CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Charles de Gaulle once remarked of France that it was impossible to govern a country producing 400 varieties of cheese. The French president had little patience with multiparty politics, so after his visit to Mexico in 1963, he sent a team of politologues to study Mexico's Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), which since its creation in 1929 has never lost a single presidential, senatorial or gubernatorial election.
The French academics came back with a crestfallen response: The PRI could not be exported; it was purely Mexican, as indigenous to Mexico as Camembert is to France.
One can sympathize with De Gaulle's pipe dream of a French PRI. The Mexican system, whether it be seen as a "one party" or, better still, a "one-power," or better and better, an umbrella for competing sectors and pressure groups, is the result of a peculiar Mexican political tradition. This tradition is so far removed from Anglo-American practices that U.S. opinion either does not make the effort to understand it or condemns it outright. Even worse: It demands of the Mexican system that, in order to become democratic, it reproduce the political system of the United States, in itself a peculiar, not universal, product of North American traditions.
This is hardly possible, if you consider that the roots of Mexico's political system are, first of all, in the theocratic authoritarianism of the Aztec empire, which was conquered and substituted by Spanish royal absolutism. The Spanish royal families, Hapsburgs and Bourbons, governed Mexico for longer than the PRI or anybody else--from 1521 to 1821. Their brand of absolutism was tempered by Hapsburg paternalism first, and then by the Bourbonic idea of the state as the promoter of development. All of Latin America, for three long centuries, went to the political school of St. Thomas Aquinas, and there it learned that unity is the supreme political value, not pluralism, and that collective goals ("the public good") supersede individual rights.
Latin America tried to shake off this legacy after it achieved independence from the Iberian monarchies in the 19th Century. St. Thomas was hastily replaced by John Locke and Montesquieu; we copied the progressive laws of England, France and the United States. But the laws did not change social and economic reality; they merely disguised it. The void between law and practice was filled by anarchy and dictatorship.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910 assimilated all of these lessons. It attempted to reconcile modern democratic values with historical traditions. It gave Thomism a left-wing, nationalistic makeup and imposed unity and a strong presidential system through the activity of a centralized state, creating what Mexico had never had before: public health, public education, modern communications, social services, dams, electricity, social security and public development and financial corporations. The political party of the Revolution preempted revolutionary rhetoric and nationalist issues. It taught what it did not practice: The virtues of clean elections and partisan pluralism.
As Mexico goes through a severe economic crisis, it should not be forgotten that this system, during almost 60 years, transformed an extremely backward, agrarian, illiterate country into Latin America's second, and the world's 13th, largest economy. It did so, besides, with political stability and a wide margin of respect for individual freedoms. This was no mean achievement in a continent plagued, during those same six decades, by military coups and political repression.
A new presidential election is now coming up in Mexico and the system is facing a challenge, paradoxically, of its own making. The Revolution urbanized and industrialized modern Mexico; it sent millions to school. The result is a new civil society, literate, energetic, middle-class, with professionals, bureaucrats, technocrats, tradesmen, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, women. The new civil society is demanding of the system what the system taught it to believe in: social justice with democratic freedoms; progress and reform.
That same fortunate civil society is acutely aware that the other half of the country--peasants, villagers, city marginals--have not benefited from the big transformations, and that they run the risk of being paralyzed by demographic presures: 1 million Mexicans are born every year, the country now has 83 million people, half of them 15 years old or less, and 1 million Mexicans enter the labor market each year, clogging the arteries of job opportunities from Mexico City to Los Angeles.