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Politics, Poverty, and Corruption in 20 th -Century Mexico

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Politics, Poverty, and Corruption in 20th-Century Mexico

Post-Revolutionary Mexico: Mexico’s 1910 revolution produced a new constitution in 1917 that attempted to address the varied demands of the many sectors of the country’s population. In the following years, politics stabilized gradually as “revolutionary heroes” took leadership positions in the new government. Between 1920 and 1946, all of Mexico’s presidents and most provincial leaders were veterans of the revolution. Quickly a system of political cronyism began to emerge.

President Lazaro Cardenas (1934-40): Cardenas came to power under the influence of strongman (and former president) Plutarco Elias Calles. Nevertheless, in a short time Cardenas was able to break free from Calles’s interference and promote a reform program that targeted large portions of Mexico’s population. Cardenas is credited with implementing the “true reforms” of the revolution. These included land reform, labor concessions, nationalization of resources, education and welfare programs, etc.

President Miguel Aleman (1946-52): Aleman was the first non-veteran to become president in the decades following the revolution. He defined his administration as one of bringing modernization and economic growth to the country. He pursued these goals through massive industrialization projects; although many of those projects were marred by corruption. Most scholars consider his presidency to mark the onset of the insidious system of favoritism, bribery, and general corruption that plagued Mexico’s political and economic development throughout the 20th century. The films Los Olvidados and La Ley de Herodes are both set during the presidency of Miguel Aleman.

Mexican Miracle: Refers to a period of unprecedented and dynamic economic growth in Mexico between (roughly) 1945 and 1973. During that time, Mexico virtually reversed the economic problems that had resulted from the decades of revolution and recovery. GDP rates increased at 6+%/year during this period. Coinciding with this economic growth, Mexico saw its economic base shift from agriculture to industry and its population move from the countryside to cities.

Industrialization/Urbanization: As a consequence of new economic policies, Mexico’s economic base shifted to industry and its population largely relocated to cities during the era of the Mexican Miracle. Since new industries were primarily located in urban areas, and agricultural no longer provided families with a reasonable standard of living, much of the country’s peasant base relocated to urban areas to search for work as industrial laborers. Even though investments were pouring into urban infrastructure, most major cities could not accommodate the rapid influx of people. Urban slums developed and grew rapidly on the outskirts of many major cities in Mexico (and throughout Latin America).

The income disparity was increasingly evident in major cities served in stark contrast to the development and “modernization” that seemed to characterize Mexico’s economy on the surface. In the 1950s, only a few voices questioned the status quo (Luis Bunuel was one of them) – but criticism of the system did accelerate in later years.


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Politics, Poverty, and Corruption in 20th-Century Mexico

  • Political Parties: Understanding the role of political parties is crucial in understanding the nature of politics and corruption in 20th-century Mexico. Mexico’s main political parties include the following:

    • PRI (Institutionalized Revolutionary Party) – The predecessor to this party (PNR) was established in 1929. After a series of name changes it became the PRI in 1946 (under Aleman). The PRI was essentially formed out of the revolution. As such, the party platform did not espouse any specific ideology; instead its position could (and did) shift as the country’s needs changed. The PRI retained the office of president from 1929-2000, often through corruption, bribery, and/or coercion. The party was also successful in controlling many local offices in the early years (again, often by the same means). Today the PRI is considered to be in the political center relative to the other main political parties.

    • PAN (National Action Party) – Party to the political right, formed in 1939 to defend conservative (read Catholic) interests against the ruling party. The PAN experienced some success in municipal and local offices starting in the 1940s, but it was not until the 1980s that that party began to make a difference at the national level. PAN presidential candidate, Vicente Fox, defeated the PRI candidate for the first time in the 2000 election.

    • PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) – Party to the political left (in reality it is a coalition of leftist parties and interests) founded in 1989 by dissidents who had left the PRI in protest over corrupt electoral practices.

  • El Dedazo: Refers to the practice of Mexican PRI presidents hand-picking their successors (in reality they picked the candidate to run in the next election, but it was generally a foregone conclusion that the PRI candidate would win.) This custom began as early as 1920 and continued through the 1994 election. In 1999, PRI president Ernesto Zedillo announced that he would not personally select his successor; instead the PRI organized its first-ever primary election to select the next presidential candidate. This was considered by many observers to be an important step toward opening and reforming the democratic process.

  • Vicente Fox/2000 Election: In July 2000 the PRI lost the presidency for the first time to PAN candidate Vicente Fox. Campaigning for the election coincided with the release of La Ley de Herodes. In 1999 the PRI did in fact attempt to censor the film. Some argue that the public outcry at this attempted censorship provided enough negative press for the PRI that it may have contributed to the PAN victory the following year.

  • Mexican Film Industry – Mexico’s film industry began in the early 20th century with silent films (much like the US film industry). In the late 1930s, Mexican cinema entered what many called the “Golden Age and the industry witnessed vast improvements in scripts, production quality, etc. The industry was nationalized in the late 1950s and government control allowed large degrees of censorship (generally through bribes, lucrative employment positions, etc.) By the 1990s, a new height of cinema began, referred to as Nuevo Cine Mexicano.


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