Mexico Looks to the Future: The Need for Democracy

Director of the School of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Mexico, PABLO GONZÁLEZ CASANOVAholds a doctor’s degree from the Sorbonne,where he specialized in sociology. He is the author of a number of books, and his new book, DEMOCRACY IN MEXICO,will be published next summer.

by Pablo Gonzalez Casanova

WHEN a foreigner makes his first trip to Mexico and compares the situation there with that in an affluent society, or with his conceptions of comfort, he is not aware that there has been a miracle. He discovers the ancient ruins, the cities and towns, Hispanic and rustic, the folklore, and the poverty, and he exclaims: “How curious!” “How exotic!”

“They are so poor,” he says, and he wants to know why there are so many children who beg for charity. When he makes his second trip, he discovers Mexico’s miracle: new roads and highways, dams and schools, factories and social services, all indications of development.

The miracle is always somewhat relative. Mexico must be considered in comparison with the past and in comparison with other countries in Latin America, where people are impoverished and despairing. In Mexico there is at least hope, and considerable numbers of people are in fact better olF than the masses elsewhere in this area of the world. Mexico’s development is an undeniable reality.

In Mexico the gross national product computed at constant values has tripled since the middle of 1939; real wages per capita almost tripled between 1929 and 1962, even though there was a population explosion during this same period. But more than that, there was a gigantic redistribution of wealth, in particular of agricultural property: the Mexican government distributed more than 19 million acres of land among 2.5 million heads of families. The part of the population which is rural has been gradually dropping, from 80 percent in 1910 to 49 percent in 1960, and agriculture, which in 1910 employed 72 percent of the population, in 1960 employed 53 percent.

There has been in effect a tremendous mobilization of the people in the interest of national development; and the economic development of the country has coincided with a gradual rise in the standard of living for many people, as a result of which the Mexican’s life expectancy has risen from twentyseven years in 1910 to sixty-two years now. One important gain has been growth of the middle class, from 7.8 percent of the population in 1895 to 33.5 percent in 1960.

Since the Revolution of 1910, industrial productivity has tripled and agricultural production has almost tripled. The production of crude oil in 1938, the year of the expropriation of the oil companies, was 38,800,000 barrels. Since then it has increased almost uninterruptedly, until in 1962 it reached a peak of more than 121 million barrels. Finally, national investments increased more than thirtyfold from 1939 to 1961. As these figures show, not only has there been an increase in production and in the national wealth, but there has also been a more equitable distribution of the wealth, and this is the main characteristic of industrial development.

No country can develop without an increase in per capita production and a better distribution of wealth.

Furthermore, Mexico is succeeding with its development and integration as a nation, and it has a political stability which is rare in the contemporary world and particularly rare in Latin America. The country is on the threshold of a presidential-election campaign, and there is a surprising calm. The candidate of the party in power will in all probability win the election, but what is more curious, the opposition parties, both on the right and on the left, are in general agreement on the development program. The leader of the opposition on the right — champion of private enterprise and enemy of state intervention — publicly has declared that he is in agreement with a planned economy; and the opposition on the left proposes for the present stage of development in Mexico more or less the same program as the party in power, except that the leftists want the country to go socialist. But the majority of the people appear to believe that the opposition does not offer better alternatives or more honest solutions.

All this is not to say that Mexico is the best of all possible worlds; nor the most conformist of all countries. But there is general stability, and dissenters are in the minority. These observations are incomplete and can easily be called half truths, but the fact remains that Mexico has achieved a curious unanimity and a sustained development which contrast with the unrest and stagnation of the rest of Latin America.

IN ORDER to achieve its development Mexico had to commit a number of sins. Perhaps every developing country commits sins, but Mexico’s biggest sins consisted in violating the classic theory of democracy and the classic theory of economics.

After the middle of the nineteenth century, when Mexico became independent, all its liberal constitutions were inspired by Montesquieu’s ideas of the balance of power, by Madison’s ideas of a system of checks and balances, by Tocqueville’s notions of local government. Those who drafted the current federal constitution, which was promulgated in 1917, preserved these ideas and added others, recognizing the rights of the workers to organize and to strike, characteristic of an industrial society and of democracy as it evolved in Europe and America.

But the classic theory of democracy was not applicable in Mexico, and the multiparty system gave way to the system of a predominant party, unique and inevitably victorious. The concentration of power in the hands of the chief executive was initiated in 1917. The head of the central government began then to exercise control over the leaders, the political bosses, and the military chiefs. The process continued with the Chamber of Deputies and the revolutionary army, the unions, the farmers’ organizations, and the bureaucrats and civil servants. The only recalcitrants were the rural property owners, who were beginning to feel the effects of the agrarian reform, and the clergy. The latter remained opposed to the government.

The process of concentration of power reached its peak about 1934 with the accession to the presidency of General Lázaro Cárdenas. After that the concentration of the presidential power and of the central government diminished somewhat, but the state maintained its strength and its unity.

There are statistics that confirm this hypothesis. Since the founding of the National Revolutionary Party in 1929, the PR1 has never lost a presidential election, any election for governor, or any senatorial election. During this period the party has brought to power 6 presidents, nearly 200 governors, and 282 senators. From the presidential election of 1910 until the last election in 1958, the government candidate won more than 90 percent of the votes. The strength of the opposition parties is insignificant. The federal government gained the support of more than 90 percent of organized labor.

The power of the executive against the Congress reached its peak under Cardenas and Avila Camacho. All the proposed legislation which the President submitted to Congress was approved unanimously. The Supreme Court of Justice favored the President in all major decisions without exception. Governors could be deposed constitutionally; they were subjected to a very effective system of political control in that they depended for their finances on the federal government, which controlled an average of 90 percent of the state revenues.

The Mexican state thus violated the basic principles of the classic theory of democracy. But this sin permitted its development; it put faith in an extraordinarily useful instrument for the development of a nation-state far different in concept from middle-class Europe or the United States.

The pres dential regime served to defeat the connivance of the legislature, the army, and the clergy. The central regime in fact ended the regional feuds and the intervention of local governments by controlling the local political bosses. And in general the unity of decision of the government served to combat instability; the government met the assaults against the state which the large foreign companies encouraged for their own advantage; it was able to cope with the differences between governors and presidents which elsewhere led to anarchy and bloodshed; and, finally, it served to keep the military in check.

By 1960 the great political bosses who had dominated the country had disappeared, except for two or three who hold much reduced power. The army represents a steadily decreasing strength in proportion to that of labor and is absorbing only 8 to 10 percent of the total federal expenditure, less than in any other Latin-American country with the exception of Costa Rica. The clergy can no longer pretend to be a state within a state, having been deprived of its great wealth in the nineteenth century. Divided between traditionalists and progressives, the clergy encounters a country in which politicalreligious alfiliation is not only constitutionally prohibited but except in a few areas does not operate.

JN/XKXICO’S second sin is that it has violated classic economic theory. Applying a legal concept which does not recognize the unlimited right of private ownership, Mexico expropriated large landholdings and instituted agrarian reform without compensation. distributing land already under cultivation without payment. And Mexico expropriated the large oil companies without worrying that at one given moment in time capital and foreign currency disappeared, without worrying about foreign investments. And the state has intervened more and more in the economy. It has protected national industry with high tariffs, and invested in ownership and management until it has reached the point of being the biggest owner in Mexico.

The state produces and controls nearly all of the disposable energy in Mexico: 100 percent of the production of petroleum and nearly 90 percent of electrical energy. In communications and transportation, state organizations account for 48 percent of the national total, and own all the railroads; in manufacturing, state enterprises contribute only 3 percent of the total, but they concentrate their activity in industries basic to development, excelling in the production of iron and steel, the production of fertilizers, railroad cars, armed motor vehicles, sugar-refining machinery, textile commodities, especially cotton, and paper products. And though in the extractive industries the production of the state is steadily decreasing (3 percent of the national total in I960), its activity is concentrated in the mining of iron and coal. The state has a similar power in its control over finance. It controlled 30 percent of the total in 1942 and now controls half. The governmental institutions of credit, banks, agriculture, transportation, small business, and the like, employ large numbers of people.

So many violations of classic economic theory! What would Adam Smith and David Ricardo say if they were to come to Mexico and see what the Mexicans have done? But the industrialization of Mexico could not have occurred without state ownership, since no one would have been able to compete in the free market with the huge enterprises of a mature Europe and a gigantic United States; and for die state not to intervene would have opened the door to intervention by other nations. State ownership was the basis of our national policy of economic and industrial development, and our government has made large investments in roads, dams, factories, and other essential businesses in which private initiative, both Mexican and foreign, was too timid or too indifferent to invest. The limitations on private ownership served to achieve agrarian reform, and the expropriation of the oil fields established the basis for domestic trade and national capitalization.

In spile of the progress that has been made, Mexico continues to be a heterogeneous society. Differences exist not only between those who have little and those who have much, but also between those who have something and those who have nothing at all. The rural population makes up 49 percent of the total and without doubt is the poorest; 38 percent of the people arc still illiterate; 37 percent of the children of school age are not in school; 38 percent of the people still go barefoot; 24 percent eat no meat, no fish, no eggs, and never drink milk. The number of Mexicans who live on a bare-subsistence level today is at least equal to the number in the past. The rate of development has been insufficient to counteract numerically the high rate of increase of the population as a whole. The rural population, which numbered 11 million in 1910, totaled 17 million in 1960.

Mexico’s underdevelopment shows in many other indexes. Only one quarter of the population has access to electricity; there are five million acres which are not suitable for irrigation; the number of small towns that do not have roads is considerable. In an area of 760,000 square miles (about one fourth the size of continental United States) the dispersion of Mexico’s 35 million people among some 145,000 towns and villages creates a serious problem in planning for roads, schools, and other services. Underdevelopment continues to be a major problem for Mexico. No one doubts or disputes that fact.

Under these conditions it is dangerous from the economic point of view whenever the rate of development decreases. Certainly, the margin of economic and political security which Mexico enjoys is greater than that in other Latin-American countries; but it is not enough compared with the standards in countries under the capitalist system of free enterprise. Except for the period during the war and right after it, 1941 to 1947, when the annual growth of the gross national product was 8.7 percent, the increase has averaged 5 percent or less; and since its rate of population increase is one of the highest in the world (3.5 percent in recent years), Mexico has been able to achieve annual increases of only 2 or 3 percent in its per capita income. This is not enough. Furthermore, there have been dilficult times when Mexico suffered from waves of recession which affected world economy and. in particular, Latin-American economies. One of these occurred in 1961 when the gross national product increased only 3.4 percent, and it meant stagnation. In the last five years, as the Mexican economist Flores de la Pena has observed, the real increase in per capita income has been only 1.3 percent per year, because the population increase averaged 3.4 percent per year. A sane economic policy must move ahead with higher margins of security. For Mexico there is no alternative; it must either lower the birthrate or increase production.

Many Anglo-Saxon writers consider that the solution is to lower the birthrate. But this idea requires an Anglo-Saxon orientation. In Mexico this view is held by only a few. and it is not possible that it would ever become the prevailing view. Mexican culture, from its Catholic origins and its current progressive ness as well, rejects this solution almost unanimously. It is a solution without a future; and from the scientific point of view the consequences are arguable: historically the birthrate drops after countries are developed, and nowhere has it dropped in order for countries to develop. And although it is not impossible that this may happen sometime, surely Mexico does not want to become a laboratory for the neo-Malthusian wizards.

Fortunately, there is another solution, and that is to increase production. And for this solution there are more than enough men, and what is perhaps stranger, more than enough capital! Mexico, like many other countries in a similar situation, has a serious problem of concealed unemployment, and its rural areas suffer from cyclical unemployment. On the other hand. Mexico has a relatively high degree of capitalization. In actual fact ii is one of the most attractive markets in the world for capital. Thus there is no problem about new capital. But its industries are now working at 50 percent of capacity, and there are some that are working at only 20 percent of capacity — on occasion without loss to the companies on account of their high rate of profits.

In economic terms the solution appears relatively simple: it is necessary to coordinate production better and to enlarge domestic and foreign markets so that industry can produce to full capacity. Mexico must plan its economy within the system of free enterprise; it must redistribute income to create new buyers at home at the same time that it expands foreign markets. This requires not only great technical skill but also courageous policy decisions.

From the technical point of view the problem is relatively easy. Mexico today can count on an extraordinary team of specialists in all the branches of development and can improve their education and strengthen their quality in the years ahead. From the political point of view, the problem is certainly more difficult, because Mexico will need to enter a new stage of its political fife. But no industrialized society has moved ahead without some stumbling and without making adjustments in its institutions, its traditions, and its political system.

To coordinate the economic fife of the country — its centers of production and distribution — to plan its investments according to more rigorous criteria, to redistribute its wealth until per capita income reaches a point comparable with that in France or England or the United States, to create domestic markets, Mexico needs to take the step that all industrialized societies have taken: it must organize a solid political and economic entity within the capitalist system. This advance requires the democratization of trade unions, farm organizations, political parties, and corporations. In the midst of its cultural and political difficulties, Mexico must realize that it has no other course but to create greater participation of the people in the government. in the culture, and in the economy.

Translated by Emity Flint.