Government and Politics
The Constitution of 1917
Mexico’s governmental system is rooted in the Constitution of 1917, which incorporated many of the features of its reformist predecessor of 1857. State constitutions, including Oaxaca’s, must conform to the federal Constitution, which, with some amendments, remains identical to the 1917 document. Although drafted at the behest of conservative revolutionary Venustiano Carranza by his handpicked Querétaro “Constitucionalista” congress, the 1917 Constitution was greatly influenced by Alvaro Obregón and generally ignored by Carranza during his subsequent three-year presidential term.
Whereas many articles resemble those of its U.S. model, the Constitution of 1917 contains provisions developed directly from Mexican experience. Article 27 addresses the question of land. Private property rights are qualified by societal need, subsoil rights are public property, and foreigners and corporations are severely restricted in land ownership. Although the 1917 constitution declared ejido (jointly held) land inviolate, recent 1994 amendments allow, under certain circumstances, the sale or use of communal land as loan security.
Article 23 severely restricts church powers. In declaring that “places of worship are the property of the nation,” it stripped churches of all title to real estate, without compensation. Article 5 and Article 130 banned religious orders, expelled foreign clergy, and denied priests and ministers all political rights, including voting, holding office, and even criticizing the government.
Article 123 establishes the rights of labor: to organize, bargain collectively, strike, work a maximum eight-hour day, and receive a minimum wage. Women are to receive equal pay for equal work and be given a month’s paid leave for childbearing. Article 123 also establishes social security plans for sickness, unemployment, pensions, and death.
On paper, Mexico’s constitutional government structures appear much like their U.S. prototypes: a federal presidency, a two-house (Senate and Chamber of Deputies) congress, and a supreme court, with their counterparts in each of the 31 states and the Mexico City Distrito Federal. Political parties field candidates, and all citizens vote by secret ballot.
In Oaxaca, local federal elections determine Oaxaca’s national legislative delegation: 11 deputies (diputados) of the approximately 500-seat lower house and four senators (senadores) of the 120-odd upper house seats. PRI dominance of Oaxaca elections, although not as complete as in the past, still continues, with a plurality of Oaxaca’s deputies and senators usually being PRI members.
Although ideally providing for separation of powers, the Constitution of 1917 subordinates both the legislative and judicial branches, with the courts being the weakest of all. The supreme court, for example, can only, through repeated deliberations, decide upon the constitutionality of legislation. Five separate individuals must file successful petitions for writs amparo (protection) on a single point of law in order to effect constitutional precedent.
The President, the PRI, and the PAN
Despite Mexico’s increasingly active legislative bodies, Mexican presidents still enjoy greater powers than their U.S. counterparts. They can suspend constitutional rights under a state of siege, can officially initiate legislation, veto all or parts of bills, refuse to execute laws, and replace state officers. The federal government, moreover, retains nearly all taxing authority, relegating the states to a role of merely administering federal programs.
Mexican presidents successively built upon their potent constitutional mandate during the last three generations of the 20th century. The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI), whose handpicked candidates held the presidency continuously from 1929 to 2000, became an extralegal parallel government, as powerful as or more so than the formal constitutional government. The PRI is organized hierarchically, in three separate labor, farmer, and “popular” (this last mostly government, business, and professional workers) columns, which send delegates from local committees to state and, ultimately, national conventions.
Past Mexican presidents, as heads of the PRI, traditionally reigned at the top of the party apparatus, sending orders through the national PRI delegates, who in turn looked after their respective state delegations. The delegates reported on the performance of the state and local PRI committees to get out the vote and carry out party mandates. If the local committee’s performance was satisfactory, then federal subsidies, public works projects, election funds, and federal jobs flowed from government coffers to the state and local level through PRI organizations. In your hometown, if you were not in the PRI or didn’t know someone who was, you might have found it difficult to get a small business loan, crop subsidy, government apartment, teaching job, road-repair contract, or government scholarship.
The successful election of PAN opposition presidential candidate Vicente Fox in 2000, although erasing PRI executive dominance, still left the Senate (and later, in 2003, also the Chamber of Deputies) under PRI control. Consequently, President Fox found himself in much the position of a U.S. president, having to negotiate, sometimes unsuccessfully, with legislators from the opposition party (and sometimes even his own party).
State and Local Government
Oaxaca, like all 31 Mexican states, has an elected governor and state legislature. The Oaxaca voters elect 42 representatives to the state legislature, which holds its sessions in the Palacio de Gobierno, adjacent to Oaxaca City’s central plaza. With minimal tax powers, the state government is mostly relegated to oversight of federal public works, social welfare, health, and education programs in 30 regional administrative distritos (districts).
Distritos vary widely in extent, from the largest, Juchitán, in the Isthmus, to tiny Zaachila, the smallest, in the central valley, not far south of Oaxaca City. Although second smallest in area, Oaxaca’s most populous and economically most important district is the Centro district, which contains the capital, Oaxaca City.
Oaxaca’s 30 distritos are in turn divided, often along ethnic lines, into a host of 570 municipios (townships), each with its cabercera (head town) and subsidiary agencias, usually country villages, each of which oversees a scattering of surrounding rancherias (hamlets). Oaxaca’s crazy quilt of 570 municipios, by far the most of any Mexican state, reflects Oaxaca’s ethnic richness. Many of the municipios encompass a single ethnic group whose members are united by common kinship, language, and costume.
Its municipios are where much of Oaxaca’s civic action is. If you get a traffic ticket, you’ll probably be told to go to the municipio’s presidencia municipal (like a city hall) to pay your fine and recover your driver’s license. From the presidencia municipal reigns the municipio’s publicly elected presidente (like a mayor), alcaldes (judges), and regidores (administrators) of various ranks, who oversee the municipio’s policía municipal and organize public works.
Parallel to and interlocking with this formal Spanish-derived hierarchy is the less formal indigenous consejo de ancianos (council of elders), members of which attain their status by a cumulative lifetime of civic service. Operating mostly by discussion and consensus, the council of elders (which sometimes includes the presidente and other elected officials) gets its way through discussion, persuasion, and final approval or veto of civic proposals.
Oaxaca’s former progressive governor and legislature, in 1995, recognized indigenous demands for local election by traditional Usos y Costumbres (Use and Custom) procedures. Now, a majority of (but by no means all; notably not Oaxaca City) municipios elect their mayor and city council members in town hall meetings.
Although municipios collect minimal monetary taxes, they often require community members to perform tequio (public service) in lieu of taxes. For men, such work might be repairing a local bridge or police or fire duty; women, on the other hand, might perform childcare or sweep the city streets or the municipal market.
Since colonial times, authorities have recognized eight traditional Oaxacan ethno- geographic regions: Valles Centrales, Sierra Norte, Papaloapan, Istmo, Costa, Sierra Sur, Mixteca, and the Cañada. Later, during the republican era, these traditional regions were subdivided into governmental-economic districts, now aggregating 30 in number, each presided over by a district capital through which state tax monies are distributed and elections for both state and federal legislative and executive offices are organized. After the capital Oaxaca City, the district capitals, notably Tlacolula, Ocotlán, and Zaachila in the Valles Centrales; Tuxtepec in the Papaloapan; Juchtán in the Istmo; Juquila in the Sierra Sur; and Juxtlahuaca and Tlaxiaco, in the Mixteca; rank among the state of Oaxaca’s most fascinating destinations, and are described in detail in this guide.
Reforms in Mexico’s stable but top-heavy “Institutional Revolution” has come only gradually. Characteristically, street protests were brutally put down at first, with officials only later working to address grievances. Dominance by the PRI led to widespread cynicism and citizen apathy. Regardless of who got elected, the typical person on the street used to tell you that office-holders were bound to retire with their pockets full.
Nevertheless, during the last dozen years of the 20th century, Mexico took significant strides toward pluralism. Minority parties increasingly were electing candidates to state and federal office. Although none captured a majority of any state legislature, the strongest non-PRI parties, such as the conservative pro-Catholic Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) (National Action Party) and the liberal-left Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD) (Revolutionary Democratic Party), elected governors. As early as 1986, minority parties were given federal legislative seats, up to a maximum of 20, for winning a minimum of 2.5 percent of the national presidential vote. In the 1994 election, minority parties received public campaign financing, depending upon their fraction of the vote.
Following his 1994 inaugural address, in which he called loudly and clearly for more reforms, President Ernesto Zedillo quickly began to produce results. He immediately appointed a respected member of the PAN opposition party as attorney general—the first non-PRI cabinet appointment in Mexican history. Other Zedillo firsts were federal Senate confirmation of supreme court nominees and the attorney general, multiparty participation in the Chiapas peace negotiations, and congressional approval of the 1995 financial assistance package received from the United States. Zedillo, moreover, organized a series of precedent-setting meetings with opposition leaders, which led to a written pact for political reform and the establishment of permanent working groups to discuss political and economic questions.
Of major symbolic importance was Zedillo’s campaign and inaugural vow to separate both his government and himself from PRI decision-making. He kept his promise, becoming the first Mexican president in as long as anyone could remember who did not choose his successor.
A New Mexican Revolution
Finally, in 2000, like a Mexican Gorbachev, Ernesto Zedillo, the man responsible for many of Mexico’s earlier democratic reforms, watched as PAN opposition reformer Vicente Fox swept Zedillo’s PRI from the presidency after a 71-year rule. Moreover, despite severe criticism from his own party, Zedillo quickly called for the country to close ranks behind Fox. Millions of Mexicans, still dazed but buoyed by Zedillo’s statesmanship and Fox’s epoch-making victory, eagerly awaited Fox’s inauguration address on December 1, 2000.
He promised nothing less than a new revolution for Mexico and backed it up with concrete proposals: reduce poverty by 30 percent with a million new jobs a year from revitalized new electricity and oil production, a Mexican Silicon Valley, and free trade between Mexico, all of Latin America, and the United States and Canada. He promised justice for all, through a reformed police, army, and the judiciary. He promised conciliation and an agreement with the Zapatista rebel movement in the south, including a bill of rights for Mexico’s native peoples.
But six years later, with his grand vision only fractionally fulfilled, no one can fairly say that Vicente Fox didn’t set a good example. Like few Mexican presidents before him, he remained true to his belief in a democratic presidency: negotiating, haranguing, cajoling, and compromising with a cadre of legislators who stubbornly blocked nearly all of his reform proposals.
Time and again Vicente Fox admitted the messiness and difficulty of the democratic process. But he also remained convinced and committed that there could be no turning from the democratic path for Mexico. In a 2004 interview, he pointed out that, at least, he had ended “Presidencialismo,” the decades-old Mexican habit of bowing to a strong, sometimes even ruthless, president. And perhaps that is how historians will remember Vicente Fox: as the president who, with courage and honesty, truly did begin a New Mexican Revolution, by earnestly leading his country along the difficult but true path to a more just and prosperous future for all Mexicans.
It was truly a bold vision, and five years later, nearing the twilight of his six-year term, Fox could only claim partial success. He admitted that the path to democracy, which he believes cannot be reversed, would continue to be messy and difficult. His unfinished agenda therefore will be a challenge to his successor Felipe Calderón, who in his brief but emphatic inauguration speech on December 1, 2006, vowed to continue Mexico’s difficult but non-reversible march toward a truly just, democratic, and prosperous homeland for all of Mexico’s people.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition