Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy

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9780374226688: Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy

The Story of Mexico's political rebirth, by two pulitzer prize-winning reporters

Opening Mexico is a narrative history of the citizens' movement which dismantled the kleptocratic one-party state that dominated Mexico in the twentieth century, and replaced it with a lively democracy. Told through the stories of Mexicans who helped make the transformation, the book gives new and gripping behind-the-scenes accounts of major episodes in Mexico's recent politics.

Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, led by presidents who ruled like Mesoamerican monarchs, came to be called "the perfect dictatorship." But a 1968 massacre of student protesters by government snipers ignited the desire for democratic change in a generation of Mexicans. Opening Mexico recounts the democratic revolution that unfolded over the following three decades. It portrays clean-vote crusaders, labor organizers, human rights monitors, investigative journalists, Indian guerrillas, and dissident political leaders, such as President Ernesto Zedillo-Mexico's Gorbachev. It traces the rise of Vicente Fox, who toppled the authoritarian system in a peaceful election in July 2000.

Opening Mexico dramatizes how Mexican politics works in smoke-filled rooms, and profiles many leaders of the country's elite. It is the best book to date about the modern history of the United States' southern neighbor-and is a tale rich in implications for the spread of democracy worldwide.

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About the Author:

Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon were The New York Times Mexico bureau chiefs from 1995 to 2000. Along with two other reporters, they won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for their coverage of Mexico's narcotics underworld.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Excerpt from Opening Mexico The Making of a Democracy by Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon. Copyright © 2004 by Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon. To be published in March, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Preface: Making Mexican Democracy
It took three decades of pressure, protest, finagling, and occasionally violence for Mexicans to pry open the authoritarian system that had held their country in thrall since the 1920s. We witnessed the culminating years of this campaign as correspondents for The New York Times based in Mexico.

We both had worked for two decades as reporters in Latin America. We knew that Mexico, although it shared the Spanish language and an Iberian colonial past with the rest of the region, was a country apart. The revolution of 1910 had set it on a different course in the twentieth century from its Latin neighbors. After that upheaval Mexico had never been tempted to adopt a Communist regime like the one Fidel Castro brought to power in Cuba in 1959. Nor had it succumbed to right-wing military dictators, such as those who seized control at mid-century in Central and South America. Mexico had also guarded its independence from Washington's polarizing policies during the Cold War more zealously than most Latin nations.
Yet Mexico had lived under its own form of closed single-party government. By the time we settled in Mexico City in September 1995, the oppressive hold of the Institutional Revolutionary Party on every aspect of Mexican life had made it the world's longest-ruling political organization.

But as it turned out, we had arrived in the midst of a prolonged, slow-motion, largely peaceful democratic revolution. Mexicans were remaking their society, institution by institution.

We saw them undertake extraordinary reforms. They transferred control of the elections machinery away from the ruling party, which had abused it to perpetrate countless frauds, and put it in the hands of an independent agency that devised one of the most modern balloting systems in the world. They created an array of new political parties to challenge the monopoly of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI.
They worked to create a legislature with real clout, replacing a theatrical Congress whose role for seven decades had been to provide ceremonious applause for the President's latest impulse. They were imposing limits on the power of the presidency, which had been so absolute and unrestrained by any legislative, judicial, or popular oversight as to make the Mexican chief executive a kind of Mesoamerican monarch.

We met people from all levels of life who were participating in this grand endeavor. Citizen activists were battling vote fraud. Human rights observers were curbing the abuses of the security forces. Grassroots communities were blocking the devastation of forests and beaches by corporations. Journalists were investigating malfeasance. Neighborhood groups were mobilizing to demand prosecution of criminal gangs and corrupt police. Even the PRI President, Ernesto Zedillo, had opted for a liberalizing role.

In July 2000, nearly five years into our tenure as correspondents for the Times, Mexicans took the decisive step toward completing their democratic transition. In the cleanest and most open vote in Mexican history, the nation elected an opposition candidate, Vicente Fox of the National Action Party, to be President, toppling the PRI regime after seventy-one years. Zedillo and his cohorts accepted the result and stepped aside. Mexico's second revolution was accomplished so efficiently and peacefully that not many Mexicans, and even fewer outsiders, really grasped the historic dimension of the event.

The making of Mexico's democracy was distinctive in many ways. There was no Nelson Mandela, no single leader to personify and guide the struggle. Nor was there a single democratic movement, but rather a multitude of initiatives from individuals and groups across the society and the country, which gradually converged as more and more Mexicans became convinced of the need to end the PRI's despotic rule.

Mexico was spared a change of economic system, since it had remained capitalist even after the 1910 revolution. Yet the clash between social classes was not the primary impetus of change. To be sure, along the way rebellions by workers, rural farming people, and Indians—notably the indigenous uprising in the southern state of Chiapas in 1994—served to weaken the authoritarian system. But these protests were part of a broad mix of reform efforts, in which the elite also at times participated. For decades the PRI system served the interests of business, making crony capitalists wealthy. They resisted change. But eventually the corporate class also supported an orderly transition, accepting that an open system could better serve its interests in a globalized economy.

Mexico's passage to democracy did not come about as a victory of the ideas of either the Left or the Right, either liberals or conservatives. At critical moments the Mexican Left, with its bold rejection of the status quo, its nationalism, and its defense of the dispossessed, took the lead in the struggle for greater freedom. But Mexican conservatives, committed to individual rights and a free-market economy and often inspired by Catholic faith, were also tenacious in their pursuit of reform. Over the years the competition among ideologies and factions was channeled into a system of political parties. These parties, when their resolve was tested, shunned violence, agreeing to take their disputes to the halls of local and federal legislatures. Religious fanaticism, which has torn apart many countries in times of transition, never arose to embitter the search for democracy in Mexico.

Mexico's was a negotiated pluralistic transition, with pressure coming from below, from myriad individuals and groups at the grass roots of society, and from above, as the PRI and its successive Presidents responded to dissidence by mandating change. The stalwarts of the system who gave up bits of their control, however, were most often motivated by self-interest, seeking not to reduce their domination but to perpetuate it.

Americans have a large stake in the outcome of Mexico's efforts to create an open society. No country affects the United States' well-being and national security more directly. The border we share is two thousand miles long. Mexico is our second-largest trading partner, after Canada-and ahead of Japan and China. It is a base for thousands of U.S. businesses, which are transforming the country's northern states into an important manufacturing region. It is the place of origin of some 10 million Mexican workers, the United States' largest single immigrant group. It is a destination for American travelers of all kinds. It is a luxuriant but deteriorating biosphere that is vital for the survival of thousands of North American migratory birds, butterflies, and other species.

Both of us have been watching Mexico for many years. Julia Preston first traveled to the country as a wayfaring college student in 1972, when the PRI system was passing from an epoch of growth and stability into cyclical crisis and decline. Sam Dillon began going to Mexico in the early 1980s, when he was a journalist based in El Salvador filing stories to editors at the Associated press who were based in Mexico City. Julia was living in downtown Mexico City when an earthquake struck in 1985; her apartment rocked, and its windows shattered, raining glass on the street. We both covered the aftermath of that quake, as well as tumultuous gubernatorial elections later in the 1980s in several northern states, where the PRI stoked citizen anger by falsifying the results.

Our account is a journalists' draft of the history of Mexico's opening-its apertura, as it is called in Spanish. We have chosen to tell the events through the lives of a number of Mexicans whose activism we witnessed in the course of our reporting. In some places, where we were eyewitnesses to telling events, we recount them in the first person. The individuals we portray in detail were not necessarily the most important figures in the democracy movement; rather, their experiences were representative of the participation of countless other Mexicans in a collective national effort. We made some purposeful omissions. We haven't attempted a systematic study of the country's hermetic armed forces, which remained at the margins of the transition. Nor did we focus our attention on the role of the United States, which has sought stability in its southern neighbor even when that meant overlooking authoritarian abuses. We contend that Mexico's opening to democracy is one of the few major developments in the country's modern history that was not shaped by invasion or intervention by the United States.

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, new generations of Mexicans wanted to open their country to democracy. This is the story of how they did it.

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