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Dilemmas of Change in Mexican Politics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Kevin J. Middlebrook
Indiana University, Bloomington


Despite the past resilience of Mexico's authoritarian regime, the severity of the country's post-1982 economic crisis raises major questions concerning the future direction of Mexican politics. This review examines recent developments affecting two key members of the governing revolutionary coalition, the political elite and organized labor. The political elite's unity is potentially threatened by shifts in education and recruitment patterns, and widespread uncertainty regarding Mexico's economic future has produced the most serious intra-elite division since the early 1950s. Prolonged economic crisis has also placed severe strains on state-labor relations, and the government's implementation of a new development strategy may lead to a substantial redefinition of organized labor's overall position in the Mexican regime. These changes pose significant challenges to the political elite's ability to preserve a broad-based governing coalition and political openness while managing the economic crisis and conflicting development priorities.

Review Articles
World Politics , Volume 41 , Issue 1 , October 1988 , pp. 120 - 141
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 1988

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1 Mexico's governing political party was founded in 1929 as the Partido Nacional Revolu-cionario (Revolutionary National Party). In 1938 it was restructured as the Partido Revolu-cionario Mexicano (Mexican Revolutionary Party) on the basis of labor, agrarian, military, and “popular” sectors. The military sector was formally eliminated in 1940 and became part of the popular (middle-class) sector after the latter was reorganized in 1943. Further internal reforms were effected in 1946, and the party was renamed the PRI. Organized business has never been formally part of the party, although business interests and the military are both important elements in the broader “revolutionary coalition.”

2 This characterization of the Mexican system draws on Juan Linz's theoretical discussion of authoritarian regimes. See Linz, Juan J., “Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes,” in Greenstein, Fred I. and Polsby, Nelson W., eds., Handbook of Political Science, Vol. III (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1975), 175411Google Scholar, at 264–69.

3 The 1961–70 and 1970–77 growth rates are from The World Bank, World Development Report, 1980 (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 1980)Google Scholar, Table 2, p. 113. The 1982–87 growth and inflation rates are author's calculations based on data presented in El Mercado de Valores 48 (February 15, 1988), 20, and (April 1, 1988), Table 2, p. 29.

4 Smith and Camp offer somewhat different operational definitions of the Mexican political elite. Smith's study includes individuals holding major national office at any time between 1900 and 1971: presidents, vice-presidents (an office abolished by the 1917 constitution), cabinet members, heads of major decentralized agencies and state-supported companies, PRI executive committee members, governors, federal senators and deputies, and ambassadors (Appendix A, pp. 15–27). In addition to those positions identified by Smith, Camp's study of the period from 1935 to 1976 includes Supreme Court justices, second-tier positions in major government ministries, and leaders of major PRI-affiliated mass organizations (Appendix A, pp. 1–4).

5 Camp demonstrates (pp. 41–45) that the political generation born immediately after the revolution (1920–29) had the highest proportion of individuals with lower-class backgrounds (42.1 percent).

Although neither Smith nor Camp addresses this point, it is likely that individuals with lower-class backgrounds hold a higher proportion of elected and appointive offices at the state and local levels, particularly in those regions where major labor and agrarian organizations have considerable political influence. At the national level, the federal Chamber of Deputies is usually the highest position attained in a labor or agrarian leader's political career (Camp, 214).

6 Camp, Roderic A., “The Political Technocrat in Mexico and the Survival of the Political System,” Latin American Research Review 20 (No. 1, 1985), 97118Google Scholar, at 101; see Camp, “The Cabinet and the Tecnico in Mexico and the United States,” Journal ofComparative Administration 3 (August 1971), 188213CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 192–93, for data concerning the technical orientation of some cabinet positions since the 1930s.

7 Camp (fn. 6, 1985), 98, uses this last term to suggest that virtually all high-level Mexican decision makers have some political skills, even though some individuals’ education, career experience, means of recruitment, and sources of influence emphasize professional training and technical expertise. In this essay, the term “political technocrat” is used interchangeably with técnico.

8 See Camp (fn. 6, 1985), 97, 106, 112–14, for views similar to those expressed by Levy

9 Camp (fn. 6, 1971), 211.

10 Salinas de Gortari, an economist educated at UNAM and Harvard University, served as Minister of Programming and Budget in the de la Madrid administration. He was thirty-nine years of age at the time of his nomination by the PRI, and he had never previously held elective office.

11 Laso de la Vega, Jorge, La Corriente Democrática: Hablan los protagonistas [The Democratic Current: The protagonists speak] (Mexico City: Editorial Posada, 1987)Google Scholar, offers a chronology of the Democratic Current (pp. 193–99) and reproduces the movement's two published working papers (pp. 257–60, 315–20).

12 For details on Henríquez Guzmán's movement, see Pellicer de Brody, Olga, “La oposición en México: el caso del henriquismo” [“The opposition in Mexico: The case of Henriquismo”], in Centro de Estudios Internacionales, ed., Las crisis en el sistema político mexicano [Crises in the Mexican political system] (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1977), 3145Google Scholar.

13 Uno Más Uno, October 21, 1987, p. 4; La Jornada, October 29, 1987, pp. 1, 6. Cárdenas was expelled from the PRI after accepting the PARM's presidential nomination; La Jornada, October 17, 1987, p. 23.

14 Former president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40) is remembered primarily for his progressive economic and political policies and his expropriation of foreign-owned petroleum companies in March 1938.

PARM, PST, and PPS support for the Democratic Current also reflected their concern that the PRI would no longer need to rely on them to assure majority political control of the Federal Electoral Commission and state and district electoral commissions. Reforms to the federal electoral code in 1986 effectively guaranteed PRI majority control in these bodies, thus reducing PRI/government interest in sustaining the PARM, PST, and PPS as loyal “opposition” parties. With their political future in doubt, these minority parties backed the Democratic Current. For details, see Juan Molinar Horcasitas, “El futuro del sistema electoral mexicano” [“The future of the Mexican electoral system”] (paper presented at a conference on “Mexico's Alternative Political Futures,” Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California—San Diego, March 1988), 41–43. See Excélsior, May 16, 1988, pp. 1, 30, for a list of the political organizations comprising the FDN.

15 New York Times, June 6, 1988, p. 3. The PRT refused to follow the PMS move.

16 The most notable change in the succession process, a series of televised public appearances by the principal presidential candidates in August 1987, had been discussed as early as 1981; see Emilio Rabasa Gamboa, “La sucesión presidencial: Perspectivas” [“The presidential succession: Perspectives”], Excéelsior, June 27, 1981, pp. 4, 20.

17 According to official sources, the FDN received 31.1 percent of valid votes cast in the July 1988 presidential election. The PRI's share of the presidential vote, 51.4 percent, was its lowest ever. The opposition also broke historical precedent by winning four seats in the federal Senate, and it expanded its representation in the federal Chamber of Deputies to 240 of a total 500 seats; New York Times, July 15, 1988, p. 3.

18 Alvarez, Alejandro, “La crisis económica y el movimiento obrero en el México de los años ochenta” [“The economic crisis and the Mexican labor movement in the 1980s”], Tables 1, 5, in Middlebrook, Kevin J., ed., Unions, Workers, and the State in Mexico (La Jolla, CA: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California—San Diego, forthcoming 1989)Google Scholar; Antonio Gershenson, “Economía y elecciones” [“Economy and elections”], La Jornada, “Perfil Político” supplement, September 22, 1987, pp. 11–12.

19 See Carr, Barry, “The Mexican Economic Debacle and the Labor Movement: A New Era or More of the Same?” in Wyman, Donald L., ed., Mexico's Economic Crisis: Challenges and Opportunities (La Jolla, CA: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California—San Diego, 1983), 91116Google Scholar, for an early assessment of this issue.

20 El Mercado de Valores 47 (December 21, 1987)Google Scholar, “Pacto de Solidaridad Económica” supplement. For additional details concerning the plan's purposes and its early implementation, see El Mercado de Valores 48 (February 1, 1988), 3–7, and New York Times, March 1, 1988, p. 43. See also Laurence Whitehead, “The 'Economic Solidarity Pact' in Comparative Perspective” (paper presented at a conference on “Mexico's Alternative Political Futures,” fn. 14).

21 La Jornada, October 5, 1987, p. 6; October 12, 1987, p. 1; October 16, 1987, p. 7; October 19, 1987, p. 4; and Uno Más Uno, October 21, 1987, p. 5.

22 The pact's failure to improve labor's general economic welfare more effectively sparked a number of political protests, among them some actions coordinated by the FDN. These initiatives included the formation of a “National Resistance Front” by opposition political organizations and dissident labor unions; Excelsior, February 19, 1988, p. 1; March 29, 1988, pp. 1, 12; El Cotidiano 22 (March-April 1988), 51.

23 For analyses of Mexico's emerging development strategy, see Plan National de Desarrollo, 1983–1988 [National Development Plan, 1983–1988] (Mexico City: Secretaría de Programación y Presupuesto, 1983), 117–49Google Scholar; Buzaglo, Jorge, Planning the Mexican Economy: Alternative Development Strategies (London: Croom Helm, 1984)Google Scholar; Ríos, Miguel Angel Rivera, Crisis y reorganización del capitalismo mexicano, 1960–1985 [The crisis and reorganization of Mexican capitalism, 1960–1985] (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1986)Google Scholar; Flores, Alejandro Dávila, La crisis financiera en México [The financial crisis in Mexico] (Mexico City: Ediciones de Cultura Popular, 1986)Google Scholar; José Feijóo, Valenzuela, El capitalismo mexicano en los ochenta [Mexican capitalism in the 1980s] (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1986)Google Scholar. For de la Madrid's summary of steps taken to implement this strategy, see El Mercado de Valores 48 (January 1, 1988), 3–29.

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