A political cartoon in a weekly Mexican news magazine in the early 1980’s offered a fitting assessment of the sorry state of the Mexican body politic. It showed an elderly couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary—a wry comment on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Mexico’s ruling political party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). La Señora was penciled in as a rather well-to-do, overfed matron of society wearing a gaudy red, white, and green dress (the colors of the Mexican flag) inscribed with the letters PRI. El Señor, unfortunately, was not so well, appearing as a skeleton in tattered clothing with two bandoleers. The message was unmistakable: While the PRI has become both flabby and garish, the principles for which revolutionaries such as El Señor had fought during the tumultuous years of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1919) have been dead for years, a sad victim of a corrupt, power-hungry bureaucratic state.
Alan Riding’s Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans evokes striking images of the bureaucratic nightmare called the PRI. The author’s rapier journalistic style, honed for six years as the Mexico City bureau chief of The New York Times, pointedly critiques a generation of leaders who have left the Mexican people decidedly bitter and cynical about the political future of their nation. A typical refrain from the disillusioned Mexican middle class was echoed in a recent column in The Wall Street Journal, in which a housewife lamented, “If the PRI started making those reforms, it wouldn’t be the PRI.” Clearly, political disaffection coupled with economic malaise are the watchword of Mexico in the mid-1980’s, and Riding has accurately assessed the current mood of a politically conservative and economically besieged middle class. They have learned that while the rich have the resources to ride out recent bust cycles of the recent petroleum maelstrom and the poor seem to stay poor no matter what, they themselves are the unhappy passengers on an economic roller-coaster ride.
While Riding’s critique of the Mexican state is hardly new, what sets his work apart from other journalistic forays is his trenchant analysis of the historical roots of the present moral (as well as fiscal) bankruptcy of the bureaucratic state. In two early, episodic chapters, “The Roots of the Nation” and “From Revolution to Institution,” the author traces Mexico’s elusive search for political stability and economic growth. The author spends too much time on what he sees as critical political junctures while giving insufficient attention to the larger structures of underdevelopment that define Mexico’s place in what is increasingly a worldwide economic system. This emphasis on political history is understandable, however, given the interests and tastes of the largely mainstream North American audience for whom he writes.
Riding’s identification of Miguel Alemán, Mexico’s first postwar president, as the architect of modern Mexico, is essentially accurate (although some have argued that Mexico’s ruling presidents since the revolution have exhibited more continuity than change). Alemán’s rule was pivotal because, “a series of phenomena that continue to shape the country today—massive industrialization, chaotic urbanization, high economic growth rates, emergence of a big-spending middle class and neglect of social problems—first made their appearance in the late 1940s.” Riding cogently argues that a shift of influence took place during Alemán’s sexenio (six-year presidential term) as the aging revolutionary warriors were gradually replaced by a younger generation of university-trained technocrats. The revolution was then transformed in a government, and, despite ideological and rhetorical differences among Mexico’s succeeding presidents, the pragmatic course of the institutionalized revolution was fixed. Social objectives, with few exceptions, were given short shrift, while steady economic growth and development, reinforced by a cooperative and co-optive alliance between the state and the private sector, was the rudder that steered the nation’s course during the 1950’s and the 1960’s.
The fortuitous alliance struck between the corporate world and the political establishment has not been without its rocky moments. Some presidents, such as Luis Echeverría (1970-1976), wasted no time in maligning the good name of big business trying to emulate the activist state interventionist policies of a depression-era populist president, Lázaro Cárdenas. As a result, private investment slowed to a trickle, and the Mexican middle class responded by taking large amounts of their money out of the economy, exchanging pesos for dollars. This practice of economic blackmail became so widespread that a new pejorative term for these people entered the Mexican vocabulary, “sacadólares.” This capital flight was coupled with Echeverría’s penchant for borrowing huge sums from international banks to finance massive public works projects—the root cause of the current debt crisis—and the unhappy results were surging inflation and, in 1976, the first devaluation of the Mexican peso in more than twenty years. The episode clearly demonstrated the fragile nature of the alliance between the state and the private sector and how shifts in public policy and cyclic changes in the international economy can create instability.
What has kept this tandem together—and arguably has forestalled the kind of revolutionary violence that has engulfed...
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