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Journal of Democracy 11.4 (2000) 33-36

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Mexico's Victory

The "External Factor"

Sergio Aguayo Quezada

The triumph of Vicente Fox has accelerated the winds of change in Mexico. Old myths are collapsing, and Mexico is debating and experimenting with the construction of its future institutions. The challenges that face the new government are enormous. Around 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. The production, consumption, and trafficking of narcotics continue to grow and, consequently, so does the power of the drug lords. The police forces and the judicial system have collapsed. The environment is degraded. The labor unions continue to be controlled by the old authoritarian structure. Finally, Fox's victory has raised enormous expectations in a population that voted for change and expects it to be both profound and rapid. Yet despite the fact that Vicente Fox won the election, much of the real power remains in the hands of the old order, the private sector, the church, or other parties and social groups. Fox's successes and failures will largely depend on his capacity for reaching accords with those forces.

In this whirlwind, it is essential to discuss and clarify the role that has been played--or should be played--by the United States, an issue often addressed on a superficial level or avoided altogether as being too thorny. Nonetheless, it is indispensable to incorporate the United States (and the "external factor" more generally) into any serious discussion of Mexico's future because the key to resolving some of its problems is found in the north. Mexico is the neighbor of a powerful nation--a geopolitical accident that has determined our tormented attitude toward the world. Our defeat in the war with the United States (1846-47) was [End Page 33] the most brutal and traumatic blow in a series of foreign interventions and aggressions. Mexico's response was to isolate itself from the rest of the world, transforming the border into a wall protecting the country from foreigners--and Americans in particular--who were defined as a threat to Mexican sovereignty. This tendency was reaffirmed in reaction to the excessive favoritism showed by President Porfirio Diaz (1877-1910) toward foreign investors.

The Mexican Revolution further strengthened nationalism, but it also showed that autarky was impractical, and that Mexico had to get along with the rest of the world. At first, such cooperation was impossible; the Western powers and Washington viewed the governments that grew out of the Mexican Revolution with extreme hostility. That changed in 1927 when U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow and President Plutarco Elias Calles reached an understanding that normalized relations between the two countries and was crucial in shaping Mexican diplomacy toward the rest of the world. Through this understanding, the governments of both countries decided to support each other based on several principles: Mexico would respect the interests of the United States and would back its policies at critical moments, while Washington would accept Mexico's economic nationalism and an independent diplomacy with traces of anti-Americanism (the rhetoric irritated but rarely worried the State Department). Mexico delivered stability (a precious good for Washington) and in return obtained toleration for its human rights violations and electoral frauds.

In this new framework, an extraordinarily complex relationship was woven, with two dimensions: Mexico's relations with the United States were characterized by a discreet, pragmatic, and effective cordiality; toward other countries and regions, Mexico launched an independent and progressive diplomacy. The agreement has survived almost a century and has miraculously allowed Mexico to maintain excellent relations with such bitter enemies as the United States and Cuba, which agreed (although each in its own way) on supporting Mexican authoritarianism. This type of arrangement was advantageous for Mexico during the decades following the Revolution, when it was fighting to restore order and reinitiate economic growth. Over time, however, the arrangement's virtue turned into a defect, and the costs for the nation began to outnumber the benefits. The relationship with the United States became confusing, defensive, and fragmented. With nationalist rhetoric in the background, each element of...


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