During the decades after World War II, beginning with moderate President Miguel Alemán (1946–1952), Mexican politicians gradually honed their skills of consensus and compromise as their middle-aged revolution bubbled along under liberal presidents and sputtered haltingly under conservatives. Doctrine required of all politicians, regardless of stripe, that they be “revolutionary” enough to be included beneath the banner of the PRI, Mexico’s dominant political party.
Mexico’s revolution hasn’t been very revolutionary about women’s rights, however. The PRI didn’t get around to giving Mexican women, millions of whom fought and died alongside men during the revolution, the right to vote until 1953.
Alemán’s government in 1947 began construction of a huge power and irrigation dam in the Río Papaloapan watershed of northern Oaxaca. The resulting Miguel Alemán Dam, completed a few years later, created a mammoth 2.3-million-acre reservoir. Although providing a large chunk of the region’s growing electricity demand and an assured irrigation supply for thousands of new fruit, dairy, and vegetable farms, the project required the painful relocation of many thousands of poor Mazatec, Chinantec, and Mixe indígena families.
Meanwhile, in Oaxaca City , trouble was breaking out, triggered by the unpopular actions of Governor Edmund Sánchez Cano. Merchants, who objected to his new taxes, and students, who resented the governor’s interference in university affairs, got together and occupied the state government palace. Before the dust settled, federal troops were occupying the city and Mexico’s second-in-command, the Secretaría de Gobernación, had forced Governor Sánchez’s resignation and taken over the state government.
Trouble erupted again in 1951. This time, the dispute had roots among coffee farmers in Oaxaca’s southern Sierra . Growers, far removed from Oaxaca City , had been shipping their coffee directly from Pacific ports or by remote roads directly to Mexico City, where they had developed strong commercial and political connections. Although responsible for Oaxaca’s major export, coffee growers enjoyed little influence among state officials in Oaxaca City . One of these growers, Mayoral Heredia, had become a close family friend of President Miguel Alemán, who endorsed Heredia’s successful PRI candidacy for governor of Oaxaca in 1950.
Upon taking office in December 1950, Heredia replaced the local politicos with his own Mexico City cadre, then proceeded with plans to modernize Oaxaca’s agriculture, with subsidies paid by new state taxes. The ensuing dispute revolved fundamentally around the question of power: Who should control Oaxaca—the city leaders as usual, or Mexico City–oriented appointees?
Soon, most townspeople—notably among them, local businesspeople and university professors and students—lined up angrily against the governor. The governor’s sole supporters were the state police, who, in the heat of action, shot two protesting university students. After a one-day national student strike and weeks of daily protests, the merchant- student-professor coalition mounted a citywide general strike. Finally, President Alemán had to send in a federal regiment to restore order. Discredited, Governor Heredia was forced to replace his cabinet with city leaders. They reversed his modernization plans: They judged the present dirt roads adequate and found no need for tractors or irrigation. Oaxaca agriculture would sputter along as it had for the past hundred years. Rebuffed, Governor Heredia soon resigned in July 1952.
Women, voting for the first time in a national election, kept the PRI in power by electing liberal Adolfo López Mateos in 1958. Resembling Lázaro Cárdenas in social policy, López Mateos redistributed 40 million acres of farmland, forced automakers to use 60 percent domestic components, built thousands of new schools, and distributed hundreds of millions of new textbooks. “La electricidad es nuestra” (“Electricity is ours”), Mateos declared as he nationalized foreign power companies in 1962.
Despite his left-leaning social agenda, unions were restive under López Mateos. Protesting inflation, workers struck; the government retaliated, arresting Demetrios Vallejo, the railway union head, and renowned muralist David Siqueiros, former Communist party secretary.
Despite the troubles, López Mateos climaxed his presidency gracefully in 1964 as he opened the celebrated National Museum of Anthropology, appropriately located in Chapultepec Park, where the Aztecs had first settled 20 generations earlier.
In 1964, as several times before, the outgoing president’s Secretaría de Gobernación succeeded his former chief. Dour, conservative Gustavo Díaz Ordaz immediately clashed with liberals, labor, and students. The pot boiled over just before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Reacting to a student rebellion, the army occupied the National University; shortly afterward, on October 2, government forces opened fire with machine guns on a peaceful downtown rally crowd, killing hundreds and wounding thousands.
The Mexico City troubles reignited political activism in Oaxaca. Local university students, organized as the Federación Estudiantil de Oaxaca (FEO), mounted a successful campaign in support of bus drivers in 1970. In 1972, the students joined with workers and poor farmers, forming the Coalición de Obreros, Campesinos, y Estudiantes de Oaxaca (COCEO). They led off with a fight on behalf of sidewalk vendors to prevent the Saturday market being moved to the city’s southern outskirts. After that, a disgruntled student splinter faction set off three small bombs: in the PRI-dominated union office, at an English-language library, and in the (empty) folk-dance amphitheater on the hill above the city. Fortunately, no one was injured. Later, in the mid-1970s, the COCEO supported and helped organize rural land invasions by villagers, organized and supported city workers’ unions, and backed hillside squatters on the city’s northern edge.
The actions in the capital inspired activists in other parts of Oaxaca. In Juchitán, on the Isthmus, students united with workers and poor farmers to form the Coalición Obero, Campesino, y Estudiantil del Istmo (COCEI). Unlike its Oaxaca City  counterpart, the COCEI had a strong indigenous Zapotec cultural orientation, with women exerting important, although behind-the-scenes, leadership roles. Moreover, their cultural unity produced unusual militancy and political skill. Through a series of actions—strikes, boycotts, marches, and demonstrations—they opposed city-hall cliques and local caciques (bosses) at the painful cost of 20 of their number killed or kidnapped by police, soldiers, and hired thugs. Their payment in blood, however, led to significant improvements in working and living conditions for poor people in Juchitán and other Isthmus communities. Moreover, they forced the local establishment politicos to recognize their legitimacy by winning the 1980 local elections and making Juchitán one of the few towns in Mexico without a PRI-dominated city government.
Meanwhile, back in Oaxaca City , student influence peaked, then faded in 1977 over a dispute that started with election of the university (Universidad Autonoma de Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, UABJO) rector, equivalent to a university president in the United States. Actions escalated until snipers were killing people in university buildings. As police stepped in to restore order, students protested and organized strikes. Fed up with the turmoil, merchants, property owners, and the local PRI organized their own anti-student shutdown, triggering a student-worker march upon the central plaza. State police opened fire, killing one and wounding dozens. That night, the federal government clamped down. Troops took control, and Zárate Aquino, the third Oaxaca governor to be forced from office within a generation, left permanently. Soldiers patrolled the city for nine months, demonstrations were banned, and the anti-establishment COCEO coalition collapsed.
Having had to deal with a generation of Oaxacan political turmoil, the federal government began to direct more resources to Oaxaca. Federal expenditures and employment in Oaxaca City  doubled during the 1970s. Improved roads linked villages to the city; electric lines extended into formerly isolated mountain villages; a host of schools and health centers proliferated; and many villages and towns got clean water systems for the first time. With the money and power flowing from Mexico City, Oaxaca’s local merchant and professional old guard gradually lost their influence over state government.
Despite its serious internal troubles, Mexico’s relations with the United States were cordial. President Lyndon Johnson visited and unveiled a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Mexico City. Later, President Díaz Ordaz met with President Richard Nixon in Puerto Vallarta.
Meanwhile, bilateral negotiations produced the Border Industrialization Program. Within a 12-mile strip south of the U.S.–Mexico border, foreign companies could assemble duty-free parts into finished goods and export them without any duties on either side. Within a dozen years, a swarm of such plants, called maquiladoras, were humming as hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers assembled and exported billions of dollars worth of shiny consumer goods—electronics, clothes, furniture, pharmaceuticals, and toys—worldwide.
Concurrently, in Mexico’s interior, Díaz Ordaz pushed Mexico’s industrialization ahead full steam. Foreign money financed hundreds of new plants and factories. Primary among these was the giant Las Truchas steel plant at the new industrial port and town of Lázaro Cárdenas at the Pacific mouth of the Río Balsas.
Very little of Mexico’s new industrial development reached Oaxaca, however. Oaxaca’s sparse industry, with few exceptions, remained simple, producing raw materials or goods for local consumption only.
Discovery in 1974 of gigantic new oil and gas reserves along Mexico’s Gulf Coast added fuel to Mexico’s already rapid industrial expansion. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, billions in foreign investment, lured by Mexico’s oil earnings, financed other major developments—factories, hotels, power plants, roads, airports—all over the country.
A modest share of Mexico’s new oil wealth trickled to Oaxaca, in increased government jobs, infrastructure construction, and the new cross-Isthmus pipelines and Salina Cruz oil refinery, completed in 1977. Soon 3,000 Oaxacan workers were processing 800,000 barrels of Gulf crude a year into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, and liquid propane and butane, which tank trucks, railway cars, and ocean tankers distributed all over Mexico and the Pacific Rim.
The negative side to these expensive projects was the huge dollar debt required to finance them. President Luis Echeverría Alvarez (1970–1976), diverted by his interest in international affairs, passed Mexico’s burgeoning balance of payments deficit to his successor, José López Portillo. As feared by some experts, a world petroleum glut during the early 1980s burst Mexico’s ballooning oil bubble and plunged the country into financial crisis. When the 1982 interest came due on its foreign debt, Mexico’s largest holding company couldn’t pay the $2.3 billion owed. The peso plummeted more than fivefold, to 150 per U.S. dollar. At the same time, prices doubled every year.
In the mid-1980s President Miguel de la Madrid (1982–1988) was straining to get Mexico’s economic house in order. He sliced government and raised taxes, asking rich and poor alike to tighten their belts. Despite getting foreign bankers to reschedule Mexico’s debt, de la Madrid couldn’t stop inflation. Prices skyrocketed as the peso deflated to 2,500 per U.S. dollar, becoming one of the world’s most devalued currencies by 1988.
Such economic belt-tightening invariably hits the poor hardest, and Oaxacans are among Mexico’s poorest. Oaxaca’s families average only about $2,000 income per year—about one-third of the Mexican average, and less than a tenth of the U.S. average. The problem is much worse for Oaxaca’s dirt-poor, who, in Oaxaca City , make up about one-third of the population. Their yearly average family income hovers somewhere around $1,000, less than $100 per month. With basic food prices not much different from those in the United States, hunger, if not outright starvation, has been an everyday fact for many Oaxacans for as long as they can remember.
Public disgust led to significant opposition during the 1988 presidential election. The conservative National Action Party candidate Michael Clothier and liberal National Democratic Front candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas ran against the PRI’s Harvard-educated technocrat Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Although Salinas de Gortari eventually won the election, his showing, barely half of the vote, was the worst ever for an Institutional Revolutionary Party president.
Salinas de Gortari, nevertheless, lost no time getting started. His biggest domestic success was the popular “Solidarity” (Programa Nacional de Solidaridad, PRONASOL) program, which aided poor communities in locally run self-help, cultural, sanitation, health, agricultural, and other projects. Especially targeted were small, mostly indigenous Oaxaca coffee producers who, through local Solidaridad committees, received hundreds of interest-free loans.
Salinas de Gortari’s major international achievement, despite significant national opposition, was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which the Canadian, U.S., and Mexican legislatures ratified in 1993.
However, on the very day in January 1994 that NAFTA took effect, rebellion broke out in Oaxaca’s neighboring state of Chiapas. A small but well-disciplined campesino force, calling itself Ejército Zapatista Liberación Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army, EZLN), or “Zapatistas,” captured a number of provincial towns and held the former governor of Chiapas hostage.
The Zapatista revolt rattled Oaxaca. In a social trend that had been growing at least since the Isthmus Zapotec community became politicized and formed the COCEI during the 1970s, indigenous communities all over the state began pushing for their rights under the Mexican constitution. Prime actors in this movement have been liberationist Catholic priests and nuns, especially in remote country parishes.
Although successful clergy-led projects have sprung up all around Oaxaca, the Isthmus provides the most successful examples. Under the leadership of clergy, in dozens of communities around Tehuántepec, thousands of indigenous people—Mixe, Chontal, Huave, Zapotec, and others—have organized self-help, cultural, political, and communal work programs. Their moneymaking activities range from raising coffee, sheep, and chickens to milling corn and producing pottery, which they sell in the Tehuántepec, Salina Cruz, and Juchitán markets.
One of the most successful organizations in all this ferment has been the Unión de Comunidades de la Region del Istmo (UCIRI, www.uciri.org ), headquartered in Lachaviza, north of Tehuántepec. Fed up with corrupt middlemen and discouraged by the lack of governmental help, small coffee growers banded together and now represent 3,000 growers in 50 communities. Besides working together in production, transportation, and sales, they organize cooperative self-education (especially in organic farming) and run a savings bank, a clinic, and cooperative grocery, hardware, and drug stores.
The Zapatista revolt has struck the common chord—of autonomy—among virtually all of Oaxaca’s indigenous social-political groups. Echoing the Zapatistas in Chiapas, their political goals usually include the right of self-rule by their own traditional means.
In mid-1994, Mexico’s already tense political drama veered toward tragedy. While Salinas de Gortari was trying to settle the Zapatista revolt, Luis Donaldo Colosio, Salinas’s handpicked presidential candidate, was gunned down just months before the August balloting. However, instead of disintegrating, the nation united in grief; opposition candidates eulogized their fallen former opponent and later earnestly engaged his replacement, stolid technocrat Ernesto Zedillo, in Mexico’s first presidential election debate.
In a closely watched election relatively unmarred by irregularities, Zedillo piled up a solid plurality against his PAN (National Action Party) and PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party) opponents. By perpetuating the PRI’s 65-year hold on the presidency, the electorate had again opted for the PRI’s familiar, although imperfect, middle-aged revolution.
Zedillo, however, had little time to savor his victory. The peso, long propped up by his predecessor’s fiscal policies, lost one-third of its value in the few days before Christmas 1994. The peso kept falling, and to stave off a worldwide financial panic, in February 1995 U.S. President Bill Clinton secured an unprecedented multibillion-dollar international loan package for Mexico.
Although economic disaster was temporarily averted, the cure for the country’s ills required another painful round of belt-tightening for poor Mexicans. During 1995, national inflation soared. More and more families became unable to purchase staple foods and basic medicines. Malnutrition increased sixfold, and diseases such as cholera and dengue fever resurged in the countryside.
At the same time, Mexico’s equally serious political ills seemed to defy cure. Raul Salinas de Gortari, an important PRI party official and the former president’s brother, was arrested for money laundering and political assassination. As popular sentiment began to implicate Carlos Salinas de Gortari himself, the former president fled Mexico to an undisclosed location.
Meanwhile, as negotiations with the rebel Zapatistas sputtered on and off in Chiapas, popular discontent erupted in Oaxaca’s western neighbor-state, Guerrero, leading to the massacre of 17 unarmed campesinos at Aguas Blancas, in the hills west of Acapulco, by state police in June 1995. One year later, at a demonstration protesting the massacre, a new, well-armed revolutionary group, Ejército Popular Revolucionario (People’s Revolutionary Army, EPR), made its appearance. Scarcely two months later, on August 28, EPR guerrillas killed more than two dozen police and soldiers at several southwest Mexico locations, including four sailors at the naval garrison in Huatulco , Oaxaca. Soon, platoons of soldiers and police were scouring rural Guerrero, Oaxaca, Michoacán, and other states, searching homes and arresting suspected dissidents.
At the same time, although the official negotiations with the Zapatista rebels were stalled over the issue of indigenous rights, the Zedillo government gained momentum in addressing other local grievances in Chiapas by building new rural electrification networks and refurbishing health clinics. Similar federal action seemed to be forthcoming in Oaxaca also when, in early 1996, President Zedillo recognized that “success or failure of [his] social policy” depended on Oaxaca and announced an unprecedented $1 billion in federal expenditures in Oaxaca for the upcoming fiscal year.
The rough federal army and police searches, arrests, and jailings have energized a flurry of political action. Oaxacan human rights groups, already protesting against unpunished violence, have upped the pressure for reforms at the state and national level. The official Comisión Estatal de Derechos Humanos (Oaxaca State Human Rights Commission, CNDH) hears complaints and issues “nonbinding and autonomous recommendations” to relevant authorities.
Fortunately, foreign visitors in Oaxaca have been unaffected by such disputes. In Oaxaca City  especially, and along well-traveled highways, in resorts, towns, and sites of touristic interest, foreign visitors are generally much safer than in their home cities in the United States, Canada, or Europe.
The best news for which the Zedillo government could justly claim credit was the dramatically improving national economy. By mid-1998, annual inflation had dropped below 15 percent, investment dollars were flowing back into Mexico, the peso had stabilized at about eight to the U.S. dollar, and Mexico had paid back every penny of its borrowed U.S. bailout money.
Moreover, in the political arena, although the justice system in Oaxaca and other states left much to be desired, a pair of unprecedented events signaled an increasingly open political system. In the 1997 congressional elections, voters elected a host of opposition candidates, depriving the PRI of an absolute congressional majority for the first time since 1929. A year later, in early 1998, Mexicans were participating in their country’s first primary elections—in which voters, instead of political bosses, chose party candidates.
Although Ernesto Zedillo’s presidential ride had been rough, he entered the twilight of his 1994–2000 term able to take credit for an improved economy, some genuine political reforms, and relative peace in the countryside. The election of 2000 revealed, however, that the Mexican people were not satisfied.