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10-08-2015, 22:38

The Mexican Way

During the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s, the Mexican government returned to some of the original revolutionary goals by distributing 44 million acres of land to landless Mexican peasants, thereby appealing to the rural poor. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexico’s ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), focused on a balanced industrial program. Fifteen years of steady economic growth combined with low inflation and real gains in wages for more and more people made those years appear to be a golden age in Mexico’s economic development. But at the end of the 1960s, one implication of Mexico’s domination by one party became apparent with the rise of the student protest movement. On October 2, 1968, a demonstration by university students in Tlaltelolco Square in Mexico City was met by police, who opened fire and killed hundreds of students. Leaders of the PRI became concerned about the need to change the system. The next two presidents, Luis Echeverría (b. 1922) and José López Portillo (b. 1920), introduced political reforms. The government eased rules for the registration of political parties and allowed greater freedom of debate in the press and universities. But economic problems continued to trouble Mexico. In the late 1970s, vast new reserves of oil were discovered in Mexico. As the sale of oil abroad rose dramatically, the government became increasingly dependent on oil revenues. When world oil prices dropped in the mid- 1980s, Mexico was no longer able to make payments on its foreign debt, which had reached $80 billion in 1982. The government was forced to adopt new economic policies, including the sale of publicly owned companies to private parties. The debt crisis and rising unemployment increased dissatisfaction with the government. In the 1988 elections, the PRI’s choice for president, Carlos Salina, who had been expected to win in a landslide, won by only a 50.3 percent majority. The new president continued the economic liberalization of his predecessors and went even further by negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada. Although NAFTA was highly controversial in the United States because of the fear that U.S. firms would move factories to Mexico, where labor costs are cheaper and environmental standards less stringent, some observers asserted that the impact of NAFTA has been more beneficial to the U.S. economy than to its southern neighbor. Reflecting Mexico’s continuing economic problems was rising popular unrest in southern parts of the country, where unhappy farmers, many of whom are native Amerindians, have grown increasingly vocal in protesting endemic poverty and widespread neglect of the needs of the indigenous peoples, who comprise about 10 percent of the total population of 100 million people. In the summer of 2000, a national election suddenly swept the ruling PRI from power. The new president, Vicente Fox (b. 1942), promised to address the many problems affecting the country, including political corruption, widespread poverty, environmental concerns, and a growing population. But he faces vocal challenges from the PRI, which still controls many state legislatures and a plurality in Congress, as well as from the protest movement in rural areas in the south. Calling themselves Zapatistas in honor of the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata (see Chapter 5), the rebels demand passage of legislation to protect the rights of the indigenous Indian population and increasing autonomy for regions such as the southern state of Chiapas, where Amerindians make up a substantial percentage of the population. President Fox has expressed his support for legislative action to bring about reforms, but the movement has aroused such a groundswell of support from around the country that he will be under considerable pressure to deal with generations of neglect in solving the problems of Mexico.