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How a Perfect Dictatorship Collapsed, Right Next Door

Author: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
March 26, 2004
The New York Times


The Making of a Democracy
By Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon
394 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.

Mexico is of vital and growing importance to the United States, but even educated, internationally oriented Americans often know next to nothing about our biggest neighbor, biggest source of immigrants and second biggest trading partner.

Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon, correspondents of The New York Times in Mexico City from 1995 to 2000, have written an extraordinary book on the collapse of one-party rule in Mexico that also serves as an excellent introduction for Americans who want to understand Mexico better. This detailed insiders' account of the slow collapse of what was once called the perfect dictatorship and the messy emergence of a still-imperfect democracy gives readers the most intimate and accessible portrait they are likely to have of Mexico in a time of upheaval.

The PRI, whose initials stand for the Spanish words meaning Institutional Revolutionary Party, operated one of the 20th century's most durable and, during most of the era of one-party rule, one of its most successful dictatorships. Emerging from the chaos and bloodshed of the Mexican revolution early in the century, the PRI concentrated virtually all power in a president who ruled uncontested for six years. PRI presidents could not be re-elected, but they handpicked their successors.

Mixing 19th-century French progressive and anticlerical republican ideals with socialist and nationalist ideas, and later drawing on the experience of the corporate state of Fascist Italy, the PRI lived up to its name: Mexico was a revolutionary state under the firm guidance of a set of stable if not free or fully representative institutions.

With full control of the state treasury, the PRI bought off intellectuals and union organizers; those who wouldn't be bought were dealt with by other means, and Ms. Preston and Mr. Dillon remind us that violence always played an important role in maintaining the PRI's power monopoly. The system was clumsy, brutal and rigid in some ways, but for two generations it worked pretty well. The country developed, American influence was kept at arms' length, and power struggles in the national elite did not degenerate into the anarchy and civil war that scarred Mexican history until the revolution.

The story of how the perfect dictatorship came unglued is one of the most fascinating stories of our time, and the authors tell their story well. The voices of intellectuals, Indians, political dissidents, businessmen and ordinary Mexican citizens fill this densely researched and clearly written book. The fall of the PRI was a little bit like spring: here an early crocus pushed through the snow, there buds began to appear on bare branches and then the first robins reappeared. Ms. Preston and Mr. Dillon are magnificent guides to this rebirth of Mexican freedom and paint a compelling picture of the cascading and accelerating change.

That is not to say that "Opening Mexico" is problem-free. The quick overview of Mexican history in the text is no substitute for a full treatment. Readers will be disappointed that the authors do not say more about the presidency of Vicente Fox and the state of Mexico today.

Perhaps the most glaring omission is the lack of any serious examination of the PRI: the development and current state of its ideology, the social background of its aristocracy and the similarities, differences and relationships of the PRI elite with the prerevolutionary Mexican power structure. That leaves a large hole in the book's center: the villain of the piece never really speaks.

This failure to engage with the PRI and to give readers a better feel for the internal debates and discussions in the ruling party also limits the book's usefulness for understanding the multiparty Mexico that now exists. The PRI remains one of the most powerful forces in the country, and it is not inconceivable that it will return to Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, in the not so distant future.

"Opening Mexico" is reticent on the subject of where Mexico is headed today. The authors describe its transition so far as the transition between a perfect dictatorship and an imperfect democracy, but troubling questions remain. Perhaps the most worrisome is whether the Mexican state is evolving toward democracy or simply declining toward chaos. Ms. Preston and Mr. Dillon tell the horrifying story of how a corrupt general with continuing relationships with major cocaine traffickers was briefly put in charge of Mexico's drug-fighting operations. The police, the judiciary and the government administration remain deeply mired in habits of institutionalized corruption. Could Mexicans one day weary of their chaotic democracy and turn to a Putin figure to restore order and discipline?

Overall, readers familiar with the fall of Communism in Europe will be struck by the cultural and political similarities among the brave pioneers who struggled for freedom in both places. On the other side of the barricades, the corruption, incompetence and intransigence of the dinosaurs in the PRI leadership is eerily similar to the attitudes among the Communist stalwarts as their system crashed down around their ears.

It is impossible not to admire the heroes and heroines of Mexican democracy whom the authors portray. It is impossible not to wish their democracy well. Unfortunately, it is also impossible not to worry about what their future will hold. "Opening Mexico" correctly emphasizes that the United States had very little to do with the triumph of democracy in Mexico. If that democracy is to thrive and survive, however, the United States will probably have to find ways to engage more deeply and constructively with Mexico than we have yet.

Walter Russell Mead is the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow in United States foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the forthcoming "Power, Terror, Peace and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk."