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The Frozen Revolution

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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.

It hasn’t improved in the last half-century:

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.

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  • Mike in DC

    Do you think Mexican-Americans’ experience with the political system in Mexico helps to explain relatively lower voter turnout among them?

    • Judas Peckerwood

      Your question assumes that Mexican-Americans — most of whom were born and raised in the U.S. — actually have experience with Mexico’s political system.

      • Even if that’s the case, people can pick up a lot of beliefs from their parents. If they’re raised with a distrust in institutions due to stories their parents/grandparents have told them, that can have a lingering effect, perhaps. And there still are a fair number of first-generation Mexican immigrants here.

  • Bitter Scribe

    I have never understood the concept of an “Institutional Revolutionary Party.” Isn’t the whole idea of a revolution to overturn institutions?

    • Thom

      When the party was created (under a different name) in 1929, the idea was to consolidate the gains of the 1910-20 revolution and to continue to implement its aims. Of course there were different ideas about what the aims were, and one of the main goals of creating the party, probably the main one, was to unite the various political factions that had struggled against each other since 1914. But you are right that there is a contradiction at the heart of the name. You might call it “the party of claiming the name and mouthing the ideals of the revolution to make sure there is no damn revolution again.”

    • Only if it is anarchist. Otherwise the point is to overturn current institutions and replace them with other, presumably better, institutions.

      I mean, what’s more institutionalized than the Cuban Communist Party?

      • This is even a possibility for nominally anarchist groups, which is why The Dispossessed depicts “an ambiguous utopia” – most of the flaws Le Guin depicts in Anarres are mainly results of close-minded bureaucracy and stagnation, despite the society still at least nominally (and possibly technically as well) being an example of anarchy.

      • Brett

        Speaking of embalmed political classes . . .

  • Scott P.

    Two million small farmers were driven off the land as subsidized U.S. corn flooded into Mexico.

    Okay, so one problem Mexico has is that corn is too cheap there.

    Subsidized U.S. imports pushed up food prices, especially that of the national staple tortillas, and recent price hikes will exacerbate growing food poverty.

    No, wait, the problem is that corn is too expensive there.

    Huh?

    • Yes.

      Basically what happened is that American corn flooded the Mexican market and forced farmers off their land because they could not sell their corn anymore for a price that made it worthwhile. But that doesn’t mean the price of corn is stable. Instead, it placed Mexico at the mercy of the international commodities market. When in 2007 the rush toward ethanol meant that corn prices skyrocketed, it severely hurt the Mexican poor.

      • No Longer Middle Aged Man

        The ejido system was already declining when I wrote a paper on it in grad school back in the 1980s, well before NAFTA. It’s a wonderful communitarian system (as opposed to Soviet style forced collectivization) but like traditional agricultural arrangements in most places, it doesn’t allow for much beyond a pretty low standard of living. Large scale mechanized agribusiness isn’t the answer — that gives you Brazil, an agricultural export powerhouse where the descendants of displaced tenant farmers still live in urban slums — but you need an economy and political system like Japan if you’re going to subsidize small agricultural plots to the extent where the farmers have a reasonable middle class lifestyle.

        • Brett

          I’d go the Chinese route, allowing ejido folk to divide up the lands however they choose with leases and invest heavily in education and productivity-enhancing farming technology/seeds/whatever. It would do a lot to boost farmer incomes while avoiding a mass agro-business consolidation that you’d probably get from simply dividing the lands up in terms of straight ownership.

          Of course, that would probably require a level of competence from Mexico’s government that may not exist.

      • Asteroid_Strike_Brexit

        But that doesn’t mean the price of corn is stable.

        That wasn’t what Scott P. queried. He queried the claim that ‘subsidized corn imports pushed up food prices’. That formulation is absurd; if the price of corn based foods rose after there were subsidized corn imports, the reason had nothing to do with the subsidized corn imports and must have been due to something else.

        • Thom

          Erik explained that: ethanol, which is stil part of our gasoline even though the price of oil has plummeted.

    • Wapiti

      As a kid, raised by people who grew up on farms, I was taught that the plastic bag might cost more than the wheat in a loaf of bread. If bread costs ~$1.40 per pound, and wheat fetches 7 cents per pound, that might be true.

      So with NAFTA, the price of corn grain collapsed, and small farmers with small yields no longer made enough to stay on their farms. And at the same time, the price of processed bread, including the tortilla, rose.

      • busker type

        My dad used to say “farming is the only business where you buy retail and sell wholesale”
        Just because it isn’t true doesn’t mean it isn’t a pithy description of the plight of the small farmer.

  • Steve LaBonne

    Poor Mexico- so far from God, so close to the United States of America.

  • Wapiti

    eta: note that Mexico and France share the same level of urbanization, about 79%. With a population of 110 million in Mexico, that’s a lot of people who are dependent on markets for their foodstuffs.

  • Asteroid_Strike_Brexit

    Somebody needs to explain how ‘subsidized US imports’ have increased the price of food.

    Edit: I see someone has asked the same above.

  • Gareth

    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.”

    Mexico is the fattest country in the world, and one-third of the population is obese.

    • Brett

      Very lazy. Given your predilections, why not say that Mexico’s governance sucks because the Mexican government uses the US as a “safety valve” to avoid the build-up of enough pressure at home to force major changes? Or claim falsely that Mexico is exporting its criminals to the US?

    • Owlbear1

      Not any more so than your typical Corn Fed Husker.

    • Thom

      Malnutrition is not at all incompatible with being overweight, especially when a large proportion of calories come from sugar and maize. A social history of Western Kenya, Siaya (the area where Obama’s family is from), has a chapter entitled “Maize Means Hunger.” The relative emptiness of calories from maize is a well known feature in African social history and anthropology.

      • Gregor Sansa

        You mean “half of Obama’s family”; the other half is from Kansas.

        • Gregor Sansa

          I want edit! I would add that by now their family is from Chicago.

        • Thom

          Yes. I meant his paternal relatives–the Obamas.

          • Thom

            Yeah, what happened to the edit button?

  • Brett

    The PRI needs to go, although I’m not sure what would replace it. The PRD is a personality cult, and the PAN is the right-wing pro-business party.

    The sad thing is that the problems that the reforms are supposed to address are very real, even if the reforms are bad. As you yourself said a while back, Mexico’s public education system is abysmal, and the biggest demand from the teachers is to be able to treat their teaching positions as a hereditary position they can give to their children. PEMEX has had major problems for a long time, the Mexican government has done a poor job of reinvesting its earnings back into it, and the union for PEMEX workers is corrupt as hell. The “no re-election” clause has done nothing to preserve democracy in Mexico.

    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.

    I think it actively hinders better politics in Mexico. You can’t hold leaders accountable in elections for stuff they actually do in office, and even if they do elect a slate of progressive representatives it all turns over at the end of their terms.

    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.

    I’m impressed it has lasted as long as it has. 19th century Mexico had a bunch of constitutions and a couple of constitutional conventions, none of which stuck for long in actual practice.

  • On the bright side, Mexico’s push for renewable energy is going very well. Recent auctions for utility solar have driven prices to around 4$c per kWh, lower than the US Southwest. There is a decent programme for distributed (rooftop) solar as well. Mexico has been strongly supportive if the UNFCC process and helped secure the Paris agreement. There are stirrings of action on the pollution problem of Mexico City, a megalopolis in the wrong place

  • Schadenboner

    Note that it looks like the uploaded misnamed the video. This is part 1 of 5, not of 4 as indicated.

  • bobbyp
    • Schadenboner

      I’m not seeing whether these are constant dollars (or whether the price is in constant-1969 or constant-2017, although that is more of a bookkeeping thing as long as the dollars are constant to something) but it seems like corn collapsed after 1996 (which I think was when NAFTA would have really taken effect?) and didn’t reach the same price until 12 years later (2008).

      That doesn’t mean that there aren’t distributional problems of course.

  • Gregor Sansa

    Marginally related. Trigger warning, the world is brutally horrible.

    In Guatemala, on March 8th, a “safe home” for girls burned. The girls were a mix of petty criminals, orphans, girls in the foster system, etc. The conditions were so bad there that a judge had ordered the home closed, but the judge’s order was ignored. The girls mutinied, somehow a fire started, and the police did not let them out as they burned to death. 39 have died so far and another 20 or so are at death’s door.

    • Gregor Sansa

      I can’t edit for some reason, but “marginally related” might not have been the best phrasing.

      • Schadenboner

        Related in the sense that “Everything is horrible forever and ever, amen” I guess?

    • sibusisodan

      That’s awful, in a ‘words don’t really capture it’ sense.

  • Just_Dropping_By

    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.

    Hmmm. Term limits in Mexico — good. Term limits in USA — bad.

    • Schadenboner

      I’m not sure which reading of Mexican political history would make it’s tradition of term limits something to recommend to the US.

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