MEXICO CITY — Call it velvet repression. An intellectual found that he was no longer welcome on a popular radio show. A publisher discovered that newsstands wouldn't distribute his feisty daily. A congressman was quietly warned that his anti-corruption probe could be hazardous to his health.
Mexico, although long a one-party state, didn't feature the widespread, ironfisted repression of Communist countries. But for the writers, thinkers and activists who confronted the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, there was a price to pay--ranging from a loss of privileges to, occasionally, a brutal beating or even death.
Today, after the party's first presidential defeat in 71 years, many government critics are jubilant. The president-elect, centrist businessman Vicente Fox, has pledged to make the country a full democracy, with a government that is "strong but serene."
"Those who expect a draconian government, a government of repression, a government that will use its power and force to keep people in line--well, this is not going to be our way of governing," Fox said in a recent newspaper interview.
How much will he have to change? The stories of those who confronted the system indicate how sweeping Mexico's transformation could be.
Lorenzo Meyer, a prominent historian, is still marveling about the July 2 election. It is as awe-inspiring as the birth of a baby, he says.
"You know it will be born. But you don't know the day. And when it's born, you can't avoid a feeling of surprise," he exults. "From one moment to the next, you have a new human being, with little feet, little hands. You can feel it.
"That's what happened to me."
A bespectacled man whose voice soars like a choirboy's, Meyer has frequently criticized the government in his weekly newspaper column and in media appearances.
He never had to fear the gulag for his tart remarks. But he found himself bumping up against the limits of permissible criticism. In 1997, for example, he bashed President Ernesto Zedillo in two consecutive appearances on a national radio show. It was two times too many.
The show's director informed him, "This is against our editorial line" and fired him from his weekly slot, Meyer says. He later was told that the president's office was behind the move.
A Zedillo spokesman, Marco Provencio, denies that the president gave such orders, saying he has "always been respectful of what the media say." But government intervention in the media has been common for decades. And until recently, an unwritten rule applied in Mexico: No one criticized the president, the army or the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Generally, though, the pressures against academics have been far subtler. Professors who supported the government were invited to be official advisors, edit textbooks and speak on popular television programs. Their journals flourished, thanks to government ads. Critics were left out in the cold.
One of the ironies of the old system, Meyer says, is that he felt free to assail the president on the state-owned television channel. But he wasn't welcome on the big commercial stations, which reach the bulk of Mexicans.
"Freedom of speech was absolute" on the public channel, he says. "That's because no one watched it."
The Political Activist
Adolfo Aguilar Zinser also is an academic, a slender, silver-haired political scientist from a prominent family. He was an advisor to President Luis Echeverria in the mid-70s and later fell out with the PRI-dominated system.
As a professor and congressman, he has been threatened, chased by strange cars, and targeted in hostile press campaigns for his anti-corruption efforts, he says.
"This is the system," he says. "The system had ways that weren't sending the army to your house--although they did that once to me, and it was chilling."
It was in 1984, and Aguilar Zinser had gone to foreign correspondents with his complaints that the government was abusing the Guatemalan refugees who were flooding into southern Mexico. "This was a very serious offense to the regime," which was highly sensitive to its reputation abroad, Aguilar Zinser says.
The response was swift. One July evening, Aguilar Zinser answered the door of his apartment to find armed men in black jackets.
"They grabbed me," he recalls. "I was blindfolded, wrapped in a sheet and put in a car." He was whisked to what he suspects was a military base.
But a vigorous campaign by his friends and father, a well-known lawyer, resulted in his release after 14 hours. Authorities never acknowledged a role in Aguilar Zinser's abduction, one of several apparently politically inspired kidnappings at the time. They ceased after then-President Miguel de la Madrid gave a speech condemning practices against the "objectives of the Mexican state."