08 July 2009

A blast from the past

With the PRI making such a comeback on July 5, this story originally published in early March on the PRI marking its 80th anniversary earlier this year seems apt.

80 years on, PRI strong

The News

Many foreigners and Mexicans best know the Institutional Revolutionary Party for the inglorious acts carried out during its 71 years of uninterrupted rule.

Those watching Mexico from abroad will likely recall the bloody crackdown on student protesters at Tlatelolco on the eve of the 1968 Olympics. Some may remember the Dirty War of the 1970s, when hundreds or possibly even thousands of rebels and left-wing activists disappeared. Then in 1988, when change in governance seemed a possibility - even if only a remote one - a mysterious computer crash in the Interior Secretariat wiped out early election results favoring the opposition.

For those living in Mexico, the PRI's actions touched their daily lives, sometimes for the worse. Recurring peso crises derailed the country's promising ascents toward First World status. The government's inept response to the 1985 earthquake left tens of thousands to fend for themselves. And come election time, coercive vote-grabbing schemes regularly suppressed the democratic will.

But as the PRI turns 80 on Wednesday, party members are largely unapologetic for any past transgressions or excesses. And, according to recent public opinion polls, many Mexicans seem willing to forgive too.

PRI members instead speak proudly of their legacy as the party that built modern Mexico and its most cherished institutions, ushered in stability and order after the chaos of the Revolution and presided over a country that has never suffered a coup - an unmatched feat in most of Latin America.

"People from other countries in Latin America always saw the PRI as a grand example of Latin American politics," said Rafael Rodríguez, a former national party president and ex-governor of Campeche. "I don't say that with false pride, or false modesty. I say that because it's a fact."

PRI members also boast of achieving the social objectives that were demanded by those who took up arms in the Revolution: labor rights, providing education that is both secular and free of cost and the disruption of haciendas and ensuing distribution of its parcels to landless campesinos. On the economic front, the PRI oversaw an expansion that saw the gross domestic product grow six-fold between 1930 and 1970.

"There wasn't only growth, but growth with social peace, with social stability," Rodríguez said.

Of course, many in Latin America hold far less effusive opinions on the PRI and its practices. Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, for instance, once branded the successive PRI governments the "perfect dictatorship."

But the political system that the PRI built - with its strong respect for the presidency and institutions - has had staying power, as have the vices from that system - which include corruption, the formation of patronage groups and the practice of rewarding friends while severely punishing foes.

The political culture developed by the PRI is so entrenched in Mexico that former presidential candidate Patricia Mercado, who captured prominence by leading a small left-wing party that bashed the PRI way of doing politics, once candidly commented while campaigning in 2006: "I think that there's an inner PRIísta in all of us."


The PRI dates back to 1929, a period of chaos and political instability. The Revolution had ended barely a decade earlier, a Catholic uprising against anti-clerical measures was flaring in western Mexico and the country was still reeling from the 1928 assassination of President-elect Alvaro Obregón.

As Rodríguez and other PRI members tell it, former President Plutarco Elías Calles proposed the creation of a big-tent party that would be known as the National Revolutionary Party, or PNR.

The PNR would envelop the country's disparate political factions, impose order and solidify the gains won during the Revolution.

"It was a political movement that brought together the previous forces of the Revolution that were dispersed among military commanders and civilian groups," said PRI Deputy Alfredo Ríos Camarena. "No political body existed that represented in a uniform way all of the interests and principles produced by the Revolution and the Constitution of 1917."

Some historians, however, interpret the PNR's founding as nothing more than a naked power grab by Calles, who had served as president from 1924 to 1928 and is considered to have been the dominant political figure until 1936.

"The PNR was a party that brought together caudillos (strongmen) . [It]was the product of the most authoritarian tendencies of the Revolution," said Ilán Semo, a political historian at the Universidad Iberoamericana. "[It] was one of the greatest evils of the Revolution."

According to Semo, the new party showed its authoritarian tendencies almost immediately. The PNR's candidate in the 1929 election, Pascual Ortiz Rubio, won in a process widely considered to have been rigged.

The victory was just the first of many for the PNR and its subsequent incarnations. Allegations of fraud, too, would continue.


The PNR solidified its gains in the 1930s, but was still a work in progress when Lázaro Cárdenas took office in 1934. He rechristened the PNR as the Mexican Revolutionary Party, or PRM, and went about incorporating broad sectors of the society into the PRM, including labor unions and campesino groups. The incorporation of broad sectors of society set the stage for a corporatist system that the party would leverage for support in subsequent decades.

Cárdenas is perhaps best known for his populist measures, however. He expropriated the oil industry in 1938 and accelerated land reforms to redistribute vast tracts of hacienda land and create the "ejido" system of communal property ownership. He also introduced an education reform and expanded state ownership of numerous enterprises.

PRI members point to these initiatives as fulfilling social objectives that were fought for in the Revolution.

Semo said the moves simply reflected pragmatism: Distributing land nullified one of the main issues behind potential campesino uprisings, while expropriating the oil industry put "enormous economic power" in the hands of the state.

A leadership style known as "presidencialismo," which gave the president broad powers that would be transferred every six years to his preferred successor in a process know as the "dedazo," also took hold during that period.


The PRI adopted its present name in 1946 under the regime of President Miguel Alemán. A new generation of leadership with few links to the Revolution had emerged; generals and revolutionary figures had largely left the government.

The Revolution had become "institutional," reflected in the party's new name, which PRI Deputy Ríos Camarena called "antithetical."

"It represented the institutionalism that emerged from the Revolution," he said.

The economy flourished and industrial activity boomed in the subsequent decades under a scheme of import substitutions. PRI presidents would expand the scope of some of the nation's most iconic public institutions - the IMSS, the public education system and a military firmly under civilian control, for instance - and exert heavy influence over institutions developed in the private sector.

Government influence over many facets of day-to-day life became even more entrenched. Newspapers bought newsprint from a government-owned supplier, while vendors belonged to unions that staunchly backed the PRI. Campesinos purchased seed and fertilizer from state-run outfits and sold their crops to government buyers. The government also ran the telephone company, railroads and post office.

Opposition parties and rebel movements were kept firmly in check. The federal government violently suppressed a railroad strike in the 1950s, while the Army hunted down rebels in southern Mexico. Students protesting in Mexico City were shot dead in the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre.

For some, earning a livelihood also depended on backing the PRI. Newspapers that bucked the PRI line would suddenly find themselves without newsprint or find vendors unwilling to sell their papers. Campesinos who needed inputs and credit would find delivery of such necessities dependent on their support for the PRI.


The PRI was deposed by voters in 2000, but many political observers say the origins of its downfall began in the 1960s.

Some analysts and historians attribute the party's decline to changing social attitudes that simply passed the PRI by.

"The hierarchical structure of the PRI perfectly matched the culture . the culture of the church and other institutions ... but in the 1960s, the gaps were apparent," said Mexico City pollster Dan Lund. "The world changed . the PRI just didn't keep up."

Others point to recurring economic crises that resulted in peso crises each time. "A catalogue of sins in economic matters fatally wounded [the PRI]," said ITAM political science professor Federico Estévez.

PRI members, too, acknowledge that mistakes were made. Rodríguez, the former party president, declined to offer examples of specific actions on the part of PRI governments, but said that "many things" led to the PRI's downfall, including, "a natural decline." He also cited a lack of unity and the passage of electoral reform measures - by PRI governments.

But he rejected allegations that his party had ever been undemocratic.

"It's said that the PRI was a hegemonic party . and that the opposition parties forced it to implement democracy in this country. This is totally false," Rodríguez said. "[The PRI] was responsible for its own fall."

The National Action Party, or PAN, ousted the PRI from power in 2000.


The PRI suffered a rough adjustment to becoming the opposition upon losing the presidency. It also suffered disunity in the subsequent years. PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo ran a distant third in the 2006 election. Some analysts would write the party off on the federal level.

Forecasts of the PRI's demise were premature, however. The party has bounced back on the local level and now leads public opinion surveys for the July midterm elections. With a plunge in the economy and surge in violence attributed to organized crime, some voters are expressing nostalgia for the order - however authoritarian it was - of the PRI years.

"In the PRI times, there were hardly any kidnappings. There weren't narcos going around killing people," said Mexico City taco stand owner Efraín García, who plans on voting PRI. "The PRI had control of all of this."

The current government of the National Action Party, García said, is run by "new people who don't know what they're doing."

PRI members are banking on that kind of public sentiment to recapture power.

"In the PRI . there's a great amount of experience," said Ríos Camarena. "The experience produces maturity and that maturity draws people in times of economic and security crises."

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