Foreign Affairs

Making Modern Mexico

In July of 2000, election observers recorded a seismic event emanating from Mexico. Vicente Fox had declared a comfortable victory in his country’s presidential elections, ending seventy-one years of uninterrupted rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The Party had emerged from decades-long strife precipitated by the 1910 Mexican Revolution, fancying itself the steward of revolutionary progress. Once a symbol of cohesive nationhood in a country traumatized by years of violence, by the 1990s, it had come to embody institutionalized corruption and the failures of the Mexican state-building project. 

As journalists worldwide write their post-mortems of the PRI, I wish to focus on the conditions which facilitated its rise, as the Party functions as a useful vector for understanding much of modern Mexican history. The state-building project that  the Mexican people would later come to rue was based on long-standing anxieties concerning nationhood and self-identity. The PRI built on the work of previous regimes to construct a state answerable to a semi-unified Mexican nation. PRI bureaucrats envisioned a state in which every Mexican, regardless of race or class, could have a stake.  But these democratic themes formed a facade: the author Mario Vargas Llosa coined the term “perfect dictatorship” to describe the kind of populist authoritarianism, brutal in its methods but democratic in its language, that the PRI used to govern Mexico. The result was a state that  reconciled competing tendencies in Mexican history (secular liberalism, traditionalist authoritarianism, and even the distant specter of socialism) under the guise of a new Mexican nationalism. 

To better illustrate the PRI’s significance, we must return to its genesis. 

Making Mexico

In 1908, the American journalist James Creelman took a seat in Chapultepec Castle. Overlooking Mexico City, the palace was an architectural treasure, exquisitely ornamented with features from the Spanish colonial period. But its unparalleled beauties were secondary to Creelman’s subject: President Porfirio Diaz, the elusive authoritarian who had been governing Mexico since 1876. Despite his outsized presence in Mexico’s political landscape, he carried himself with reticence, operating through proxies and rarely speaking with the press. Creelman, representing Pearson’s Magazine, thus jumped at the opportunity for an intimate interview with the aging strongman.

In order to understand Diaz, one must understand his youth. He was born into a Mexico fresh from its war of independence, and came of age in a country deeply unsure of itself. No clear consensus informed Mexican independence — the war itself was prosecuted by a loose coalition of factions unified by Miguel Hidalgo’s Catholic nationalism, but no coherent ideology guided their fighting. 

The idea of a Mexican nation could not find solid ground. Some pointed to the shared experience of Spanish colonialism as informing a national identity, with Mexico emerging at the confluence of indigneous Mesoamerica and colonial Europe. But “indigenous Mesoamerica” described hundreds of variegated peoples, not a cultural monolith, and indigenous Mexicans, many of whom labored on hacienda plantations, found it hard to build consensus with the European-Mexican upper class. 

Diaz was concerned with the political direction Mexico would eventually take.  In 1857, when the Liberal Party governing Mexico launched an ambitious reform program designed to muzzle the military, restrain the Catholic Church, and expand citizenship to the indigenous population, conservatives attempted an armed insurrection. In the ensuing civil war, Diaz took up arms to defend the liberal nationalism of President Benito Juarez. His side prevailed, but the most formative moment of Diaz’s youth was yet to come. 

In 1861, with the United States preoccupied by its own civil war, France, led by Napoleon III, invaded Mexico to topple the Juarez government and install a Catholic monarchy. Diaz fought nobly as a member of the Mexican Army, but the 1863 occupation of Mexico City forced the republican government into exile as the Austrian Hapsburg Maximilian I was crowned Emperor of Mexico. At the conclusion of the American Civil War, the U.S. began shipping munitions to Mexican guerrilla forces while demanding a French withdrawal. Napoleon III soon bowed to U.S. pressure, ordering an evacuation of the country and leaving his client monarchy for dead. 

Even though republican forces ultimately prevailed, the French intervention keyed Diaz into the vulnerabilities facing his country. Mexico’s agony stemmed from its anarchy, which itself had roots in the lack of national solidarity. The conservative element of Mexican society felt a stronger allegiance to the Vatican than to Mexico City. Indeed, Mexicans had spent so much time prosecuting rebellions and civil wars in the post-independence period that they lacked the spirit to repel American and French violations of their national sovereignty. The survival of Mexico, this disparate confederacy of peoples and their conflicting worldviews, required a dramatic shift in paradigm.

The Porfiriato

The short existence of the Third Mexican Republic, consolidated in the wake of the French intervention, was fraught with tension and violence. The 1876 re-election of President Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada touched on a pervasive anxiety of presidents-turned-dictators, compelling Diaz to command an armed revolt against Lerdo. After penning a manifesto extolling the liberal principles of the 1857 Constitution, Diaz raised an army and toppled the Lerdo government, assuming the presidency himself in 1877. 

As president, Porfirio Diaz differed markedly from the swashbuckling radical of his youth. A grand objective tempered his politics: the Paz Porfiriana (Porfirian Peace), which he hoped would bring peace, prosperity and harmony to the Mexican people. His nationalist project had three tenets. 

First came political harmony. Diaz approached former rivals with conciliation, inviting liberals of all shades into his governing coalition. He disavowed the anticlerical policies of his predecessors to allay conservative suspicions. He intimidated, cajoled, coerced and threatened anyone with power to build a federal network of mayors, governors, legislators and judges subservient to his word. Factionalism was tolerated, but only within the context of the Porfirian state-building agenda. Dissent from the nationalist project was tantamount to treason. 

Second came internal security. From his earliest days as president, Diaz eyed the military as the greatest credible threat to his regime. His career as an officer attuned him to the problems facing the Mexican Army. Principally, it lacked a core mission. Diaz implemented a professionalization program to enforce discipline within army ranks and re-orient the entire organization to privilege the Mexican nation above all. Furthermore, Diaz strengthened the federal police force to combat banditry and crime along Mexico’s roadways. 

Third, and perhaps most importantly, came economic harmony. The cornerstone of this initiative was a radical reassessment of U.S.-Mexico relations. In the 1840s, Diaz witnessed the humiliation and bitterness brought by the Mexican-American War. As President, he looked to foster partnership, not enmity, between Mexicans and Americans. After proving the integrity of his regime, Diaz opened the floodgates to U.S. investment. This was a key component of his domestic strategy. The old elites displaced by Porfirian consolidation were placated by the mountains of Wall Street capital enriching their haciendas, mines, and other ventures. An economic consensus emerged after decades of effective anarchy; the Mexican upper classes set aside their grievances to build a robust economy tying the arid northern states of Coahuila and Sonora with the lush southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. 

Over the ensuing decades, Mexico blossomed. Diaz, the first great steward of the modern Mexican state, presided over a capitalist revolution. However, for many, “progress” came painfully. Indigenous Mexicans, who for years lived in communal agricultural communities called ejidos, saw their land appropriated and turned into massive corporate-run plantations. Small-scale farmers and ranchers could not resist absorption into sprawling haciendas buttressed by foreign capital, forcing many to surrender their meager holdings. 

Despite the fruits offered by “modernization,” conditions worsened for Mexican laborers. Slavery, ostensibly outlawed in 1821, was a reality for the millions earning pennies for dangerous, undignified work. When workers dared to strike, the state arrayed its police forces to suppress militants on behalf of American financiers. 

Diaz had the 1857 Constitution, a document he treasured for its liberal credentials, modified to remove term limits, enjoying numerous re-elections and governing into the 20th century. By 1908, when James Creelman traveled to Mexico City for an interview, the aging Mexican autocrat had realized his vision. While he saw many “revolutions” in his youth, his Porfiriato, and its accompanying Paz Porfiriana, was the first great social revolution of modern Mexican history. It gave the Mexican state a raison d’être as the guardian of capitalist modernization. It brought consensus to a country ravaged by anarchy and violence. 

The Revolution

The Porfirian consensus scarcely extended beyond the Mexican elite. Doubts lingered over the fruits of progress. What good was “modernization” when it made Mexico an economic vassal of the United States? What good was “modernization” to the overworked field hand, who toiled in semi-feudal agony on large capitalist plantations? What good was “modernization” when only the most privileged could enjoy its amenities? 

Most importantly, did President Diaz, who had been governing for the last third of the century, not christen his rule with democratic principles? 

In 1910, the wealthy Coahulian hacendado (landowner) Francisco Madero challenged Porfirio Diaz for the presidency. Madero penned a manifesto pledging to bring genuine democracy to Mexico’s twentieth century. The Porfirian regime responded by arresting him on the eve of the election, but the presidential aspirant escaped to San Antonio, Texas. From there, he sounded the clarion of revolution. 

A “fiesta of bullets” consumed Mexico. While Madero was nominally the Revolution’s leader, it lacked coordination or central objectives beyond the destruction of the Porfirian state. Agrarian peasants called campesinos, many of whom were indigenous, assumed the brunt of the fighting, mobilized by the prospect of land reform. Other working-class laborers, such as miners, joined the assault on capitalist brutality. Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata would attract fame as the champions of this lower-class uprising. Ironically, Mexico’s emerging bourgeoisie formed another critical constituency of the Revolution, fighting the rigid patchwork of foreign-owned farms, ranches, and mines drawing wealth away from Mexico and into American bank accounts. They also targeted the chief imperfection of Porfirian capitalism: an upper echelon of state-sponsored economic elites insulated from competition.

With the U.S. government reluctant to throw Diaz a lifeline, his regime swiftly capitulated. However, by 1913, Madero found himself unable to hold the center. He failed to reconcile the revolutionary ideals of land reform and lower class autonomy with the interests of the landowning bourgeoisie he was himself a part of. His conciliatory brand of politics could not dismantle the central apparatuses of the Porfirian state, kindling yet another civil war. Maderismo found a bloody end in 1913, when counter-revolutionary forces, aided by General Victoriano Huerta, besieged Mexico City. The embattled president was assassinated, and Huerta inaugurated a military dictatorship.

Revolutionaries overlooked their squabbles to combat the reactionary Huerta, whose dictatorship lasted scarcely more than a year. Nominal democracy returned to Mexico with the Constitution of 1917, which endowed the Mexican state with sweeping economic authority, but it was not until the late 1920s that the cycle of unrest abated. 

With a precarious peace settling in Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party emerged in 1929. It justified its existence with a need to “institutionalize” revolutionary gains, but in reality, it spoke to something much deeper within the Mexican consciousness. It was unclear what, precisely, the Revolution meant — for what two million Mexicans had died for. The state needed to rationalize the violence of the preceding two decades. It needed to demonstrate that the assault on the Porfirian oligarchy did not go in vain.

By 1940, the PRI could make its case. Revolutionaries had ushered in a more sophisticated capitalistic arrangement through which the proletarian masses could organize.  In the Mexican north, where the petty bourgeois once languished in a rigid system dominated by American corporations and Porfirian oligarchs, Mexican businessmen moved fluidly in a rugged entrepreneurial landscape. The usurpation of the old plutocrats allowed the Mexican state to mature into a capitalist modernity which reconciled class antagonisms through the government, cementing bourgeois hegemony under the guise of class collaboration. With the destruction of an inflexible, troglodytic hierarchy and the “liberation” of Mexico’s subaltern, the revolutionaries wrought enhanced capitalist social property relations, labor mobility, and the formation of an integrated national market. The Revolution did not vanquish low-wage labor, expansive private industry and industrial elitism, but re-fashioned them along modern bourgeois lines.

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