The Mystery of Mexican Politics

One night shortly before the Mexican elections in August, El Fisgon, a cartoonist for the left-wing daily La Jornada, one of the few credible sources in Mexico for news, tried to sketch for me what the events of 1994 had revealed to be the true condition of his country. It had been a tense and see-sawing year. A guerrilla uprising in the poor southern state of Chiapas, a string of kidnappings of businessmen, and the assassination of the favored presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, suggested that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico for sixty-five years, was about to implode. On the right half of a clean sheet of paper El Fisgon drew a brand-new high-speed train, carrying only a couple of dozen passengers. Mexico’s outgoing president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was on board, he said. So was Ernesto Zedillo, the candidate who had replaced the murdered Colosio and would most likely succeed Salinas as president, and so were the rest of Mexico’s technocrats—a tiny elite generation of men in their forties and fifties who, like Salinas and Colosio and Zedillo, had taken Ph.D.s in government or economics at American Ivy League schools, and then risen in the past decade to direct policy in the PRI. On the left half of the sheet of paper El Fisgon drew an enormous steam locomotive, which looked to be scraping along, stopping and starting and letting out a foul smoke. This was the train the real Mexico was on: the Mexico of 87 million people, of peasants, workers, guerrillas, and the old colossal PRI itself. In the drawing, both trains were headed straight for a crash at the center of the page.

Such an apocalyptic view was not uncommon. Last spring, the conservative candidate from the National Action Party (PAN) was leading in the polls, running on the angry slogan, “For a Mexico Without Lies,” and in June, issuing a declaration titled “The Hour of Democracy,” a group of prominent intellectuals had begun to meet over breakfast to discuss the unprecedented “transition” they anticipated would be necessary come election day. Rumors circulating in the street indicated, to those who wanted to believe them, that Mexicans were hankering for change. Rumors, and corrosive suspicions: that the Zapatista guerrillas in Chiapas were a front for Nicaraguans, for Americans, for drug lords, or for the PRI itself. That Luis Donaldo Colosio had been murdered by drug lords. That the PRI was split internally, and Mexico’s own president had ordered the hit.

These sentiments did not suggest a smooth ride ahead for the PRI. But it was characteristic of this year’s traumatic events that wherever one stood, the view felt blocked and clouded over; whatever conclusions one had drawn could with a new day’s headline turn out to have been absurdly off-target. On August 21, after a year in which they had wondered for the first time if the PRI was mortal, Mexicans nevertheless elected the PRI …

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