WAIS tries to follow certain worldwide themes; one is respect for the
constitution, amendments if necessary, and even the establishment of a
constitution in the very unusual case of Great Britain. Mexico offers an
excellent example of this theme. Official letters end not with "yours
truly" but with "sufragio efectivo, no reeleccion"--effective suffrage, no
reelection. "Effective suffrage" was widely regarded as hypocrisy--the
homage which vice renders to virtue. The official PRI was discredited by
monopolizing power and virtually discarding much of the constitution.
However now, very skilfully, President Ernesto Zedillo is responding to
public demands for an end to his party's monopoly and abuses of power.
The United States has had one firmly established constitution, Bolivia has
had over 150. Mexico wishes to emulate the former, and there is a cult of
the 1917 constitution, which was modelled after that of the United States.
There is an ingenious building called El Caracol (spiral staircase) against
the side of Chapultepec Hill in Mexico City. One enters at the top and
walks down the sloping circular staircase to the exit at the bottom,
examinating on the way exhibits depicting the origins and the development
of the constitution, which is enshrined at the lowest level. Schoolchildren
are taken through the exhibit regularly. Once I went through it with a
group of small children, each of us carrying a tiny chair. The teacher gave
an excellent account. Chatting with her at the end, I commended her but
said she had made one mistake. She disappeared, and on reappearing she said
she had checked; she thanked me for the correction, a very professional
The constitution has had consequences for Mexico and for the United
States, which supported Venustiano Carranza, the sponsor of the
constitution. One enemy was Pancho Villa, who responded by invading U.S.
border towns. Another was Emiliano Zapata, the hero of the anti-American
zapatistas; he was treacherously assassinated.
Now that the official PRI party has lost its monopoly, there is intense
interest in the constitution and its provisoes. Certain articles are of
special interest, and educated Mexicans refer to them simply by their
number. Here they are:
6, 7. Article 7 guarantees the right of the public to information with
certain limitations; 6 guarantees free speech, also with certain
limitations, and forbids prior censorship. Like many others, these articles
were virtually a dead letter, as I know from my own experience. Once I was
invited to appear on Mexican TV. Just before the program began, an ugly
government official appeared and demanded to know what I was going to say.
When I bristled, the host said in a panic that he would be thrown off the
air unless I answered. So I assured the censor that I was going to say only
nice pleasantries about the beauty of Mexico. This indicates the extreme
sensitiveness about foreigners intervening in Mexican politics.
22. Forbids excessive or cruel punishment. The death penalty is permitted,
but has not been applied in years. Because of the present high rate of
violent crime, there is talk of applying it.
27. Restricted the ownership of land by foreigners and proclaimed
national ownership of natural resources, including subsoil resources.
This provided a basis for the expropriation of U.S. oil and other interests
and now for the campaign against the proposed privatization of the oil
industry. Church lands were also expropriated. Church ownership was
disguised; the nominal owners were straw men. Now that Mexico and the
Vatican have diplomatic relations, this modus vivendi may be scrapped.
33. Permits the expulsion of foreigners with minimal judicial process. It
provided a legal basis for the expulsion of "tourists" visiting Chiapas.
41. Established universal, obligatory suffrage for all over 18. In fact,
that part meant nothing, although the proviso of non-reelection of the
president has been respected. Now the article is being used by opposition
parties to assert their rights.The conservative PAN governs six states,
and the left-wing PRD governs huge Mexico City and Zacatecas. Recent
elections have been generally clean.
115. It supposedly protected local rights, as 124 did states' rights, but
in fact the description of states as free and sovereign meant nothing. Now
the article has allowed opposition parties to gain control of some states
(see above), or at least representation in their governments. As in other
countries, states are asserting their rights.
123. Hailed as the world's most advanced labor code, it was ignored by the
official PRI, which created puppet government unions, first the CROM, then
the CNT. Now the government is losing control of labor.
As in many countries, there are in Mexico two contrary tendencies. People
want democracy and respect for constitutional guarantees, but in the back
of their minds there are memories of the horrors of the revolution, just as
in Spain there are those of the Civil War. Fundamentally everywhere people
want order with democracy, but in any case order.
[In drafting this survey, I was advised by Ed Simmen of the University of
the Americas in Puebla and Jose Raul Felix-Saul of its law school.]
Ronald Hilton, 08/26/98