The Mature Revolution
During the decades after World War II, beginning with moderate President Miguel Alemán (1946–1952), Mexican politicians gradually honed their skills of consensus and compromise as their middle-aged revolution bubbled along under liberal presidents and sputtered haltingly under conservatives. Doctrine required of all politicians, regardless of stripe, that they be “revolutionary” enough to be included beneath the banner of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional—the Institutional Revolutionary Party), Mexico’s dominant political party.
Mexico’s revolution hasn’t been very revolutionary about women’s rights, however. The PRI didn’t get around to giving Mexican women, millions of whom fought and died during the revolution, the right to vote until 1953.
Adolfo Ruíz Cortínes, Alemán’s secretary of the interior, was elected overwhelmingly in 1952. He fought the corruption that had crept into government under his predecessor, continued land reform, increased agricultural production, built new ports, eradicated malaria, and opened a number of automobile assembly plants.
Women, voting for the first time in a national election, kept the PRI in power by electing liberal Adolfo López Mateos in 1958. Resembling Lázaro Cárdenas in social policy, López Mateos redistributed 40 million acres of farmland, forced automakers to use 60 percent domestic components, built thousands of new schools, and distributed hundreds of millions of new textbooks. “La electricidad es nuestra” (“Electricity is ours”), Mateos declared as he nationalized foreign power companies in 1962.
Despite his left-leaning social agenda, unions were restive under López Mateos. Protesting inflation, workers struck; the government retaliated, arresting Demetrios Vallejo, the railway union head, and renowned muralist David Siqueiros, former Communist Party secretary.
Despite the troubles, López Mateos climaxed his presidency gracefully in 1964 as he opened the celebrated National Museum of Anthropology, appropriately located in Chapultepec Park, where the Aztecs had first settled 20 generations earlier.
In 1964, as several times before, the outgoing president’s interior secretary succeeded his former chief. Dour, conservative Gustavo Díaz Ordaz immediately clashed with liberals, labor, and students. The pot boiled over just before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Reacting to a student rebellion, the army occupied the National University; shortly afterward, on October 2, government forces opened fire with machine guns on a downtown protest, killing and wounding hundreds of demonstrators.
Despite its serious internal troubles, Mexico’s relations with the United States were cordial. President Lyndon Johnson visited and unveiled a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Mexico City. Later, Díaz Ordaz met with President Richard Nixon in Puerto Vallarta.
Meanwhile, bilateral negotiations produced the Border Industrialization Program. Within a 12-mile strip south of the U.S.–Mexico border, foreign companies could assemble duty-free parts into finished goods and export them without any duties on either side. Within a dozen years, a swarm of such plants, called maquiladoras, were humming as hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers assembled and exported billions of dollars’ worth of shiny consumer goods—electronics, clothes, furniture, pharmaceuticals, and toys—worldwide.
Concurrently, in Mexico’s interior, Díaz Ordaz pushed Mexico’s industrialization ahead full steam. Foreign money financed hundreds of new plants and factories. Primary among these was the giant Las Truchas steel plant at the new industrial port and town of Lázaro Cárdenas at the Pacific mouth of the Río Balsas.
Discovery, in 1974, of gigantic new oil and gas reserves along Mexico’s Gulf coast added fuel to Mexico’s already rapid industrial expansion. During the late 1970s and early 1980s billions in foreign investment, lured by Mexico’s oil earnings, financed other major developments—factories, hotels, power plants, roads, airports—all over the country.
Economic Trouble of the 1980s
The negative side to these expensive projects was the huge debt required to finance them. President Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1970–1976), diverted by his interest in international affairs, passed Mexico’s burgeoning financial deficit to his successor, José López Portillo. As feared by some experts, a world petroleum glut during the early 1980s burst Mexico’s ballooning oil bubble and plunged the country into financial crisis. When the 1982 interest came due on its foreign debt, Mexico’s largest holding company couldn’t pay the $2.3 billion owed. The peso plummeted more than fivefold, to 150 per U.S. dollar. At the same time, prices doubled every year.
But by the mid-1980s, President Miguel de la Madrid (1982–1988) was straining to get Mexico’s economic house in order. He sliced government and raised taxes, asking rich and poor alike to tighten their belts. Despite getting foreign bankers to reschedule Mexico’s debt, de la Madrid couldn’t stop inflation. Prices skyrocketed as the peso deflated to 2,500 per U.S. dollar, becoming one of the world’s most devalued currencies by 1988.
Salinas de Gortari and NAFTA
Public disgust with official corruption led to significant opposition during the 1988 presidential election. Billionaire PAN candidate Michael Clothier and liberal National Democratic Front candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas ran against the PRI’s Harvard-educated technocrat Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The vote was split so evenly that all three candidates claimed victory. Although Salinas eventually won the election, his showing, barely half of the vote, was the worst ever for a PRI president.
Salinas, however, seemed to be Mexico’s “Coming Man” of the 1990s. His major achievement—despite significant national opposition—was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), negotiated in 1992 by him, U.S. President George Bush, and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulrooney.
Rebellion, Political Assassination, and Reconciliation
On the very day in early January 1994 that NAFTA took effect, rebellion broke out in the poor, remote state of Chiapas. A small but well-disciplined campesino force, calling itself Ejército Zapatista Liberación Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army—EZLN—or “Zapatistas”) captured a number of provincial towns and held the former governor of Chiapas hostage.
To further complicate matters, Mexico’s already tense 1994 drama veered toward tragedy. While Salinas de Gortari’s chief negotiator, Manuel Camacho Solis, was attempting to iron out a settlement with the Zapatista rebels, PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, Salinas’ handpicked successor, was gunned down just months before the August balloting. However, instead of disintegrating, the nation united in grief; opposition candidates eulogized their fallen former opponent and later earnestly engaged his replacement, stolid technocrat Ernesto Zedillo, in Mexico’s first presidential election debate.
In a closely watched election unmarred by irregularities, Zedillo piled up a solid plurality against his PAN and PRD opponents. By perpetuating the PRI’s 65-year hold on the presidency, the electorate had again opted for the PRI’s familiar although imperfect middle-aged revolution.
New Crisis, New Recovery
Zedillo, however, had little time to savor his victory. Right away he had to face the consequences of his predecessor’s shabby fiscal policies. Less than a month after he took office, the peso crashed, losing a third of its value just before Christmas 1994. A month later, Mexican financial institutions, their dollar debt having nearly doubled in a month, were in danger of defaulting on their obligations to international investors. To stave off a worldwide financial panic, U.S. President Clinton, in February 1995, secured an unprecedented multibillion-dollar loan package for Mexico, guaranteed by U.S. and international institutions.
Although disaster was temporarily averted, the cure for the country’s ills was another painful round of inflation and belt-tightening for poor Mexicans. During 1995, inflation soared; more and more families became unable to purchase staple foods and basic medicines. Malnutrition and a resurgence of Third World diseases, such as cholera and dengue fever, menaced the countryside.
At the same time, Mexico’s equally serious political ills seemed to defy cure. Raul Salinas de Gortari, an important PRI party official and the former president’s brother, was arrested for money laundering and political assassination. As popular sentiment began to implicate Carlos Salinas de Gortari himself, the former president fled Mexico to an undisclosed location.
Mexican democracy got a much-needed boost when notorious Guerrero governor Ruben Figueroa, who had tried to cover up a bloody massacre of campesinos by police with a bogus videotape, was forced from office. At the same time, the Zedillo government gained momentum in addressing the Zapatistas’ grievances in Chiapas, even as it decreased federal military presence, built new rural electrification networks, and refurbished health clinics. Moreover, Mexico’s economy began to improve. By mid-1996, inflation had slowed to a 20 percent annual rate, investment dollars were flowing back into Mexico, the peso had stabilized at about 7.5 to the U.S. dollar, and Mexico had paid back half the borrowed U.S. bailout money.
Zedillo’s Political Reforms
In the political arena, although the justice system generally left much to be desired, a pair of unprecedented events signaled an increasingly open political system. In the 1997 congressional elections, voters elected a host of opposition candidates, depriving the PRI of an absolute congressional majority for the first time since 1929. A year later, in early 1998, Mexicans were participating in their country’s first primary elections—in which voters, instead of politicians, chose party candidates.
Although President Zedillo had had a rough ride, he entered the twilight of his 1994–2000 term able to take credit for an improved economy, some genuine political reforms, and relative peace in the countryside. The election of 2000 revealed, however, that the Mexican people were not satisfied.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Puerto Vallarta, 7th edition