Mexico: Chaos on our Doorstep.
by Sol W. Sanders.
Madison Books. 222 pp. $18.95.
The major difference between Mexico and most of the rest of Latin America is that in Mexico, civilians unambiguously control the political life of the country, and have done so ever since the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) tamed the military in the 1930’s and 40’s. Sol Sanders, who was the long-time international editor of Business Week, shows in Mexico: Chaos on Our Doorstep that the party’s “mystique” is indeed founded on something genuine. What the PRI has done with that mystique, however, is lamentable; the firmest civilian government in Latin America has come over the last half-century to preside over one of the least stable, youngest, poorest, most illiterate, and fastest growing populations in the hemisphere.
How has this happened? Sanders begins by suggesting that the revolution the PRI is supposed to have institutionalized was not a thoroughgoing democratic one. What seems to have taken place in Mexico (beginning in 1910) was fourteen years of civil war and insurrection that left bourgeois progressive oligarchs victorious over Catholic landowning oligarchs. The bourgeois progressives—liberationist in rhetoric but as authoritarian as their predecessors when push came to shove—set up a one-party system of “political inclusion,” under which any rival interest that sprang up was bought off or otherwise coopted.
Until recently, that is. Now the machine has begun to come a bit unglued, with opposition parties like the PAN (Partido Actión National) insisting on competing for popular support, and catching the attention of the world as they continue to be robbed at the polls.
Specific actions taken by the nearly all-powerful executive—who since the late 1960’s has handpicked his successor—have sunk Mexico further and further into statism. There have been large expropriations of foreign capital. Luis Echeverria, President during the 70’s, made war on the private sector by pouring money into the public sector, then massively devaluing the peso in 1976, an action which set off the flight of tens of billions of dollars’ worth of capital. His successor, José Lopez Portillo, just days before leaving office, nationalized the banks. He did so over the protest of his own future successor, Miguel de la Madrid, a centrist by PRI standards, “or, as moderates and conservatives would say, not a Jacobin,” according to Sanders. Once in office, however, de la Madrid introduced amendments to the constitution that legalized the bank nationalization ex post facto and further eroded property rights.
With a centralized economy struggling to produce enough to feed a burgeoning population, the lack of investments, corruption, inefficiency, and bad luck in the form of falling oil prices have left the country all but unable to service its huge foreign debt. The last thing the Mexicans want is to be beholden to the U.S. Thus, the de la Madrid administration has upheld Mexico’s reputation for honoring its debt, but at the price of austerity measures that appear to be bringing the country to its knees.
Even greater than the growth in the population in recent decades (it doubled to 53 million between 1945 and 1970) has been the growth in the size of the labor force. Sanders estimates an unemployment rate of 37 to 45 percent. Not surprisingly, this has led to mass Mexican emigration to the largest labor market in the world, the U.S. Sanders, who disclaims being a restrictionist on immigration, nevertheless worries about our “open border” and appears to support legislation like the Simpson-Rodino bill, which is aimed at stemming the tide of illegal aliens who come here to work. Sanders clearly fears the PRI will lose control of the country, setting off a 1910-type upheaval with “literally millions of refugees scampering across the poorly defended U.S. southern border.”
Yet if we do face a future threat in a destabilized Mexico, it will probably stem less from a mass “voting with the feet” than from an expansion of the Soviet Union’s already considerable anti-U.S. activities there. Sanders provides interesting documentation of Communist efforts since the 1920’s to link the Mexican revolution with the worldwide revolutionary movement. A group of Spanish Republicans, defeated in that country’s civil war, emigrated to Mexico in the late 30’s and created a highly influential leftist/Stalinist current in Mexican politics that apparently is still felt today. Discourse in the universities, cultural institutions, and the professions takes its generally pro-Marxist, anti-U.S. character in part from the Spanish radicals and their descendants, and also from a Castroist network in the country.
Still, on a practical level, the electoral appeal of orthodox Communism has always been quite low. Sanders hypothesizes, moreover, that the more ambitious members of the Mexican Communist party may be held in check by Moscow, which would rather not risk a grab for power so long as it can go on easily using the party as a listening post and propaganda arm directed against the United States.
In his preface, Sanders says he will offer no solutions to the problems he describes, yet two solutions are at least implied in this book. One would be to unfetter the PAN and the other nongovernmental political parties. A second would be to make the foreign (mostly New York) banks who foolishly lent Mexico down the river in the 1970’s swallow their own losses. Both sound like good ideas, although the latter is admittedly difficult to envision actually happening.
Two other solutions—sealing the U.S.-Mexican border and controlling Mexico’s population—would also seem to follow logically from the facts presented here. But it is far from clear that more border guards and more Immigration and Naturalization Service officers rounding up and deporting illegal immigrants would be either effective or, for that matter, desirable. And as for population control, hard experience has shown that, absent totalitarian methods of enforcement, the most effective way to lower a nation’s birth rate is to improve its economy.
The helter-skelter organization of this book unfortunately obscures the fact that Sanders talked to some interesting and informative insiders, both Mexican and American. There are, indeed, many things to be learned from Mexico: Chaos on Our Doorstep, even if it is harder to learn them than it need have been. Above all one is grateful to Sanders for reminding us of the ominous geopolitical significance of a Mexico at once resentful of its northern neighbor and no longer able to cope.