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The Complex History of Liberalism in Mexico

Over a period of the last several decades, Mexico has steered clear of populist governments. While Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia experienced leftist personalistic rule, Mexico remained committed to structural reform of its economy, and saw the advent of political competition after one-party rule by the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI) from 1929 to 2000. A sort of liberal consensus had emerged among the elites in the new century. Mexicans showed an undisguised dislike of leaders such as Hugo Chávez. Yet now Mexican voters have thrown in their lot with a populist leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has succeeded in his third attempt to win the presidency.

López Obrador’s nemesis is “neo-liberalism.” In the campaign, he promised to undo key liberal political and economic reforms undertaken in Mexico over the last administration. What does this mean for the future of Mexico as a liberal country?

Liberalism’s Past

Liberalism has a complex history in Mexico. After Spain lost control of its colonies early in the 19th century, liberals seeking a decentralized and republican form of government fought constant military and political battles against throne-and-altar conservatives. After defeating a French-backed army in 1867, the liberals put in place significant reforms, such as the separation of church and state, religious toleration, and the removal of the legal and corporate privileges of the army and the Indian communities. The 1857 Constitution became a symbol of liberal reform, and liberal political success.

In the following decades triumphant liberalism underwent important transformations. By the end of the century it had morphed into different strains of positivism. “Doctrinal liberalism” stressing such principles as freedom of the press and the rule of law was seen as naïve and outdated. The reign of the científicos who entered the cabinet of the dictator Porfirio Díaz (himself originally a liberal caudillo) came to an end with the Mexican Revolution.

The first stage of the rebellion, led by Francisco Madero, was liberal. Madero rebelled against Díaz after his customary landslide electoral victory (he’d been in power for 34 years) in 1910. The rebels fought for clean elections and for respect for constitutional rights. The aging general finally resigned and left the country in 1911. New elections were held and Madero, at the head of the Anti-Reelectionist Party (a protest against incumbent presidents rigging the system to stay in office), won. A couple of years later a military coup deposed Madero and an internecine war ensued, lasting until 1920.

After the downfall of Madero, the Revolution took an increasingly illiberal turn. By the 1930s, as the PRI’s long tenure began, the regime was developing a unique strain of anti-liberalism. One could say that liberalism was faring no better in Mexico than it was faring in the rest of the world at that time—but the Allied victory in World War II showed that liberal democracies were not, as had been claimed, weak and outmoded polities but viable and even powerful ones.

The restored postwar prestige of liberal democracy had an impact in Mexico, with influential writers such as Jesus Reyes Heroles (1921-1985), a politician and ideologue of the PRI, recasting 19th century liberalism as the foundation of Mexico’s ruling party instead of its antithesis. To build a myth of national unity, Reyes Heroles claimed in the late 1950s that “the Liberal Idea is intertwined with the National Idea,” and that “a continuity within Mexican liberalism exists and shapes the different stages of our history.”[1]

If in its early beginnings liberalism had been a fighting doctrine against privileges, by the 1980s it had become a lifeless chapter in history books, a mummy whose life juices had been sapped by the regime. A citadel of liberalism remained, though, in the literary magazine Vuelta, edited by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz. There writers defended liberal causes in the 1980s and 1990s. The magazine ran articles from international authors criticizing totalitarianism and socialism. Vuelta also criticized the Mexican authoritarian government. The historian Enrique Krauze argued that Mexico deserved a fully functional liberal democracy.

The Woes of Liberalism

By the early 1990s, the term “liberal” was undergoing a transformation: it was becoming “neoliberalism.” President Miguel de la Madrid, in office from 1982 to 1988, launched market reforms in 1983. From then on, the state would be considered an obstacle to economic growth, a source of market distortions and inefficient resource allocations.

Mexico partook of a wider global movement, accelerating after the collapse of Soviet communism, toward reforms that aimed at reducing the size of the state, cutting public deficits, privatizing state companies, and liberalizing the economy. What became known as the Washington Consensus (the name given a slate of World Bank- and International Monetary Fund-guided reforms by economist John Williamson in 1989) provided the framework for this movement. While in many developed countries these ambitious policies (deregulation, privatization, cutting government spending, fiscal reform, opening to trade with other countries) were undertaken by democratic governments, in other nations such as Mexico and Chile, they were put in place by authoritarian regimes.

Reform by non-democratic means was labeled “authoritarian liberalism” by some critics. In 1995, historian Lorenzo Meyer claimed:

In the administration of President Miguel de la Madrid, and since 1985 to be precise, a handful of young economists, supporters of the idea of displacing the State in favor of the market, skillfully maneuvered to wrest power away from traditional politicians. The technocrats decided that the proper course of action was a selective modernization. They aimed at transforming the economy but preserving the inherited authoritarian, non-democratic and premodern political instruments, and to use them fully. In doing so they created something that can be termed “market authoritarianism.”[2]

In order to effect change, and to control the inevitable reactions against reform, “the so-called economic neoliberalism used and relied on traditional authoritarianism. Its two main pillars were unlimited presidentialism and a state-party that is, political anti-liberalism.”

Meyer might be right. Economic reforms enacted in non-democratic ways are at odds with key aspects of political liberalism. Classical liberalism, from its origins, has never been an economic theory exclusively. It was born primarily as a set of political ideas. In any case, it might very well be that the ideological commitment of technocrats to free markets was feebler than what critics assume. Many reformers were not free-market ideologues, but rather pragmatic politicians who rode the ascending tide of neoliberalism. They merely complied with the terms of the Washington Consensus and the international financial institutions. They did not care for the political aspects of liberalism, either. In a word, they were not really liberals. It is noteworthy that none of the prominent Mexican technocrats of the 1990s, such as former Secretary of Revenue (Hacienda) Francisco Gil Díaz, or Jaime Serra Puche, a key NAFTA negotiator, is today a liberal intellectual or pundit.

Nonetheless, it is true that technocrats played a very significant role in the modernization of the economy. Some critics even argue that they did more for the liberal program than did intellectuals. For instance, Héctor Aguilar Camín asserts: “I think that Mexican liberals have to set their scores right with the neo-liberal governments. Both things are intimately connected to the point that I would suggest that neo-liberals are in fact liberals in action inside the government.”[3] He asks,

Are we not downplaying the importance of liberalizing decisions by labeling them as “neo-liberal”? Are we not saying that there is a spurious liberalism, that of the change-effecting governments, and a purer liberalism, which keeps a critical distance from those same government? What is it with the label “neo-liberal”? . . . Why is government neo-liberalism wrong and intellectuals’ and academics’ liberalism right? The truth is that they have profound convergences.

Enter “Social Liberalism”

Interestingly, the administration of President de la Madrid’s successor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, attempted to modernize the ideology of the PRI to accord with the efforts being mounted under the Washington Consensus. Traditionally the ruling party’s ideology had been “revolutionary nationalism,” a mixture of statism, nationalism, and anti-imperialist rhetoric. Such discourse was at odds with the modernizing outlook of the Salinas administration. For instance, a key Salinas goal was to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada. Therefore the ideological discourse would abandon its anti-American elements to recast the United States as an ally and a partner in a joint venture that would yield economic prosperity.

Salinas, Mexico’s President from 1988 to 1994, jettisoned revolutionary nationalism as the official ideology of the regime and in its place put a new concoction: “social liberalism.” This creation retrieved some of the ideas of Reyes Heroles. Indeed, in the PRI ideologue’s eyes, Mexican liberalism was unique in its rejection of economic laissez faire. To back this contention, Reyes Heroles relied on one unorthodox 19th century liberal, the lawyer and politician Ponciano Arriaga. He, however, was an outlier in the field of Mexican liberalism. As in other parts of the world, in Mexico most liberals were firm supporters of free trade and other economic freedoms. Nonetheless, President Salinas used Arriaga and Reyes Heroles to propose an ideology that was liberal yet arguably different from the much-maligned “neo-liberalism.”

Social liberalism had a very short life. It was adopted by the PRI in 1992, yet a couple of years later it was abandoned when the prestige of the former President suffered a massive blow due to an economic crisis that erupted shortly after the inauguration of the next Mexican President, Ernesto Zedillo, in late 1994.

Social liberalism was the ideological swan song of official liberalism. Tainted by association with the administration of Salinas, liberalism was cut loose from the boat of the PRI. It was then and there that it was emancipated from the regime that appropriated it to legitimate authoritarian rule. Five years later, the ruling party was defeated at the polls for the first time in 75 years. The victor was Vicente Fox of the National Action Party, which sought, unsuccessfully, to continue structural reforms.

Once emancipated from the PRI, liberalism could be reclaimed by a vast array of intellectuals, academics, and politicians of various ideological stripes. However, what was reclaimed was not the historical myth with its distortions, but the core ideas of classical liberalism—the rule of law, free markets, equality before the law, respect for human rights—that suddenly became relevant to tackle the challenges that a democratic Mexico posed. Thus, liberalism was reinvented. By 2018 a new generation of liberals faced the challenge of a potentially illiberal administration presided over by López Obrador. Will liberals be up to the task?

[1] Jesús Reyes Heroles, El liberalism mexicano, three volumes (National Autonomous University of Mexico, 1957-1961).

[2] Lorenzo Meyer, Liberalismo autoritario: Las contradicciones del sistema politico mexicano (Océano, 1995), p. 30.

[3] Héctor Aguilar Camín and José Antonio Aguilar Rivera, “Ideas invisibles, creencias en tránsito,” Nexos, July 2014.

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