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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 candidate, Ernesto Zedillo, by a healthy margin of nearly 50 percent of the vote. The party even seemed to gather strength: it won 277 out of 300 elected seats in Congress, and with Mexico’s system of proportional representation it will hold 300 out of 500 seats, so that few deals will need to be brokered with the opposition. Pockets of fraud were noted, but the election was declared Mexico’s cleanest ever. Salinas, having recovered some of his Gorbachevian international reputation as a reformer, traveled in late September to New York to speak before the United Nations, where, pointing to the wonders he had worked in Mexico, he put himself forward as a candidate to head the World Trade Organization in Geneva. With a rapidity even the PRI must have found startling, the subject of democracy in Mexico all but disappeared.

Now, though, there has been a third reversal which the PRI’s recent swagger may have more trouble surviving. On September 28, only two days after Salinas’s New York speech, another PRI leader was assassinated. The victim was José Francisco Ruiz Massieu—the PRI secretary-general, who also would have been its majority leader in the new congress. Before the gun jammed, Ruiz’s killer was able to fire at his lower neck at a distance of a few feet. The killing took place at 9:30 AM on the sidewalk of a fancy business district in downtown Mexico City. Not only had a prominent politician died, but so had Mexico’s hope that the elections had acted as a tourniquet on the blood spilled this year.

At the very least, the investigation into José Francisco Ruiz Massieu’s murder, led by his brother Mario, who is the deputy attorney general, marks a preliminary peeling back of the curtain, so that Mexicans may finally begin to glimpse a few of the villains behind the recent upheavals. The hired assassin apparently was a horse trainer from Tamaulipas, a state thick with drug cartels operating along the northern border with Texas. The “intellectual author” of the killing (a phrase one hears often in Mexico, where every witnessable action is assumed to have a perfect blueprint, devised by an invisible planner) was allegedly a PRI congressman. A web of fourteen accomplices (a tourism promoter from Acapulco, various in-laws, and congressional aides) has also been fingered. Mario Ruiz Massieu has suggested that the killing was a vendetta carried out on behalf of a man his brother had jailed while he was governor in the state of Guerrero; the fact that Mario himself is responsible for combating drug activity in Mexico is, according to the theory, another possible reason that his brother was targeted.

Mario Ruiz Massieu has also suggested that his brother was killed because he was a potential agent of reform in the PRI—there is alleged to be a list of politicians who were to be murdered. The charge of in-fighting and rivalries in the PRI is one that the congressman’s replacement as the PRI majority leader, María de los Angeles Moreno, has downplayed in favor of the drug theory. In fact, though, the claim of a civil war inside the party only serves to confirm what many Mexicans have suspected since the killing of Luis Donaldo Colosio. But it is a particularly frightening specter to have to confront, because the Mexican version of democracy depends so explicitly on harmony.

When the party that is now called the PRI came into being in 1929, a little more than a decade after Mexico’s factious seven-year Revolution, its very purpose was to serve as a lid on a boiling pot. The crucial idea behind the PRI has been an ongoing pact, in which all the sectors of society—labor, peasants, and business—participate. The party is a pyramid extending from the president down to millions of political operatives who oversee everything from garbage collection to the running of the local hospital to the driving of busloads of people to the polls to vote for the PRI. To rise in the party required the personal approval of a superior, which always tended to encourage cliques and rivalries, but the arrangement did hold out a dream, a particularly Mexican parable of opportunity, for everyone in every sector, as a kind of glue. Even if he was poor and living out in the countryside, a young man could in the past join the PRI and fasten himself to a local PRI cacique. He could climb a ladder until he acquired his own circle of protégés, and his own sliver of the pie to keep or distribute as he chose.

In the mid-1980s, the nature of the pact was altered. To borrow El Fisgon’s model, technocrats like Salinas dreamed of hitching the rest of Mexico to the back of their fast train and, with the help of free-market reforms, dragging it to a solid place among the economies of the first world. During his presidency Salinas has renegotiated Mexico’s foreign debt, privatized the banks and dozens of government-owned concerns, opened the country’s stock market to foreigners, invited businesses from the United States, Japan, and Europe to set up in Mexico, and pushed through the NAFTA agreement with the United States. He was able to do this in part because, in December 1987, labor and business leaders and the central bank signed a Pact of Economic Solidarity to fight inflation. This pact was “voluntary,” not written into law—in other words, the technocrats decreed it, and the vast network of PRI unions carried it out. But for the PRI caciques who had not studied abroad, and for everyone along the base of the pyramid who was not in a position to make money on the sale of the government phone company, the new pact required sacrifice; since it was signed, Mexicans have lost 30 percent of their buying power.

There were different strategies for camouflaging the stress that the new arrangement had created. There was a strategy of simply ignoring it: to the Mexican press this year, the Zedillo campaign issued a biographical pamphlet with extremely simple language and childish illustrations of the candidate, reminiscent of American educational filmstrips on likable half-real historical figures such as Johnny Appleseed. The PRI was also brilliant at turning a mess to its advantage—at pointing to dissent and boasting of the new democratic possibilities it was creating. PRI officials became fond this year of saying, “Democracy is uncertainty.” For foreign reporters, whom it was especially important to convince of the Mexican people’s commitment to economic progress, José Angel Gurría, the PRI secretary for international affairs, prepared a sophisticated media kit, including a glossy booklet which he particularly recommended to me for background entitled The PRI and Mexican Democracy.

Since 1929, the PRI has participated in 12 presidential elections; in 24 federal and state legislative elections; in 360 gubernatorial elections and in 56,360 municipal elections. In its 65 years no national or local election has been canceled. The Revolution has never renounced the democratic legitimacy granted by the ballot.

For this reason, no other Mexican party has such vast historical experience. The fact is, all the minority parties lack its broad and proven organizational capacity. The PRI is the only party with nationwide electoral influence.

This talk of a track record sounds reasonable, like simple evidence of a concrete achievement—the PRI has been able to “roll with the punches,” Gurría likes to say—to American ears. But all kinds of roads, straight and crooked, lead to “nationwide electoral influence”; the passage above could apply to any government that has the people comfortably under its thumb. In his essay “The Sham Republic,” which was published in 1990, the Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid tried to find a name for the PRI method of government. Zaid’s essay was a response to the famous accusation by Mario Vargas Llosa, which had scandalized a Mexican conference of intellectuals that same year: Vargas Llosa said that Mexico, with its spongy ideology and genius for coopting dissent—rather than crushing it altogether, which might strengthen the resolve of the dissidents—was the “perfect dictatorship.” According to Zaid, Vargas Llosa was too harsh. Neither in the ancient Roman sense of temporary powers assumed in time of war, nor in the sordid Latin American sense of a strong man stealing office in a coup and holding onto it for life, was Mexico a dictatorship.

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