The Daily Demarche
Sunday, October 16, 2005
Return of "the perfect dictatorship"?
Not many political parties stay in power for over seven decades- even the Soviets didn't last that long- and even fewer remain in power for so long in a "democracy." One party, however, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) (The Institutional Revolutionary Party- I love that name) managed to do just that . And they did it within spitting distance of the United States. Mexico spent more than seventy years of the last decade under a corrupt, repressive regime- and it appears that they may just be poised to vote that same party back into power this summer. I find it somewhat ironic that on the eve of yet another historic vote in Iraq to move towards democracy one of our nearest neighbor's is about to backpedal.

In 2000, when Vicente Fox's coalition party (Partido Accion Nacional- PAN- the National Action Party) defeated the PRI many saw it as the end to that party in Mexico. President Bush broke with long standing tradition and visited Mexico on his first trip outside of the U.S., and not Canada (pissed the Canucks off, too). During that visit in February of 2001 President made the following remarks:

We also talked about what we can do together to extend the benefits of freedom and prosperity throughout the entire hemisphere. I told President Fox that building a hemisphere of freedom will be a fundamental commitment of my administration. We both look forward to discussing these ideas with other hemispheric leaders in Quebec in April at the Summit of the Americas.

President Fox, his government and all of Latin America were looking forward to an era of hemispheric development the likes of which had never been seen. The severely dysfunctional immigration policy of the United States seemed destined for overhaul. Democracy was indeed on the march, and prosperity for many more people a real possibility. However, reading the full text of the remarks of that day again now, I am struck by the apparent foreshadowing of a question by one of the reporters present:

What is the message that you want to send right now, what does the United States want to send to the world as a message with the new bombing of Iraq? And, above all, why, Mr. Bush, at this point, when you are establishing a dialogue with the President of Mexico? Why? Is this a beginning of a new war?

Now, I do not think that at that moment the message was that we were at the "beginning of a new war." But eight months later we were at the beginning of a new war, a war that is ongoing, and expanding. The effects of 9-11 were, and continue to be, long reaching. Our relationship with President Fox's fragile new government was one of the first foreign policy casualties of the attacks.

Suddenly Mexico's porous border became much more than a nuisance for those living along that same border, and the image of illegal aliens took a dark turn. I, for one, have taken a hard line stand when it comes to closing the border as tightly as humanly possible, if for no other reason than this- if a dirt farmer from Chiapas can slip past the border patrol how hard would it be for a team of even semi-trained terrorists to do the same?

This change in attitude towards Mexico and policies of immigration reform played a significant part in the failure of President Fox's coalition to make real change in Mexico (the remaining PRI politicians in office helped- they once even denied Fox permission to leave Mexico to visit the United Sates). Fox had been seen by many in Mexico, and indeed throughout Latin America and even the United States, as having the ear of the American President. Immigration accords between the two conservative businessmen appeared to be certain. After 9-11, Fox found himself facing a six year term with no possibility for re-election (not allowed under Mexican election law), and without the possibility of an immigration accord with the U.S. He immediately became a lame-duck president. In the last two years the PRI have made major comebacks in Mexico, particularly along the border where they now control the entire region apart form Baja California.

Why should we care, you might ask? How about this, from The World Fact Book:

Mexico has a free market economy that recently entered the trillion dollar class. It contains a mixture of modern and outmoded industry and agriculture, increasingly dominated by the private sector. Recent administrations have expanded competition in seaports, railroads, telecommunications, electricity generation, natural gas distribution, and airports. Per capita income is one-fourth that of the US; income distribution remains highly unequal. Trade with the US and Canada has tripled since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994. Mexico has 12 free trade agreements with over 40 countries including, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, the European Free Trade Area, and Japan, putting more than 90% of trade under free trade agreements. The government is cognizant of the need to upgrade infrastructure, modernize the tax system and labor laws, and provide incentives to invest in the energy sector, but progress is slow.

Progress, my friends, is slow. And as slow as it has been it may soon come to halt. Soon after the elections which toppled the PRI The Economist ran a piece entitled "Revolution ends, change begins" , in which they described the PRI as:

...not so much a strict father as a rich, if whimsical, uncle. It co-opted trade unions and their block votes by lavishing money and power on their leaders. It bought the peasants eternal gratitude by breaking up huge plantations and handing out millions of small tracts of land. Instead of censoring the press, it kept newspapers afloat- and loyal- with cheap newsprint, floods of government advertising, and generous gifts to journalists. It was the greatest patron of the arts. Sometimes it even funded opposition political parties, both to give its critics a little space to vent their feelings, and to make sure they stayed divided. Its rule was based on collaboration, not coercion...

Mexico thus became what Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian novelist, in 1990 called a "perfect dictatorship." It looked like a democracy, headed by a president who could not be re-elected, and equipped with all the institutional bells and whistles usually found in democracies.

The very sad fact may just be that the Fox and his coalition were a flash in the pan (no pun intended) and that the revolution really has been institutionalized in Mexico. Should the PRI regain control of our neighbor to the south I have little doubt that there will soon be a return to the corrupt practices of the past. This will mean several things to the United States:

- A probable increase in illegal immigration from Mexico: the PRI had seventy years to modernize Mexico and failed. Having thwarted Fox and the PAN, what real incentive do they have to make progress now?

- An increased threat along our southern border from those who mean to do us harm: any increase in illegal aliens looking to pick fruit means stretching the border patrol ever thinner. Mix into that corrupt officials willing to look the other way as cargo moves through their region, or to offer legitimate documents in false names, and the issue become apparent.

- Democracy in our hemisphere will have suffered a blow- sure, the PRI might be legitimately voted back into power. It happens in Egypt all the time, right?

I do not blame what has happened on Mexico over the last six years solely on September 11th and our resulting shift of focus in our foreign policy; but those events certainly had something to do with the current political situation to o ur immediate south. As Mexico gears up for the July 2006 elections it will behoove us to pay attention. Regardless of the outcome, we will have to live with a few facts- we share a huge border with the Third World where we meet Mexico, millions of Mexicans live in the U.S. both legally and illegally, and when we make promises or discuss our ideology Mexicans on both sides of the border pay attention. We need to do the same.

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dé·marche 1) A course of action; a maneuver. 2) A diplomatic representation or protest 3) A statement or protest addressed by citizens to public authorities.

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