INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR CARLOS CHAVEZ BECKER ON CONTEMPORARY HISTORY OF MEXICO

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INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR CARLOS CHAVEZ BECKER ON CONTEMPORARY HISTORY OF MEXICO

Ayşe Yarar: Mr. Becker, thank you very much for accepting our interview proposal. Could you please give us some information about your academic life and studies?

Carlos Chavez Becker: I’m a Professor and a researcher of the Political Processes Department at Autonomous Metropolitan University locates in Lerma Campus. Also I’m a PhD Student on Social Sciences at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). On the other hand, I am giving lectures on Political Parties and Mexican Political System at Social and Political Science Faculty of UNAM.

Ayşe Yarar: When did modern Mexico begin, with the Mexican Revolution or earlier? Could you give us some information about the birth of modern Mexico?

Carlos Chavez Becker: In political terms, Mexico’s modern history started in the post revolutionary period, at the beginning of the 1920s in the 20th century. This is because before this period, political organization had a more feudal-like model. The defeat of the old oligarchy is an important cut in this process. Emergence of the new and victorious political elite changed dramatically the shape of political life in Mexico. The “familia revolucionaria”, which was the group that held the responsibility of Mexico’s reconstruction, is the direct antecedent of one of the groups that today lead the political life in the country. The process of construction of modern Mexico refers the post-revolutionary period.

Ayşe Yarar: Did people who designed the modern Mexico take any country as a model? While they were designing the country, what kinds of reforms or modernization efforts were done? Also what challenges did they face?

Carlos Chavez Becker: There were different cultural and political traditions that influenced the formation of modern Mexico. The most notorious were the republicanism and secular projects for the state, accompanied with the revolutionary ideology. In fact, these different influences designed the ideological project that was established in Mexico during a long period of the 20th century. It was Revolutionary Nationalism (Nacionalismo Revolucionario). The influences came from diverse states. It’s difficult to specify what exactly were these influences but most importantly they were ideals from the USA, republicanism from France and socialist ideas from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The groups nourished with these ideas, came together in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Nacional Revolucionario – PNR) in 1929. Also other things were observed and reinterpreted in Mexico’s post-revolutionary regime. For instance, the corporatist model was taken partly from the Italian model.

All these ideas or models created ideological amalgam that meant Revolutionary Nationalism in Mexico. Revolutionaries in the country also faced with different adversaries. Revolutionary ideas always were threatened by the danger of a counter revolution, leaded by the extreme rightist groups. They were radical oppositions against the secular model of the State defended by the Familia Revolucionaria. There were also some other oppositions from the left wing wanted political implementation of socialist-communist regime.

The post-revolutionary regime needed a huge reform project for the construction of the state. This project included an unprecedented agricultural land reform – distribution of the land among poor peasants- , implementation of labor rights (at least during the Cardenas period), organization of the masses in different unions and associations, construction and institutionalization of civil political elite and so on.

Ayşe Yarar: Could you tell us about (charismatic) leadership style in Mexico during the 19th and 20th centuries?

Carlos Chavez Becker: During the post-revolutionary regime, the main point of the system was the president. The president was the leader of the state but also the leader of the political party (PNR-PRM-PRI the name of the party had changed two times). So, he was the most powerful person during the presidential term. Each Mexican president had a particular ‘halo’ of sanctity during PRI era (1934-2000). In my opinion, this particular vision of Mexican presidents was born during the Cardenas presidency. Cardenas was a very charismatic leader because he was close enough to peasants and urban workers to gain their trust and respect. The pact of mutual collaboration that Cardenas signed with the masses was consolidated by a policy of permanent contact with poor people all over the country. During his period, he usually visited the smallest towns in Mexico in long tours. In those uncountable visits, Presidents Cardenas used to visit the downtown in order to chat informally with the people, as many historians recall.

Ayşe Yarar: Mexico was ruled by the single party PNR (Institutional Revolutionary Party) for a period of 71 years, from 1929 until 2000. It emerged from the Mexican Revolution started in 1910 as a coalition of politicians, military forces, warlords, and social organizations. Could you give us some information about the formation of this party? Which type of single party was PNR when it was established in 1929?

Carlos Chavez Becker: The PNR was a pragmatic solution to the problem of political polarization and fragmentation of the political and military elite after the revolution. After the years of political instability and the incapacity, to guarantee total control of Mexico’s territory, Calles designed a political institution in which the emergent ‘winners’ of the revolution could overcome the conflicts between each other and solve the problems arising from their differences and also ungovernability of the country. Although, the creation of PNR was approached with skepticism and without whole public attentionat the beginning, the party gradually demonstrated that it was an extremely useful political tool to control post-revolutionary political elites. In few years, every important local actor understood that being outside the PNR was a political suicide. The PNR members and the ‘familia revolucionaria’ became the only owners of the ideology and victory achieved during the revolution. Being kicked out from the PNR constituted not only a political death but also would transform the political actors to the enemies of the regime and the country. Usually those actors, who never accepted to become the members of the PNR (for instance, the extreme rightist and leftist organizations) or were expelled from it, became the ‘reaction’ against the party according to the official rhetoric.

The PNR was formed with hundreds or maybe thousands of big, medium or small size political organizations, local or regional parties and other very ideologically diverse collective action alternatives. Inclusion of local leaders and veterans of the revolutionary conflagration who were called as “caudillosto” to the party was extremely important. After that, PNR had been called as a federation of parties. The most important thing is that political forces of the different armies during the revolution came together in the party collectively. Using Sartori’s typology of party systems, we could say that hegemonic party system which was a non-competitive and, in which electoral opposition was coopted or repressed in order to assure PNR’s electoral victory in each election, prevailed in Mexico from 1929 to 1988.

Ayşe Yarar: How would you broadly describe the civil-military relations in Mexico during the first half of the 20th century? Did civil authority succeed to separate the army from politics?

Carlos Chavez Becker: Civil-military relations had two important terms in Mexico during the 20th century. The first one covers the years from post-revolutionary period to the beginning of the presidency of Miguel Alemán in 1946. There was no civil president in Mexico until 1946. Miguel Alemán was the first civil president of the country. The second term started in 1946 and has continued to the present. During the first term, the army had a very important and relevant role in Mexico’s politics. Its capacity of influence was very strong and it took part in the very first level of political decisions in Mexico. In 1938, the army became one of the sectors that constituted the reformulated Partido de la Revolucion Mexicana with Cardenas. It was a very important tool to pacify the country, to put the different political actors of the post revolution under the control of national authority and to integrate the country territorially.

The process of ‘civil’ national authority that was built in 1946 continued successfully, because of that Mexico had never experienced a military president after transition to the civil governance. The army was put in a second level and had been subordinated to the civil authorities since that time.

Ayşe Yarar: What can you tell us about the Mexican Political System during the first half of the 20th century? How was the role of corporatism in perpetuating PRI rule in the country? How was the nature of state-society relations during PRI Rule?

Carlos Chavez Becker: I’ll answer these questions separately.

Mexican Political System suffered important transformations during the first half of the 20th century in Mexico. During this period, the country transformed from an autocratic political system controlled by a dictatorship with almost none sign of institutionalization, based almost exclusively on the army, without electoral competition and political parties and focused on maintaining an aristocratic upper class, to a system in which there was a powerful and increasingly institutionalized presidency, a strong political party in which the masses corporately were organized but there was very limited electoral competence, in which the army suffered an important restraint of its historical power and in which a new pact or political arrangement based on a more social redistributive tendency (but also authoritarian), were put in motion.

Only for analytic purposes, the first half of the 20thcentury in Mexico could be divided in four different phases:

  • The period of the authoritarian rule until 1910,
  • The revolutionary period from 1910 to 1921,
  • The post-revolutionary period orpacification period from 1921 to 1929,
  • The institutionalization of the new regime after 1929.

The historical process that took place in Mexico during the first part of the 20th century started with a new regime which had very consolidated governments until 1950. In this process the gradual instauration of a corporatist, patrimonial and clientelistic political system was fundamental. Mexican corporatism has its own characteristics. The most important one was that the masses (mainly industrial workers and peasants) were officially incorporated to the PRM in 1938 during the Cardenas presidency. Suddenly, millions of workers were part of the ‘official’ political party inall the country. Leaders of the unions and organizations played a very important role in this process, in particular Vicente Lombardo Toledano who founded the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), the national labor federation most closely associated with the ruling party. There were not major protests against this incorporation, because Cardenas defended a popular and nationalistic model of development based on land distribution and the defense of labor rights. There was an official alliance among peasants, workers and the government-political elite. But when the government and political elite started to move to a more center and center right ideology, problems arose. This shift started to happen after 1940, with the presidency of Avila Camacho and it continued during the rest of the 20th century. At the beginning, it was easy to justify this process, because of the Second World War conditions. During those years there was a necessity of National Unity. So, union strikes and peasant mobilizations were forbidden for the sake of national peace and stability. In this context corporatism was a key element of social and political control. The increasing discontent from the masses was controlled and mitigated by corporatism and clientelistic mechanisms with less popular decisions by government. Some authors argue that the role played by the unions’ and peasant organizations’ leaders was very important, by reason of the fact thatthey confronted the masses and systematically limited and diminished their demands in the political system. But most importantly, they eroded mobilization capacity of the discontent masses. One of the things that international scholars find more difficult to understand in this system is the control of the leaders. Since 1940, those leaders increasingly defended their own interests from the patrons and government without taking into account the interests of the members of their organizations. This was possible by processes of corruption, like cooptation and repression in which leaders tried to defend certain degree of autonomy. This system has lasted with some changes until today.

The nature of society-state relationship was defined by these mechanisms of political control. The state monopolized the decision of what was good for Mexican society since Cardenas. The ideology of Revolutionary Nationalism joined together the ideals, hopes and expectations of popular masses, at least under PRI-government understanding. That is the element of patrimonialism.

Finally, the clientelistic part of the system was a permanent deal of distribution of resources (of different types) between government and political masses, mediated by organizations’ and unions’ leaders. As redistributive pact and project after Cardenas was gradually dismantled, some goods and services were needed to be offer to the masses in order to preserve the political control. The exchange of goods and services for votes, gave PRI (beyond the persistent accusations of electoral fraud) the victory in almost all elections during the 20th century in the municipal, local and national level.

Ayşe Yarar: What was the influence of Catholicism in Mexico’s political life?  How can you evaluate the effects of the religion on politics in historical context?

Carlos Chavez Becker: During the 20th century, but in particular from the post revolution period until 1992, the year in which President Salinas reestablished official relationships with the Vatican, apparently Catholicism had a secondary role in Mexico’s political life. But saying apparently it’s necessary, taking into account that Catholicism is a constituent element of Mexican identity. The important thing is that post revolution regime, led by Familia Revolucionaria, held a secular discourse and, at least some of its members had a radical anti-clerical project. Mexico’s government forbade Catholic Church staff to participate publicly in politics by decree after the revolution. However, Catholic groups during this period had a very important participation in politics. They founded, for instance, the most important opposition political party in Mexico in 1939: The Partido Acción Nacional, which took away Mexico’s presidency from PRI whose name was PNR until 1946, in 2000, after more than seventy years of being the party in office.

Ayşe Yarar: What is the meaning of “Perfect Dictatorship” in Mexico?

Carlos Chavez Becker: This expression explains the paradox that happened in Mexico along the second half of the 20th century in terms of social and political control. How could Mexico show a façade of social and political stability to the world while rough mechanisms of political control were being used to dominate the society within the country? During the most part of this period, the regime was capable of having a strict and effective political control of the masses in Mexico although different revolutionary processes or coups d’etat happened one day after another in many other countries in Latin America. While Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and many other countries in the region were suffering heavy problems of political instability, there were regular elections, political parties competition, a reasonable rate of electoral participation, a good degree of social peace and economic growth in Mexico. But even more, when the economy started to show signs of exhaustion, at least by a decent period, the degree of governability in Mexico still was more than acceptable.

The ‘perfect dictatorship’ is an expression invented by the Peruvian Literature Nobel Prize Winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, to describe the ability of Mexico’s presidential regime to maintain peace and political stability by a long period of time in a growing context of deterioration of popular socioeconomic conditions and a precarious existence of political and civil rights.

Another expression, useful to understand this paradox, was related to Mexican official international politics. During three or four decades in that time, Mexico imposed a strong international policy in favor of peace, global mutual understanding and the support of third world countries. For instance, Mexico received thousands of exiles from all over the world, such as Spain, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, El Salvador and many other that lost democratic conditions. But within the country, the opposition groups persistently were repressed and more in general, any voice of dissatisfaction was silenced, very often in a violent way. This policy were called “chandelier (oil lamp) of the street, darkness of your house” (In Spanish: Candil de la calle, obscuridad de la casa).

Ayşe Yarar: What is the meaning of “Mexican Miracle”?

Carlos Chavez Becker: This expression refers to the productive, developmental and economic explosion happened in Mexico from the 1940s to the end of 1970s. In different degree and only to be understood, this Mexican Miracle is similar to the Chinese social and economic growth that is currently experiencing in that country.

Ayşe Yarar: What do people get wrong about Mexico and its place in the world?

Carlos Chavez Becker: I think today, putting the criminal violence, as the first card of presentation is to reduce Mexico’s complexity extremely and to avoid watching important socio-cultural aspects. Also, it is important to recognize that Mexico is an important bridge between Latin America and North America.

Ayşe Yarar: As a last question, could you give us the names of most important Mexican historians, political scientists or authors who are interested in contemporary Mexican history and politics?

Carlos Chavez Becker: Arnaldo Córdova, Luis Javier Garrido, Pablo González Cassanova, José Woldemberg, María Amparo Cazar, Daniel Cosío Villegas, Lorenzo Meyer, Francisco Reveles, Octavio Rodríguez Araujo, Adolfo Gilly, Julio Labastida, Soledad Loaeza, Roderic Ai Camp, León Olivé, Rogelio Hernández, Alberto Olvera, Jorge Cadena-Roa, Kevin Middlebrook, Jorge Carpizo, Alan Knight, Ricardo Pozas, Enrique Krauze, Enrique Semo, Roger Bartra,joséRonzón, Luis Medina Peña, Benito Nacif, Carlos Elizondo, Rolando Cordera, Jean Meyer, Héctor Aguilar, Luis Medina, Jesús Silva Herzog, Fernando Benítez, Roger Hansen, Enrique Cárdenas, Carlos Tello, Tzvi Medin, Beatriz Rojas, Albert Michaels, etc.

Ayşe Yarar: Mr. Becker, thank you very much for sharing your opinions with UPA. Good luck in your studies.

 

Interview: Ayşe YARAR

Date: 10.07.2014

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