A Review of Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy


by | Apr 22, 2004

Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy By Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

The defeat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish acronym as PRI, in the July 2000 presidential election was the anti-climatic finish to the process of democratization that had lasted nearly three decades. Many were expecting emotional explosions of joy for the PRI’s defeat, popular demonstrations such as those in Argentina and Chile or in Poland and East Germany with the collapse of dictatorships. But in Mexico, the celebrations for Vicente Fox’s victory were not very different from those of any winning candidate in ordinary democracies. At midnight on voting day, the then-president of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), José Woldenberg, announced the conclusion of the day’s results to a drowsy audience who, between yawns, congratulated each other on the success of the electoral process. The routine nature of the voting sealed IFE’s triumph as a credible and effective institution. Through the application of new electoral rules, the institute had managed to modify both the abstentionist behavior of citizens and fraudulent actions of political parties.

Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon, reporters for The New York Times in Mexico from 1995 to 2001, recognize in this experience—sometimes an exasperatingly slow process—the profound reach of the restrained changes. Their book, Opening Mexico. The Making of a Democracy, captures the dramatic quality of key episodes that translated into a profound political transformation. The book is therefore organized around critical moments that sparked a new political awareness among Mexicans: the 1968 student movement; the 1985 earthquakes in Mexico City; the turbulent presidential election of 1988; the Zapatista uprising and political assassinations in 1994; the subsequent scandals involving the PRI and conflicts within the ranks of the official party; and finally, Vicente Fox’s campaign. The result is a story that at times takes on the tones of a political thriller as it relates the saga of the construction of a multi-party system in Mexico.

Preston and Dillon write their history based on many histories—those personal versions of their interview subjects. The great advantage that the authors of Opening Mexico give us are versions of the events narrated from the point of view of different activists and politicians in power or in the opposition. In spite of the fact that the authors do not name many of their sources, these can be identified relatively easily simply through their versions of events. One notable case in point is that of José Newman, who in 1988 was director of the National Electoral Registry, and whom many consider responsible for the debacle of that year’s presidential election. Opening Mexico tells us quite a different story, recounting a parallel system of vote tallying, also set up in the Secretary of the Interior, that was rumored at the time and out of Newman’s control. According to this account, a certain Oscar De Lasse headed up this program and is fingered in the book as the frivolous person who pushed the Secretary of the Interior to commit to an early delivery of the official results. In effect, a few days before the election, government officials rashly made a public announcement—without any kind of legal obligation—that thanks to a computerized system, they would be able to reveal the voting results just a few hours after the closing of the polls. José Newman was the official who made the announcement in an arrogant manner that many saw as a permanent character trait. This presumptuous act became the touchstone for the opposition who from very early on that election eve began to demand results. The government’s refusal led to an explosion of distrust on the part of the opposition about official election results, particularly because of the infamous “computer system crash” that also led to the crash of Newman’s budding political career. In the weeks to follow, Newman put the country on the verge of an institutional collapse. The manner of relating this story in the book suggests that it was told to Preston and Dillon by Newman himself, attempting to rewrite history through this venue. It would have been interesting for the authors to check his account of events with other protagonists or documents from the period.

In the same fashion, each one of the episodes related by Preston and Dillon are controversial matters in Mexico, about which many different versions exist. For example, the reader can very well imagine that Manuel Camacho, a PRI militant since his youth and a thwarted presidential candidate in 1994, gave the authors much of the information about the presidential succession that year. Likewise, the 1994 financial disaster, the cause of which is still a subject of harsh debate, is discussed in Opening Mexico from the viewpoint of Jaime Serra, the unsuccessful Treasury Secretary, who some see as a victim and others as a culprit. The voice of President Ernesto Zedillo’s personal secretary Liébano Saénz can also be heard in the book’s description of the tensions between the president and Francisco Labastida, the losing PRI candidate in the year 2000. All these testimonies are valuable, although biased, and therefore cannot be taken as factual accounts. For non-Mexican and younger readers, it would have been useful for Preston and Dillon to have allowed room for other viewpoints and to provide more context about the personal bias of their interview subjects. This addition would have shed more light on the political treasure trove they have present in the narrated accounts.

In February 1908, reporter James Creelman of Pearson’s Magazine published an interview with the dictator Porfirio Díaz, in which Díaz announced that he would not run for re-election in 1910. We do not know if the article had some impact on readers in the United States, but the translation in the Mexican newspaper El Imparcial had serious political repercussions. The publication of the interview set off the electoral race that would end with Madero’s uprising, Díaz’ fall and the beginning of the Mexican revolution. Since then, the relationship between Mexican politicians and foreign correspondents, in particular those from The New York Times, is a factor in local political life. There have been some correspondents so close to the political elite that they appeared more PRIist than the PRI. That is not, to be certain, the case of Preston and Dillon. However, the reading of their book evokes Creelman’s Díaz interview because the reader has the sensation that those interviewed saw in the work of the correspondents for the prestigious newspaper a means to relate their own version of events or to settle accounts with some enemy. At the very least, the interviews presented to their subjects an opportunity to describe their own version of events and shape for posterity their self-image with the assistance of the credibility of The New York Times. This follows the historical example of Díaz, who appeared to address himself more to a Mexican public than U.S. readers. Because of this, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the selfdescription of each one of the interviewed subjects. Nevertheless, the journalists should have intervened to reestablish a balance between what their sources were willing to tell and what they hushed up.

Opening Mexico does not aspire to be an academic book. It is the work of two newspaper correspondents who had the opportunity to live surprising moments in Mexican political life. Preston and Dillon fulfill their role as historians of the present very well; at times, their reporting lacks a touch of skepticism, but is more than compensated by the freshness of many of their pages. Their descriptions are better than their explanations that resort to historical predetermination by seeking in the legends of the Aztec past the key to electoral fraud. It is as if to understand the election of George Bush in Florida in the year 2000, we would look for the answer in the systematic extermination of the American Indians, who after all are closer to us in time than the Aztec Empire.

Soledad Loaeza, professor of political science at the Colegio de México, is a 2003-2004 Radcliffe Fellow. She is the author of El Partido Acción Nacional, la larga marcha, 1939-1994, (Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1999) and is currently researching presidential power in Mexico.

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