Opening Mexico

Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon are a couple of New York Times correspondents in Mexico City, and their book OPENING MEXICO. The Making of a Democracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, pp. 594) is eminently readable, like the newspaper they represent. Academic histories of Mexico are written from the inside of libraries or archives, while this book is written from inside Mexican life. There are abundant notes on the seventeen chapters, which are largely based on long interviews, but there is no bibliography, since books played a secondary role in the preparation of the book. It is not an unbroken history like those of academia. Each chapter tells about a key incident or player, so the chapters from a kind of chain, more a dandelion chain than a daisy chain.

Chapter 1, "The Day of the Change·" refers to July 2, 2000, when Vicente Fox was elected president in peaceful and orderly elections. President Fox should like the book which is largely an indictment of his predecessors. Chapter 2, "From Disorder to Despotism" tells the background of the story, going back to the 1810 proclamation of Father Miguel Hidalgo. Mexican official history distorts what Hidalgo shouted, and this book repeats the distortion. It was not "Death to the Spaniards", as the book says, but ¡"Viva Fernando VII y la Virgen de Guadalupe, y abajo el mal gobierno!". It is claimed that he had independence in mind, but the "shout" hailed King Fernando VII of Spain. Disorder refers to the chaos of the ensuing century, terminating in the dictatorship of the official party, now called the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). The title of chapter 3, "Tlatelolco, 1968" refers to the name of a Mexico City Square which was the scene of a bloody episode which has scarred Mexico's collective memory, On orders from President Diaz Ordaz, troops fired on student protestors, killing several. The authors paint a very unattractive picture of Díaz Ordaz, and he certainly overreacted, but the students were not just engaged in a peaceful protest. Their leaders were typical power-crazy students who confronted a power-crazy president in the hope of attracting international attention by disrupting the international Olympics. Had they been able to seize power. they would have established a regime similar to that of Fidel Castro.

Chapter 4, "Earthquake, 1985" describes an earthquake which reduced some Mexico City buildings to rubble. The book has no maps: one of Mexico City would help, and one of the frequency of earthquakes is different areas of Mexico would be interesting, but the authors could argue that it would be irrelevant since the book deals almost totally with politics in Mexico City. Chapter 5, "Chihuahua. 1986" is the exception. It deals with a political scandal in that northern state which had repercussions throughout Mexico. A review of the book in the San Francisco Chronicle stresses this affair. PÂN won the elections for the governorship of the state, but the PRI falsified the results. I wonder what WAIS Chihuahua expert Dick Hancock has to say about this. Chapter 6, is simply called "1988", the date of elections at which the system broke down. Chapter 7 has an unkind title: "The Carlos Salinas Show". This president was hailed as a great innovator, but he was discredited by a number of scandals, notably one involving his brother, about whom more later. Now he lives in Ireland, with occasional visits to Cuba and Mexico,where the authorities feign not to notice them. Is there no extradition treaty between Ireland and Mexico? Perhaps Alejo Orvañanos call give us the latest on the Carlos Salinas story.

Again, chapter 8 simply has a year as its title: "1994". On March 23 of that year presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated in Tijuana. Mexican politics were still victimized by men rather than peacefully conducted according to the law; admittedly the same could be said of the US, where Kennedy was assassinated. Chapter 9 is titled "Ernesto Zedillo, the Outsider", an epithet given him because his appointment was a surprise and, as an aconomist, he stayed pretty aloof from the usual politics. Chapter 10, "Raúl" tells the sordid story of the older brother of President Salinas de Gortari; he must find life in jail quite a change after his carefree years as a corrupt playboy. Chapter 11, "The General and the Drug Lord", tells us how insidious is the drug network in Mexico. General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo served nine weeks as Mexico's drug czar before his arrest on narcotics charges. The title of chapter 12, "Testing Change" has a page with photographs of nine politicians of the old and the new order. I knew Manuel Bartlett when he was governor of Puebla. Known as one of the dinosaurs, he is now I believe in the museum of Mexican politics. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who heads the government of Mexico City, is now in trouble because he tried to dismiss mass protests against crime in the capital as the result of intrigues by President Vicente Fox. "The Earcutter", the title of chapter 13, is about the kidnappings which plague Mexico City by thugs who cut off an ear of their victim and mail it to his relatives with demands for a ransom. Chapter 14, "Opening minds", describes the work of writers like Octavio Paz and journalists who have broken the old system by which the government controlled the media. "Chiapas", the title of chapter 15, is the region from which the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Macional has sought to start a revolt similar to that of the FARC in Colombia. While it uses the name of the agrarian reformer Emiliano Zapata, it was really inspired by Fidel Castro. My impression is that it is fading away. The final chapters, "Democracy at work" (16) and "Campaign for Change (17) describe Mexico under President Fox. An epilog concludes that "Mexico had seemed the perfect dictatorship. Bow it was an imperfect democracy", What country isn't?

Like other peoples, Latin Americans appreciate praise from other countries, but do not welcome critical assessments. This book reminds me of John Gunther's Inside Latin America, now forgotten but immensely popular in the US when it appeared in in 1941 (a second edition appeared in in 1967). I thought it was excellent, but it annoyed Latin Americans. One made a snide remark when he caught me reading it. Indeed John Gunher did a remarkable job of making Americans more aware of the world with his companion books Inside Europe (1936), Inside Asia (1939) Inside the United States (1947, 1951, 1956), Inside Africa (1955) and Inside Russia (1958), He was a remarkable one-man band. I do not think there is anyone like him today. In this age of globalization we need a similar series The New York Times has a corps of brilliant correspondents around the world: they should be able to produce such a series. Meanwhile I would appreciate comments from Mexicans on Opening Mexico. The Making of a Democracy.

From Mexico, Alejo Orvañanos comments on the review of Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon, OPENING MEXICO : "Carlos Salinas de Gortari is no longer living in Dublin. He returned to Mexico City a few months ago, lives here and is active as a "commentator on public life in México". He participates as a speaker now and then in events such as the Harvard Alumni meetings and others. He is interviewed by the media occasionally and is considered a politico with influence, specially among the "technocrat" group of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

Manuel Bartlett, who in 1988 was Secretario de Gobernación (Interior Minister) and responsible for the "fall of the system" that gave the presidency to Carlos Salinas instead of the apparent winner Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas is a senator, elected in 2,000 for six years and is very active promoting his opposition to the "privatization" of Pemex and the Comisión Federal de Electricidad, both state run monopolies. Bartlett appears a lot in the media and considers himself a keeper of Mexican sovereignty over our natural energy resources against the "imperialism" of private and foreign investment in energy generation and oil exploration and refining".


Ronald Hilton -