and later president of Brazil. Disillusioned by his own ‘dependency theory’, Cardoso explained that the horrors of backwardness, dictatorship, and authoritarianism in Brazil and Mexico could be seen in the end as a ‘bourgeois revolution of dependent countries’: a social opening that – being false and controlled from above – was nevertheless marked by a guided dynamism. Cardoso presented his cautious optimism in a seminar on social classes and political crisis in Latin America, held in the city of Oaxaca in June 1973.3 At that time Brazil was still suffering the effects of the 1964 military coup and Mexico was experiencing a timid opening of the authoritarian political system. In my critique of Cardoso, I explained that where he saw a ‘bourgeois revolution’ I found the embryo of a political crisis. My research in Mexico had convinced me that the mediation systems that the Mexican political system based its legitimacy on were no longer functioning well. ‘All this makes me think – was my conclusion – that the coming years will bear witness to the end of the famous “Mexican system”, in the way it has been functioning since 1940, and with this I am not predicting imminent social revolution or the next coup d’état.’4 Although my ‘prophecy’ of the end of the Mexican system did come about, I must admit my critical analysis was tinged with conspirative intentions, exposed by the repeated use of references to class struggle, bourgeois hegemony, and means of production, expressions in which Cardoso saw an assertion of the ‘scholastic Marxist formalism’ which the Oaxacan seminar was coated with. I was convinced that the ‘popular forces’ would in some way take advantage of the crisis to strengthen themselves and then, some day, encourage a revolution which would open the doors to socialism. But it was a forced and ritual optimism that all radical activists of the Marxist Left had to manifest at that time. In reality, my studies of rural society had filled me with pessimism, when they led me to the realization that the Mexican system had a solid base in very complex political mediation mechanisms. The government of the ‘institutionalized revolution’ sustained its legitimacy in a strange gestation of non-capitalistic organizational forms: a series of reforms and functional changes stimulated the expansion of rural and urban ‘third forces’ that formed the solid base of the authoritarian regime. As I had previously discussed in an even more pessimistic text, under certain conditions a ‘modern despotic power’ could arise (the so-called ‘perfect dictatorship’) that was neither a fascist regime nor an exceptionally repressive power, but rather a stable government based on a non-democratic mediating system capable of protecting the economic process from the dangerous jolts of a society still harbouring contradictions of a not specifically capitalist nature.5 Under these conditions, both capitalism and socialism are rarely explored as alternatives; in contrast, it is common to observe a true ‘putrefaction of society’, to use Lenin’s stale metaphor, which shows a privatization of the State and a nationalization of society: the State depoliticizes itself, turning into a technocratic shell and civil society becomes militarized, exerting repression against itself.6 I thought I had discovered certain keys to understanding the ways in which power was legitimized in advanced, wealthy, and supposedly ‘one-dimensional’ societies – according to the deceptive expression of Marcuse – in the modern despotic power such as it functioned in Mexico. A new post-Hegelian political situation abolished the myths of the political State and civil society and marked the beginning of a displacement process of social conflicts. The new mythology – and this is where the idea of conspiracy comes in – depicted a comfortable nationalized and bureaucratized society, barely perturbed by the distant plots of guerrillas, hippies, the insane, communists or religious sects.7
Undoubtedly, since 1968, the Mexican system had begun a slow and exasperating process of putrefaction: a slow transition that led to at least three very tense critical moments in 1982, 1988, and 1994. I am still amazed that the leftist culture of the 1960s and 1970s, despite the overwhelming influence of dogmatism, managed to cultivate from within itself the critical, flexible, and imaginative visions that allowed it to confront the difficult period beginning in 1982. This was achieved thanks to the fact that the flourishing of Marxism had been accompanied by new movements inspired by the sexual revolution, rock, psychedelic trips, feminism, the Prague Spring, student revolt, existentialism, and the new psychiatry. After long years of scrutinizing political mediation structures, especially in agrarian zones, it seemed to me they were crossed with or permeated by the same movements that had left their mark on the sixties. Not only Bonapartist campesinos and populist caciques were in the legitimizing structures; observing their functioning in both Latin America and Europe, I corroborated the fact that they included a wide variety of marginal fauna in the shape of indigenous peoples, terrorists, ailing persons, criminals, and other outcasts, who almost always conducted a war more illusory than real against the silent majority of respectable citizens of the status quo. The result of these observations about the confrontation between normality and otherness was published in 1981 in my book Las redes imaginarias del poder politico.8
The notion of imaginary network continues, broadens, and modifies the concept of mediation structure. I give great importance to these concepts since, in my opinion, they allow the precise locating of a social environment that reveals the conditions in which political apparatuses are reproduced and legitimized. The peculiarities of these mediating processes – and the degree of efficiency with which they function – are like a political barometer displaying the pressures to which the political system is subjected. In post-revolutionary rural Mexico a complex mediation structure developed, made up essentially of two parts:
  1. A functionally reformed campesino economy, which thanks to agrarian distributions extended itself as a way of controlling the runaway growth of modern capitalism in the farmlands.
  2. A series of populist and supposed revolutionary institutions, organizations, and territories owned by the caciques controlled the crudest and most direct expressions of exercise of political power.
Within this mediation structure, signs of hardening could be observed: the cacique-operated and populist institutions were gradually invaded by economic and financial interests that began transforming them into more and more authoritarian, repressive, and corrupt organizations. At the same time, the campesino economy was being strangled by modernization. These interpretations were the cause of many debates because they underlined awkward realities. They uncovered the fact that the campesinos as a social group, far from being a source of adva...

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Citation styles for The Mexican Transition
APA 6 Citation
Bartra, R. (2013). The Mexican Transition (1st ed.). University of Wales Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Bartra, Roger. (2013) 2013. The Mexican Transition. 1st ed. University of Wales Press.
Harvard Citation
Bartra, R. (2013) The Mexican Transition. 1st edn. University of Wales Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Bartra, Roger. The Mexican Transition. 1st ed. University of Wales Press, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.