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Ard – The Struggle for Political Liberty in Mexico

Michael J. Ard

University of Virginia

"The Struggle for Political Liberty in Mexico"

The Philadelphia Society

San Antonio, USA

October 4, 1997

(Permission to quote this speech must be granted by the Author)

Mexicans are justly proud of their struggle for liberty against foreign oppression, but they have
found political liberty at home harder to obtain. Since achieving independence in 1821, Mexico has
been ruled mostly by dictatorships. Why this deficit in political liberty?

Tocqueville acknowledged the problem in Democracy in America. He commented that the
Mexicans, having adopted a federal and republican constitution much like the United States,
continued shifting between anarchy and despotism. Of course Tocqueville saw the political problem
as something more fundamental than institutions and procedures ("But when they borrowed the
letter of the law, they could not at the same time transfer the spirit that gave it life."p. 165) Whereas
in the U.S. the political temper of the people could sustain a system balancing the requirements of
liberty and democracy, in Mexico, following Plato’s formula, democracy seemed invariably to
collapse to tyranny.

We could cite many reasons for this breakdown. Without indulging into a lengthy discussion of
political culture, I’ll allow myself a brief observation. Dr. von Kuenhelt-Leddihn in Liberty or
Equality spoke of the "thanatocentrism" of Ibero-Catholic cultures, and that this preoccupation with
death tends to engender both an intense love of liberty untempered by the "spirit of compromise."
("The thanatocentrism" of Catholic nations is also, partially, the key to their latent revolutionism as
well as to their peculiar craving for freedom." p. 185) This analysis is particularly appropriate to
Mexico where one of the most popular celebrations is the Day of the Dead, at once both a
reminder and a mockery of death. Likewise we find those intensely opposed to the Catholic
cultural project in Mexico organizing in the Masonic lodges that would serve as conduits for radical
enlightenment ideas. The lodges would have a deep and lasting effect on the development of the
Mexican political system, giving it a distorted "liberal authoritarian" characteristic.

In contrast, an authentic, classical liberalism demands that the government in power have the
confidence and security to tolerate a "loyal opposition" that is critical, competitive, and yet
supportive of the constitutional order. But unlike England’s Whig-Tory reconciliation after the
Glorious Revolution, Mexico never enjoyed a similar key event that would create an atmosphere of
trust and allow political liberty to flourish. Their 1867 was no 1688.

Because of this inability to compromise, Mexican political life during the nineteenth century was
deeply divided by "great issues"-monarchy vs. republicanism, centralism vs. federalism,
protectionism vs. free trade, and church vs. state. Neither the conservatives nor the liberals cared
to budge on these matters, and a sporadic civil war raged between the two until finally, in 1867, the
liberals won. The Mexican historian Enrique Krauze considers the following liberal epoch under
Benito Juarez as a time of flourishing political liberty, with all of the constitutional forms in place. But
unlike England, although the conservative Catholics were militarily defeated and politically
ostracized, the Catholic faith still dominated the culture of the nation. And although the other great
issues would either diminished or disappeared, the Church vs. State issue-or Catholicism vs.
Secularism- remained an angry wound for decades. Fifty years later, despite an initial opening, the
Mexican revolution would reaffirm that no resurgence of the Catholic party would occur, and the
victorious revolutionaries-without the participation of any professedly Catholic politicians–drafted a
constitution that stripped the church of its legal rights and teaching responsibilities. Mexico, to
appropriate Peter Berger’s phrase, truly became a nation of "Indians" ruled by an elite of "Swedes."

It is therefore fruitless to discuss democracy in Mexico without first considering whether this great
issue has been reconciled. Crucial to the realization of political liberty is the acceptance of the
long-excluded "Catholic party" as worthy participants in the public square by those modern-day
descendants of the 19th century liberals’, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). However, this
is more attainable today than during the preceding century. Beginning in our century, in an ironic
turn of history, Catholics in Mexico took up the fight for political liberty against the liberal
authoritarians. This struggle for political liberty continues today among the distant relatives of the
19th century conservatives, the National Action Party (PAN).

PAN against the State

It began with Rerum Novarum. Before the Mexican Revolution in 1910 Catholics, inspired by Leo
XIII’s social doctrine, convened conferences to influence social reform. After the suppression of
their political party during the revolution, many Catholics in the 1920s either withdrew completely
from the public square or waged armed revolt against the secularist government-the famous
Cristero rebellion. But another attempt at a political party would not be launched until at the end of
the 1930s, after the liberal "revolutionary family" had consolidated its power into a single

This was the National Action Part–PAN– founded by businessmen and Catholic intellectuals to
oppose the "popular front" turn of the Revolutionary Family’s government. For reasons of
expediency–and good politics-the government allowed it to survive. After all, the revolution would
need some reactionaries to compete against in order to legitimize itself. But the early Panistas were
no reactionaries. Unlike Mexico’s other Catholic movements, they supported Madero’s struggle for
political democracy, the initial reason for the revolution. The revolutionary family, while leaning
heavily on the twin pillars of the party and the all-mighty presidency, hadn’t dared to dispense with
the form of political liberty; the bicameral legislature, periodic elections, and the nominal
independence of state and municipal government. Having little choice but to initiate a gradualist
strategy, PAN, by respecting the constitution, would attempt a revolution within the form by
building grass-roots support, competing for office at the state and the municipal level, thereby
hoping to force the government to acknowledge legitimate victories and put pressure on the system.

Since its founding, PAN has been distinguished by into two wings: a pro-business group, led by the
Manuel Gomez Morin (one of a group of "classical liberal" revolutionaries) and associated with the
northerners, and the Catholic group, led by Efrain Gonzalez Luna (a friend of Jacques Maritain)
and derived mainly from the Mexican "bible belt" in the western and central part of the country
(Cristero country). PAN also enjoyed much urban support among the growing middle-class,
especially in Mexico City, Puebla, Leon and Morelia. Not surprisingly, it has encountered difficulty
penetrating the Indian south with the exception of Yucatan, which has a long history of being
anti-Mexico City.

Alarmed at the socialistic tendencies of the revolutionary regime, PAN looked to achieve four basic
goals: to restore political democracy, to protect free enterprise and property rights, to defend the
right to private, religious education, and to restore to the church its legal personality. Although
greatly inspired by the Catholic social doctrine and the principles of subsidiarity, solidarity and the
common good, PAN took pains to distance itself from the clergy. Furthermore, for prudential, and
to a lesser extent ideological reasons, the PAN for years kept the Christian Democratic movement
at arm’s length. (At least for its first twenty years, PAN tended to be more pro-business than its
Christian Democratic cousins. During the 1960s and 70s, however, the distinction would blur

The PRI never permitted PAN to win more than a few municipalities or a few token seats in the
Chamber of Deputies until the 1980s, when the revolutionary family began a painful divorce. The
debt crisis of 1982 aggravated the differences between the PRI’s pro-business wing and its socialist
wing; the revolutionary family couldn’t respond to the economic crisis as a unified whole. In
response, pro-business neo-Panistas stepped forward, who less inclined to wage the "struggle to
eternity," and more interested in doing what it would take to win power. They rallied behind the
northern businessman Manuel Clouthier, the party’s Lech Walesa, who emphasized a more
confrontational approach while upholding the party’s tradition of non-violence. PAN was emerging
from the shadows, running energetic campaigns in several states and forcing PRI into ever more
blatant acts of "patriotic fraud." Yet despite their dramatic surge, the party tallied a distant third in
the presidential race in 1988, overshadowed by an offshoot opposition coalition of disaffected
Priistas and ex-Communists, led by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

Despite the disappointing outcome, the new modernizing president Carlos Salinas negotiated with
the PAN leadership and agreed to recognize their legitimate victories. PAN, seeing an opportunity
to achieve their political objectives, in turn agreed to support his efforts to privatize the state-run
economy, initiate free trade reforms, and repeal the anti-clerical articles to the constitution. Why did
Salinas feel he had to negotiate with a party that placed a distant third? He ran considerable risks in
adopting measures that would alienate the orthodox revolutionaries within his party. Perhaps
because PAN did better than what has been officially acknowledged. Clouthier attracted huge
crowds in his campaign; far larger than any previous PAN contender. The fraud in that election was
so widespread that nobody can prove who won, and all the official records have since been

PAN’s modus vivendi with Salinas demonstrated that the vital common ground could be reached
between the Catholic party and the revolutionary family. Some Panistas accused the PAN
leadership of selling out to PRI. But PAN finally was presented the opportunity to drive its foot into
the door of the political system, and it took advantage of it. The strategy of conducting a
democratic revolt from the periphery, a reflection of its commitment to the principle of
"subsidiarity", was paying dividends. The party captured the governorships in Baja California and
Chihuahua, and had an interim governor appointed in Guanajuato. In the presidential election of
1994, PAN finished a distant second to PRI’s Ernesto Zedillo, but its 27% was by far its largest
official tally ever. Yet during Zedillo’s term of office, PAN momentum continued. Before July’s
midterm elections it boasted 4 states under its governance, 10 of the 15 largest cities in Mexico,
and over 250 municipalities of all sizes, even in "liberal" strongholds like Veracruz. By their
estimate, this accounts for 38% of the population. PAN is developing from a pressure group into a
mass party.

The July Midterm Elections

After the elections of 1994, PAN continued reinforcing its position while the other parties seemed
to stagnate. It captured the state of Jalisco and kept the statehouses in Guanajuato and Baja
California. These convincing victories, plus favorable polls, accounted for PAN’s optimism going
into the July 1997 elections and the prediction by its president that the party would finally displace
PRI as the dominant party in the Chamber of Deputies. But an energetic campaign associating
PAN with the disgraced Carlos Salinas took its toll, along with the surprising upsurge in support for
the PRD, now revitalized under new leadership.

July’s results were disappointing for PAN in part because the expectations were so high. The
Mexico City campaign was a series of disasters; the party selected the wrong candidate and ran the
wrong campaign. But he was also excluded from the nationally televised debate due to the
complicity of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and the PRI candidate Alfredo del Mazo.

The PRD edged the PAN slightly in the Chamber of Deputies voting, although PAN still sent its
largest delegation ever, claiming 122 seats. In the Senate the party faired better, occupying easily
the number two spot, although this matters less. Yet the success of the two opposition parties in
denying PRI a majority for the first time ever will help bring about a true separation of powers
between the executive and legislature.

But the party did better than anticipated in the gubernatorial races. It won convincingly in Nuevo
Leon, northern power center and the home to Monterrey. And in a surprise victory, it upset a PRI
presidential aspirant in Queretaro, an industrial state in the central zone of the country. This
represents an important symbolic victory because Queretaro is in some senses both the Petrograd
and Philadelphia of the revolutionary family; here Juarez finally defeated and executed the emperor
Maximilian in 1867, and here the revolutionaries drafted the constitution in 1917. PRI also holds its
conventions in Queretaro. It may now be searching for another venue.

And finally, the PAN showed itself to be competitive in other key states in the north, like San Luis
Potosi and Sonora. Despite it all, it still represents the main opposition party. But the party’s own
estimation, it must capture at least 4 more states if it is to challenge seriously for the presidency in

Clearly the old order is giving way. PRI can no longer resort to "patriotic fraud" as it once did, and
is finding it very difficult to compete even when enjoying a big advantage in money and resources.
Salinas’s liberalization demystified the revolutionary mythology, crippled the PRI’s corporativist
structure and, inadvertently, brought about the painful demise of "presidentialism" under his feckless
successor Ernesto Zedillo. The two pillars of the family’s system-the party and presidentialism–are
toppling. Meanwhile its political system seems to be devolving to its pre-1929 arrangement in
which local warlords controlled their states in cooperation with the central government. In the most
rural areas (Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Yucatan, Tabasco, Campeche, etc) these PRI dinosaurs are
capable and determined to go it alone.

The Continuing Crisis

Perhaps a Hollywood scriptwriter would have PAN, after decades of travail in an authoritarian
system, sweep to victory in the year 2000 and thus usher in a new era of political liberty and
democracy. This is good poetry but bad analysis. As the president of PAN recently remarked:
"PAN is a first-world party in a third-world country." It has yet to prove it can be successful in the
most backward and populous parts of the country. Unlike the Philippines or Poland (two inspiring
examples for Panistas), Mexico’s political class doesn’t suffer from a moral crisis. Much of the
revolutionary family remains committed to keeping power, with or without the PRI as an electoral
mechanism. Indeed, the PRD may become the preferred instrument in the coming months. Some
have noted indications of PAN’s growing isolation from both the PRI and PRD; for example, rare
are the defectors from PRI to PAN, but many prominent Priistas have recently joined PRD. The
differences between PRI and PRD have always been more of kin than of kind.

And finally, PAN faces some serious internal challenges as well; I will list four:

1) As it evolves into a mass party, its traditional ideology based on Catholic social thought tends to
get diluted. The traditionalists within the party who labored in the vineyard for years and now
control it to a large extent need to be more inviting to newcomers. Before winning his election, the
Panista mayor of Puebla complained that he was considered somewhat of an outcast because,
being a recent arrival to the party, he still didn’t learn the words to the PAN fight song. Yet he won
without it.

2) The party needs a leader of national stature. Refreshingly, the party has never had a "caudillo" in
the tradition of other Latin political parties, although now that would be a plus. Since the suspicious
death of Manuel Clouthier in 1989, no clear leader has emerged. Today Vicente Fox, governor of
Guanajuato is the most conspicuous leader, but he is a man of heterodox views who outspokenly
advocates an electoral alliance with PRD, absolute anathema for most Panistas. (The party, after
all, was founded specifically to oppose this wing of the PRI.) Yet Fox’s pragmatic position now is
ascendant after the leader of the traditionalists was crushed in the Mexico City election. PAN’s
challenge will be to get this ram back in the fold; if his party jilts Fox, he likely could run as an

3) It must keep PRI and PRD-the revolutionary family–divided on the issues. This is where its
"third way" economic platform (not unlike the "social market economy" approach of Adenauer and
Erhart) may come in handy. It needs to assert an attractive economic platform in contrast to
Salinas’s "neoliberalism" (which, tellingly, Salinas called "social liberalism") to capture the strategic
center of the electorate. This will played out in the shifting alliances in the new legislature.

4) PAN can less afford to be tainted by corruption than the other two parties, especially as it is
inspired by Catholic social principles. Yet PAN currently governs in states where narcotrafficking
has long flourished. Some of its politicians will invariably fall under the same temptations as their
revolutionary rivals, and as the party grows, the opportunities will only increase.


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