This year marks the centennial of the 1917 Mexican Constitution, which began as one of the most progressive documents in history but which has been so amended and its gains so reversed that even by the 1960s was increasingly seen as a failure. The 1971 film Mexico: The Frozen Revolution expressed this commonly held view during Mexico’s Dirty War with internal insurgents.
NAFTA has cast a dark shadow over the guarantees promised in 1917. Two million small farmers were driven off the land as subsidized U.S. corn flooded into Mexico. Foreign investment failed to generate sufficient jobs for those displaced, unemployment rose, and those jobs that were created paid poorly: real wages grew by just 2.3 percent between 1994 and 2012. It is small wonder that desperate farmers went north, with migration to the U.S. doubling after 1994.
Furthermore, whereas left-progressive governments across Latin America have managed to lessen poverty, Mexico has fallen behind, and at least 55 million of its citizens now living below the poverty line. The implementation of NAFTA and radical market reforms in Mexico since the 1980s categorically failed to reduce persistently high levels of inequality, which have largely stood still since before the 2008 financial crisis. Subsidized U.S. imports pushed up food prices, especially that of the national staple tortillas, and recent price hikes will exacerbate growing food poverty. So many Mexicans face hunger (at least 10 percent of the population suffers from inadequate food access and 8,500 die every year as a result of malnutrition), that in 2011 Articles 4 and 27 of the constitution were amended to guarantee the right to food, and in 2013 Peña Nieto was forced to launch a “National Crusade against Hunger.”
NAFTA has also gravely damaged Mexico’s sovereignty by increasing its economic dependency on the U.S. (80 percent of Mexico’s exports head for the U.S., whose share of Mexican imports is about 47 percent), by preventing the state from regulating private property in the spirit of the constitution, and by degrading the country’s environment.
However, far from learning lessons about the damage caused by undermining the promises of the constitution, Peña Nieto has intensified the assault on stage regulation. His education reform through amendments to Articles 3 and 73, setting the scene for de-unionization and privatization, responded to the demands of multilateral bodies, U.S. think tanks and the corporate Mexican education reform lobby. Resistance among teaching unions has disrupted education and provoked a disproportionately violent crackdown.
Peña Nieto has also continued Salinas’s assault on Mexico’s cherished resources. In 2013 he trashed the original intent of Article 27 through amendments to open the oil, gas and electricity-generation sectors to foreign investment. These reforms also had an anti-union logic, changing the legal status of the state oil monopoly PEMEX and electricity commission CFE and thereby curtailing labor inputs in how they are run. PEMEX and the CFE are now considered equal in status to private companies, meaning that their unions lose their special status, including the right to participate in decisions as members of administrative councils.
In September 2012, Congress enacted sweeping labor reforms to make it easier for employers to ignore worker rights – a move seen as a significant victory for Peña Nieto’s incoming administration, who had backed the reforms. Just as Peña Nieto has been quick to chip away at workers’ rights, he has been slow to comply with international standards on collective bargaining. It was not until October 2016 that the Senate approved an initiative to amend Articles 107 and 123 of the constitution to ease the grip of corrupt charro unions – labor associations obedient to the government and employers, and hence traditionally loyal to the PRI – long a core demand of the international labor movement.
Insatiable as ever, Peña Nieto has even overturned the greatest taboo in Mexican politics: re-election, spearheading modifications to 29 constitutional articles in 2013 to allow consecutive re-election for some political positions in the ultimate betrayal of the principle that sparked the Mexican revolution in 1910: “Sufragio effectivo, no reelección.” (For effective suffrage, no re-election). It is almost certainly only matter of time before this is extended to the presidency.
Mexico’s political class is so embalmed that I don’t even know if it matters that the nation’s famed prohibition on entrenched individuals matters that much. When the PRI lacks internal democracy and just handpicks leader after leader that offers nothing, it’s still pretty bad. Of course, someone from either inside or outside the PRI could consolidate power personally and that can lead to very bad things. Either way though, the promise of Mexico as a world leader has been long betrayed and becomes more so every day.