Mexico 1940-82: Higher Priority on Political Stability and Economic Growth than on Social Change

Mexico 1940-82: Higher Priority on Political Stability and Economic Growth than on Social Change

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Mexico 1940-82: Higher Priority on Political Stability and Economic Growth than on Social Change


Mexico’s political and economic stability from 1940-1982 can be well understood by looking at one of Sergio’s televisions. In Mexican Lives, Judith Adler Hellman introduces the reader to Sergio Espinoza, a businessman who once employed some 700 workers to produce televisions, stereos and sound systems. His televisions’ high production costs, low quality, high prices and inaccessibility to the poor sketch a rough microcosm of the period from 1940-1982 by laying bare the inefficiencies of import substitution industrialization and the vast inequalities in Mexico. From 1940-82, economic growth and stability came at the expense of social justice and political pluralism. In particular, the Mexican campesinos, the backbone of the revolutionary Zapatista uprising, suffered from the economic development model and from the PRI’s ability to muzzle dissent.

The basic model employed after Cardenas to promote growth in the Mexican economy was Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI), whereby Mexico attempted to build domestic industry and a domestic market. The strategy quickly started paying dividends, and the “import-substitution policies of the Mexican state were successful in generating rapid and sustained economic growth” (Sharpe 28). ISI ushered in the “Mexican Miracle” of economic growth; the Mexican growth hovered around 6% annually for some thirty years (Hellman 1). The government created incentives for investment and lowered taxation to spur domestic investment. Despite the strong economic indicators, the spoils of growth were not shared by many.

Those groups who bled and died from 1910-1917 for a more just and equitable Mexico were subsequently denied the fruits of economic growth and transparent political representation. Efforts to accelerate growth since the mid 1930s “have tended to produce- or at least, to reinforce- a highly inequitable pattern of income distribution” (Hansen 71). According to Roger Hansen, the author of The Politics of Mexican Development, “no other Latin American political system has provided “more rewards for its new industrial and commercial agricultural elites” (87) since 1940 and “in no other major Latin American country has less been done directly by the government for the bottom quarter of society” (87). Mexico’s development created a middle class and brought a certain measure of industrialization but further disenfranchised the poor.

Mexico’s leaders implemented a development policy which violated the ideals of the revolution by shirking the responsibilities of a social democracy. In his essay “Guatemalan Politics: The Popular Struggle for Democracy,” Garry H.

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Trudeau outlines the definitions of two different versions of democracy. The first, procedural democracy, guarantees a)“representational structures” (Hamilton 6) via elections to restrict absolute power of the government, b)civil liberties and civil rights which ensure political participation of citizens and c) certain “’inalienable’ rights” to allow citizens to “flourish individually” (6). Trudeau cautions against the limits of this system of representation, warning that “[i]mpoverished majorities may have little power beyond that of consenting to the overall system and choosing among elites who differ personal ambitions for holding office but pursue essentially the same social outcomes from it” (7). After Cardenas, Mexico possessed the accoutrements of a procedural democracy but abandoned the revolutionary quest for social justice.

The principles of the Mexican revolution resonate with Hamilton’s definition of social democracy. Social democracy, according to Hamilton, requires more than “elections, political parties and the rights that guarantee access to these procedures” (7). Social democracy is characterized by the “majority’s power to restructure society, with a corresponding redistribution of wealth in favor of the working classes” (7) and a guiding principle of “human development (7). In short, a “government should have a role in improving the quality of life of its citizens” (8). Many Mexicans believed that the revolution would mean the advent of social democracy.

The Constitution which emerged in 1917 assimilated many of the revolutionary goals and priorities and “reveals the depth of the revolutionary commitment to a better life for the Mexican campesino and laborer” (Hansen 87). The constitution defined democracy as “not only a judicial structure and a political regime, but a way of life founded in the steady economic, social, and cultural improvement of the people” (87). Nevertheless, following the reformist presidency of Cardenas, Mexico abandoned social democracy.
The PRI, the overwhelmingly dominant party in the Mexican political system, became a “control mechanism” (Hansen 110) in a government that was neither “authoritarian nor pluralist” (Levy 125). The system was marked by its ability “to detect discontent and deal with it speedily enough to avoid potential threats to stability” and its “capacity to control- if not entirely prevent- elite competition for political power” (Hansen 198). Mexico feigned representative democracy and pursued its policies independently of the revolutionary legacy.

Mexico’s campesinos suffered particularly from 1940-82. The PRI was able to co-opt and corrupt the agrarian leaders and reduce their ability to improve the lives of the campesinos. The PRI exercised imposed leaders from above (Hansen 116) and undermined responsible leadership with the spoils of graft. The affiliation of ejidal leaders with corrupt politicians undermined the solidarity of the increasingly poor and exploited campesinos. The PRI made representative leadership impossible: “electoral frauds, imprisonment and assassination infrequently cut short the political careers of articulate and genuine campesino spokesmen” (117). Thus, the government could pursue economic policies which disenfranchised campesinos without suffering any significant backlash.

Changes to benefit the campesinos were sporadic and illusory. The government paid them lip service while seeking only to diffuse their discontent and co-opt their leaders: “initial commitments to social reform- where they did exist- were most often diluted as the mobilization of political strength put the new leaders in a position to reap the personal rewards which the political system had to offer” (197). The number of landless agricultural workers continued to mount (81). The central banks allowed few loans because the ejidal system offered no collateral. Moreover, large corporate farmers benefited from the majority of the irrigation projects. The government encouraged peasants to produce low-paying crops to provide the government with export revenue. Hansen characterizes the little redistribution which followed Cardenas’ Presidency as little more than the “opiate of the Mexican campesino” (81). The reforms and rhetoric of the Cardenas Presidency faded into the shadows of Mexican history.

Back to the television. Sergio Espinoza went out of business in the 1980s as the Mexican economy slowly opened up to foreign competition and the economy collapsed under Mexico’s staggering foreign debt. The era of import substitution had come to an end. Injustice and inequalities, on the other hand, did not. Mexico soon turned to another development strategy which emphasized its northern neighbor’s market. Maquiladoras sprung up along the American-Mexican border. The GATT and NAFTA have helped Mexico’s economy flourish, but have done nothing to address Mexico’s growing inequalities. The revolution seems farther away than ever.

Works Cited

Hansen, Roger D. The Politics of Mexican Development. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

Hellman, Judith A. Mexican Lives. New York: The New Press, 1994.

Levy, Dan and Gabriel Szekely. Mexico: Paradoxes of Stability and Change. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc, 1987.

Sharpe, Ken and Douglas C. Bennett. Transnational Corporations Versus the State: The Political Economy of the Mexican Auto Industry. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985.
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