Mexico’s Once and Future Revolution: Social Upheaval and the Challenge of Rule Since the Late Nineteenth Century
Gilbert M Joseph and Jürgen Buchenau
2013, Duke University Press
252 pages, paperback, plates
IT IS HARD to admit, but the Mexican revolution died in the early 1990s at the hands of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and its final gasp – “the last kick of a drowning man”, as Mexicans are wont to say – was the Zapatista uprising in 1994.
Gilbert Joseph and Jürgen Buchenau have provided an eloquent and highly readable obituary for this long and complex period in Mexican history, but one that reveals above all how the revolution has been kept on life support only by academics themselves.
If the truth be told, aside from symbolic invocations, the revolution breathed its last in 1994 with the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and now exists solely in discourse – a fleeting, and usually nostalgic, but always virtual, reminder of Mexico’s great past and, one hopes, even greater future.
That is not to say, however, that the revolution was in robust health and suddenly keeled over thanks to Salinas and his neoliberal cronies. Their efforts to hasten its demise between 1992-94 were merely the last act in a longer counter-revolutionary monologue.
As Joseph and Buchenau’s brilliant and concise overview repeatedly demonstrates, the meaning of the revolution and how it was interpreted changed consistently throughout the 20th century – and arguably still is, if only among historians who continue struggling to interpret this momentous process.
And as the authors note pointedly, the PRI – which returned to government in 2012 under the presidency of a Salinas protégé, Enrique Peña Nieto – had all but abandoned its posture of revolutionary stewardship by 1982 when its promise to “reform” the revolution genuflected squarely to the IMF during the debt emergency caused by the incompetent José López Portillo.
The social compact was thrown from the sinking ship as the PRI struggled to remain afloat, caught between the storms of international capital and the choppy waters of Mexican society.
While it would not be until 1992 that Article 27 of the revolutionary constitution of 1917 endured fatal surgery, it was clear by the early 1980s that the great “fiesta of bullets” had run out of ammunition.
López Portillo’s dull successor, Miguel de la Madrid, and his own protégé, Salinas himself, began the formal process of repudiating the revolutionary legacy through privatisation and the transformation of social programmes, but it was Salinas that put a modern gloss on this – and in a deeply cynical way, by employing the most enduring aspect of the revolution itself, its nationalistic symbolism, in order to undermine it.
If there was ever any doubt that Peña Nieto fits squarely into this progression, this can be dispelled by his determination to complete the job begun by Salinas through the recent flagship reform to the country’s oil sector – similar moves had been successfully stalled or sabotaged by revolutionary nationalists right up until the presidency of Felipe Calderón.
What the decision to allow foreign companies to drill for Mexican oil for the first time since the sector was nationalised in 1938 by Mexico’s greatest president, Lázaro Cárdenas, signifies is that – despite a few angry protests – the Mexican people themselves have no longer got the fight in them to rescue their revolution from the hands of international capital. NAFTA has seen to that, buying them out with Walmart, Hershey bars and, now, big oil.
As the PRI learned during 70 years of mostly authoritarian rule tempered by clever concessions to its social origins, when the people no longer understand or embrace the revolution, it is over. Peña Nieto himself recognised this, saying his reforms represent a turning point in the Mexican story: “This is the beginning of a new history for our country.”
The Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas in 1994 reminded us of those social forces enjoying considerable legitimacy that contributed to the factional struggles characterising the early years of revolutionary turmoil, what the authors describe as “… la bola, which conjures up images of a mass of intertwined humanity or of a great boulder that rolls across the landscape gathering force, veering in one direction, then the other…” [p 4].
But if the revolution began with Madero’s quest for democracy in 1910, one could also argue that it ended with the achievement of (relatively) free and fair elections in 2000. Anger at electoral fraud persists, as does rebellion – but these are not the symptoms of a revolutionary society. Mexico has merely joined the ranks of the mediocre democracies that regulate consumer society everywhere.
So is it, as Gerry Adams once famously said, now all over bar the shooting? Joseph and Buchenau do not seem to think so, at least if the revolution is understood – as it probably should be in this case – as a discursive framework that provides legitimacy within the context of the modern nation-state.
But globalisation is eating away even at this staple of our political understanding, and is leaving merely crumbs of the past for modern politicians to reconstruct and offer up at the fiesta. Baking up tasty narratives is something in which Mexican politicians truly excel.
In short, if the revolution is not really dead, then I am Pancho Villa.