Mexico: Democracy Interrupted

Mexico: Democracy Interrupted

Author: Jo Tuckman
Publisher: New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. 328p.
Reviewer: Howard Campbell | May 2013

Mexico: Democracy Interrupted is the most recent contribution to a great tradition of books that attempt to explain Mexican culture and politics to Mexicans and the outside world. Authors of this august library of works include Ramos, Zea, Paz, Bartra, Castañeda, Riding, and Dillon and Preston. Tuckman’s book is a fine addition to this literature. Fortunately, it avoids the quicksand of one of the perennial components of such books: windy discourses about national character archetypes and the Mexican soul. Instead, Tuckman’s sinuous prose elucidates Mexico’s flawed transition to democracy, especially during the period of 2000 to 2012 in which the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) governed the country after approximately 70 years of authoritarian rule by the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) and its precursors.

The elegant, insightful introduction and the lengthy, detailed essay on sources demonstrate Tuckman’s command of the main elements of Mexican history and society which produced the events she chronicles. The middle of the book contains penetrating chapters about key dimensions of Mexican life and how they shape or were shaped by politics. Main topics covered in these chapters include President Felipe Calderón’s failed “drug war,” and significant political happenings during the Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón administrations. Tuckman illustrates how the lack of good governance and accountable institutions, and the persistence of entrenched elites, prevent political change despite the existence of electoral democracy. She also analyzes the deeply flawed judicial system, color-based racism, the insularity of the Catholic Church hierarchy amidst a decline in the religion’s popularity, and violence and public insecurity. Other important discussions concern economic inequality and bottlenecks to development, environmental challenges, and the disappointing failures of the left-wing opposition.

The PAN, and its first president, Fox, receive much blame from Tuckman for the political debacles that have plagued Mexico since the heralded 2000 election that removed the PRI from Los Pinos (the Mexican White House). Fox was a great campaigner who prided himself on his ability to run large organizations after heading Coca Cola’s operations in Mexico. Though a savvy businessman, Fox was an inept president who did little or nothing to transform and modernize Mexican governmental institutions and political culture. Calderón, his successor, was a more active leader yet his most visible political decision, to embark on a frontal military and police assault on drug cartels and organized crime, has been a resounding failure. More than 100,000 Mexicans died violently during the Calderón administration, and most of these homicides were a result of the ill-advised “drug war.” The drug-related killing and other criminal violence (including massive human rights violations committed by the police and military) are the most visible symbols of the PAN’s ineffective rule. Yet the economy also remained stagnant and little progress was made to achieve truly efficient, democratic political institutions and bureaucracies. Consequently the PRI has returned to federal power, in spite of the demise of “revolutionary nationalism,” its main ideological claim in the past.

Mexican observers might tend to blame the U.S. a bit more than Tuckman does for the recent political problems. Yet, having lived in Mexico since 2000, the author is a sharp observer of the paradoxes which have stopped Mexico from becoming a full-fledged democracy. In conclusion, the author still retains hope for progressive political transformation in Mexico.   

Howard Campbell, Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas at El Paso

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