Documents on Mexican Politics.

The Deconstruction Of Mexican Politics

The Deconstruction Of Mexican Politics

por George Baker (


As anyone can say who has ever lived in Mexico--or anywhere in the Third World--there are always two subjects for discussion: The obvious subject is what's happening in Mexico (or whatever country it may be). A less obvious topic is how one comes to the questions and answers about what's happening in Mexico. This second topic, said differently, is, What has happened to me such that I've come to the questions and conclusions that I now want to discuss? A related question might be, What price have I had to pay, what enrichment--or compromise--of my personal values has taken place inside me?

This second question is not one that social scientists or journalists normally want to discuss. The classical discussion of Mexico by New York Times correspondent Alan Riding, Distant Neighbors (1985), argued that Mexico and the United States were distant neighbors. His book, by implication, was meant to help reduce, or soften the effects of, what might be called the distant-neighbor effect. Riding not once discussed the inevitable self-doubts that any researcher, journalist or otherwise, will have in interpreting Mexican politics. Riding did not once mention how he suffered, how he was humiliated, how he offended people, how he became angry, despondent--and the full range of human emotion--in the course of finding a way to put words to his experience in Mexico.

There is also something else about Riding's specific title: What he excludes from his discussion is the distant-neighbor effect inside Mexico. As Leslie Byrd Simpson observed in his book, Many Mexicos, there are four or five distinct societies in Mexico. The gap between these societies is so wide that one suspects that it is equivalent to the dimensions of the caste system of India.

The sensitive foreign journalist or social-science researcher will soon notice, if only from the corner of his eye, that progressively the caste system of Mexico is recreated within his own psyche, if not within his own soul. His perceptions, transactions, attitudes and points of view will be colored by the values of the politically dominant White Euro-Mexican Catholic (WEMC) class. The silent incorporation of, or identification with, WEMC values means that only rarely is it possible to even catch a glimpse of their workings inside of oneself. It's as if there is a barrier of resistance, a pane of glass--the hotel windows of the María Isabel Sheraton, Crowne Plaza, Four Seasons or Camino Real--that separates me from the other, non-WEMC societies in Mexico whose members make up the majority of the Mexican people. In this way my knowledge of Mexico becomes profoundly colored by my adopted class and caste status. We might call this the "distant Mexico" effect, one brought about by my entering into one of the worlds of the distant neighbors of Mexico. What's happening in Mexico?

National security policy, in Mexico as well as in any other country, is concerned with the preservation of national sovereignty and military and economic security. In Mexico, national security policy strengthens national sovereignty and military security through the mechanism of making Mexico's political system invisible.

Just as the chameleon adopts the colors of his hostile environment to enhance individual and collective security, so too, neighbors of Great Powers adopt their neighbor's colors for self-protection. The idea is that when the Great Power looks in their direction, it should only see a reflection of itself, as if in a mirror. Such a policy works largely because Great Powers are vulnerable to deception on account of their vanity and ethnocentrism: Shouldn't all countries seek to be like them? In North America, therefore, the real national colors of both Mexico and Canada are red, white and blue.

To make Mexico and Canada invisible to American eyes--not for one year or for one presidency, but for generations to come, political institutions and standard conventions must be established and maintained. Together, these institutions and conventions must consistently pull off the magician's trick of making Gringo audiences believe that, with their own eyes, they have seen what never in fact existed. How is this trick accomplished?

The first means is through the use of a Gringo-sounding political vocabulary in Spanish that can be easily translated into English by recently arrived journalists, diplomats, lawyers and business analysts and executives. This basket of terms, which is for export as well as domestic markets, includes the following examples: presidente, candidato, partido, elección, voto, estado (de la federación), congreso, senador, constitución,
suprema corte.

In linguistics these terms are like false cognates, that is, linguistic cousins that have sound and spelling in common but dissimilar meanings. "Relevante" in Spanish means important, not relevant, while "actual" in Spanish means at present, not actual (real). While "relevante" and relevant are false cognates, their meaning in each language can be specified precisely. If "presidente" (of Mexico) is a false cognate with "president" (of the U.S.), what is the correct translation of "presidente"?

In Mexico, members of the politically conscious classes (between 15-25% of the national population) speak, not Spanish, but a little-understood code language. The use of code language in Mexican politics is meant to keep Mexico invisible to the United States. Additionally, the use of code language helps keep the political classes in power: for the remaining 75% of the Mexican population the code language is as indecipherable as it is for Gringos, Canadians & Associates.

When Mexican and foreign political analysts comment that the so-called "electoral strength" of the PRI lies in the countryside where close elections are routinely won by the PRI, they fail to mention that the politically illiterate countryside has virtually no comprehension of Mexican national politics or institutions. While foreign and Mexican "observers of the elections" watch campesinos mark the PRI logo on the ballots, what the observers don't see is that in the minds of the campesino the exercise is one of nationalism, patriotism, not one of making discriminating choices about candidates or party platforms. Consider a recent statement made by PRI officials to peasants in the State of Chiapas: "La pobacion de Chiapas en las areas rurales tiene uno de los mayores indices de rezago en materia del bienestar del hogar." Freely translated, the statement reads, "The rural population of Chiapas has one of the greatest indexes of backwardness in family income." The peasants must have heard something about "one of the greatest" but the rest of it was a mystery, as no one with a minimal formal education will have the slightest idea of what an index is; further, the term "rezago" is not one generally understood by the lower class majority of Mexico.

What other result can be expected when the PRI's logo has the same colors as the national flag, and when PRI local bosses insist on this act of patriotism and pork-barreling from local residents? (After all, the PRI para-government in many parts of the country has an excellent record of, not only promising, but of delivering on neighborhood projects like sidewalks and sewers, schools and clinics.)

What, then, is the correct translation into English of terms like PRI, PAN, PRD or Secretaría de Gobernación? Answer: there is none. PRI is
mindlessly translated (were a journalist's editor or anyone to ask) as the Institutional Revolutionary Party, a self-evident oxymoron. The terms of Mexican politics are used as part of an epic poem: they have no meaning outside of the language of the epic poem itself.

The epic poem of Mexican politics must be memorized as a whole; little understanding of any of its language can be had through learning bits and pieces, a few lines here, a few stanzas there. What distinguishes the political classes of Mexico from foreigners (as well as the nonpolitical classes of Mexico) is that they have memorized the poem in its entirety. They know its verses, its lexicon and symbolism. The intellectual challenge is comparable to that of an Indian learning the Vedas, an Arab the Koran, or a Japanese the kanji (Chinese pictographs). It can be done, but the student's character changes as a result of the effort: he begins to understand the depth of his moral, intellectual and philosophical indebtedness to the past.

Mexican politics, then, is principally the struggle among competing locii of power by persons who have mastered the Mexican Veda. In part it is about performing a perpetual magic show for U.S. audiences. Finally, it is about the actions of persons and organizations that are either semi-literate or entirely illiterate in the history, interpretation and hermeneutics of the text of the Mexican epic.

The importance of this epic may be best seen in comparative perspective. Mexican society may be compared to the society of the Manchu dynasty (1644-1912): only a small percentage of the population (perhaps 5%) was literate, that is, was taught to read and write Chinese characters; women were not taught to read or write, and their feet were bound, much like their intellects; finally, the Mandarin class imposed a strict Confucian constitution. In Mexican terms, this system of social organization succeeds in safeguarding Mexico's national security and assuring a reasonable freedom of maneuver of Mexico's Mandarin class. The politically uneducated masses of India, China and Mexico, meanwhile, remain sunk in their fatalism, holding to the view that events happen by individual or collective karma. As Mexicans say, así pasa [that's how it goes].

A central mechanism of political control in Mexico is the system of centralized information. The idea is that if there is only one supplier of economic and statistical information, the marketplace of consumers has to accept government-controlled prices and quality, where quality refers to accuracy and reliability. During the period 1988-94 the system ably handled complex quantitative data dealing with elections (excepting the mysterious computer crash of Election Day, July 6, 1988), inflation, economic growth and international credit-worthiness. The scope and versatility of this part of the magic show seemed to have no limits, for which reason the voices of caution heard in the summer of 1994, from Guillermo Ortiz and others, went unattended.

The lesson of the Crash of December 20, 1994, seems to be that while the magic show will seem real to the politically untutored classes of Mexico for an indefinite period of time, the credibility, that is, the magic, of the show will fall apart if Mexican investors signal that Other People's Money (OPM) may be excessively leveraged or that the emperor has fewer clothes that previously believed.

The magic act of Aspe-Salinismo was to make foreign portfolio investors believe that the growth of merchandise exports (and the corresponding declining role of oil as a share of such exports) implied strong economic linkages and multipliers in the rest of the economy. Foreigners, who are sentimental about "export-led" recovery and development
programs (like those of Chile and the Four Tigers), came to have a literal interpretation of the poetry of Mexico's trade statistics.

When the poetry was finally deciphered (such as in the analysis published in Mexico City's Reforma, Dec. 19, 1994, p. 38A), Mexican Mandarins dumped their peso-based investments, and were quickly followed by stock analysts from Gringolandia who were as baffled as they were angry. What could have happened?, they asked themselves.

What, then, is the outlook for the System? Mexican Mandarins will continue to speak Chinese and act as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened or is required of them. The agreement between the government and the opposition parties that was signed on January 18, 1995, which gives assurances of a more open electoral process, including greater access to the printed and electronic press by non-PRI candidates, guarantees that Mexico's OCL will be used for the remainder of the Zedillo Administration.

One part of the epic has not yet been deciphered, either in Mexico or abroad: Mexico as a market and as a political lobbying force is universally advertised in its northern capital as "our third largest trading partner." Sí, pero no, yes I hear you, but it's not really true. Subtract some 60% of Mexico's merchandise trade that corresponds to transactions between U.S. manufacturers with affiliated plants in Mexico (including maquiladoras and others): the remaining trade figures are the ones with which to calculate Mexico's true rank as a trading partner. That rank is tenth or fifteenth, but not third.

George Baker

Tel: 713-627-9390 Fax: 713-627-9391