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Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy
By Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
HC, 594 pg. US$30/C$45
ISBN: 0-3742-2668-7

The imperfect democracy

By Steven Martinovich
web posted July 5, 2004

Opening Mexico: The Making of a DemocracyAlthough the world is transfixed by the experiment in democracy currently underway in Iraq, the same experiment took place much closer to home for those in the United States. Although the world largely ignored the momentous event, Mexico elected its first democratic government in 2000 with Vincente Fox's victory over Francisco Labastida. It was the first time since the early 20th century that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was not in control of the federal government.

As Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon relate in Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy, the fight for democracy began several decades ago. Since 1929 Mexico had essentially been a one-party state under the control of the PRI. Believing that it was the only party able to protect the legacy of the Mexican revolution, the PRI gradually insinuated itself into every aspect of Mexican life in an attempt to hold on to power. Although Mexico maintained the veneer of a free nation, it was in essence a dictatorship.

The battle against the PRI's domination of Mexican society gained steam in 1968 when student protests began to rock the country. The régime's response -- a massacre of student radicals -- only served to galvanize opposition. Although the repressive government managed to keep a lid on the country, the nation's intellectual leaders redoubled their efforts. They began to challenge the government on every front -- whether it was election reform, the handling of the economy or the incredible level of corruption -- and occasionally managed to win small victories.

Those small victories encouraged opposition parties to seriously challenge the PRI's hegemony at the polls and starting in the 1980s they began to claim bigger election victories, though many of them were negated by the PRI's massive election frauds. Aiding them was the increasing exasperation of ordinary Mexicans with the failure of the PRI to fulfill its pledges to bring the alleged benefits of single party rule to population that was becoming more sophisticated. The greatest impetus to change, however, may have come from within the PRI itself.

Ernesto Zedillo was never supposed to be president. Thanks to constitutional problems with other candidates, Carlos Salinas was practically forced to name Zedillo his successor. The bland politician proved to be a reformer and brought about many of the changes that enabled Fox's victory just six years later. Fighting battles against hardline PRI members and eventually alienating powerful factions in his own party, Zedillo forced fundamental changes that didn't go as far as opponents wanted, nonetheless weakened the PRI enough to give other parties a realistic shot at power.

Of course, the intellectual and political elite of Mexico weren't the only players in the country's move to democracy. Opening Mexico also chronicles the work of ordinary Mexicans who were moved to challenge the system for their own personal reasons and events which placed pressure on the régime, such as the uprising in Chiapas and the frequent economic turmoil Mexico has suffered. Preston and Dillon illustrate that it was a number of different forces that contributed to the political opening of Mexico.

"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. Neighbourhood groups were mobilizing to demand prosecution of criminal gangs and corrupt police."

Opening Mexico shouldn't be considered the final authority on Mexico's awakening -- it's treatment of the economic aspect of freedom is nowhere near as fleshed out as the political side -- but it is an excellent introduction to those new to the intricacies of Mexican politics. That story, of course, is ongoing and the ultimate success of the peaceful revolution has yet to be judged. Thanks to Preston and Dillon we have a fascinating glimpse into the opening chapters  of Mexican democracy.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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