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MEXICO: The PRI and the 1968 bloody student demonstration

I asked Raśl Escalante about the bloody student demonstration of 1968, which has scarred the soul of Mexico so much that Raśl got carried away. He writes: "On 1968, I've written a long opinion piece that may not be interesting for all readers. Sorry, but I just got carried away. 1968 was a mostly unheeded wake-up call for the PRI. The party's purpose at its inception was to generate a critical mass of political power such that rebellious forces would either be drawn in or be liquidated. Thus for many decades the only effective form of politicking was that which took place inside the PRI; the party was almost entirely inward-looking. As an example of how pervasive this was, my paternal grandparents, both very dedicated communists, in a pragmatic moment, encouraged my father join the PRI instead of dissenting parties. He did. As a side note, it is ironic that I am very much a market-oriented economist.

The PRI repressed internal democratic dissent during the seventies and eighties (leading up to the assassination of Madrazo Sr.) and continued to largely ignore the growing pressure of public opinion, despite the electoral near-disaster of 1988. In 1994 I was sent by my then employer, a prominent politician-turned-banker, to listen in on a discussion group within the PRI on democratic reform of the party (I gather he was interested in knowing which way the winds of change were blowing). Two representatives of Spanish parties made clear and eloquent presentations on their experiences in opening up their decision-making processes, whereas the PRI people on the panel made a disgusting spectacle of political fencing oriented around who was closest to - then recently "martyred" - Luis Donaldo Colosio: still completely inward-looking and inbred.

The PRI's head-in-the-sand policies were probably unavoidable (who, after all, wants a knife in the back?), but have nearly killed the party. Currently Roberto Madrazo and Beatriz Paredes, two figures with questionable backgrounds in relation to their interest in democracy (to put it mildly), are finally battling over the presidency of the party in the field of public opinion. Their rhetoric, however, has changed little from the heyday of the party, or at least it sounds as hollow as it did back then (only people can laugh openly now). Whoever wins, the party will lose. Madrazo is regarded as a hold-over of the old PRI (despite his father's democratic record), and is largely unpopular outside the party. If Paredes wins, it will seem as if nothing has changed after all because she has the backing of the current PRI presidency and the group behind ex-presidential candidate Francisco Labastida.

Coming back to the original subject, 1968 was the moment when a democratic shift in the party would probably have renewed it and its contract with the - then growing - middle classes. Were the protests ineffective in achieving this? Yes. But then again you win some and you lose some.

The modern student protests (since the mid 1980's), are a whole new ball-game, from my perspective; less to do with social improvement, than with political entrepreneurs who didn't have access to power in the PRI system and exploited the multiple issues troubling public universities in order to reach important positions (which they have).

Ronald Hilton - 1/31/02