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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 170-173

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The Chihuahua Strategy

Ernest A. Greco

Mexico's Political Awakening. By Vikram K. Chand. University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. 270 pp.

All too often, discussions of the impact of the Catholic Church on politics in Latin America present caricatures of the clergy as supporters of either the "theology of domination" or the "theology of liberation." We are typically told that the Church supported the status quo, however defined, until the late 1960s, when key bishops and priests became converts to "liberation theology," a soft-core version of Marxism that put Catholic activists on the side of various guerrilla movements seeking to overthrow capitalism. Perhaps owing to ideological bias among Latin Americanists, studies of the new role of Mexico's Catholic Church have focused on the activities of Mexico's famous "Red Bishop," Samuel Ruiz, and his efforts to mobilize the indigenous poor in the rural, far-southern state of Chiapas. Consequently, both supporters and opponents of the Zapatista insurgency that began there in 1994 have seen Bishop Ruiz and the theology of liberation as laying the groundwork for the rebellion and have overstated its importance to the more profound political changes occurring in Mexico.

One of Vikram Chand's most important contributions is his unconventional examination of the critical role of the Catholic Church in Mexico's recent "political awakening" and democratic transition. Focusing on politics in the northern state of Chihuahua, Chand recounts the efforts of other activist bishops, such as Adalberto Almeida y Merino of the Archdiocese of Chihuahua (City) and Manuel Talamas Camandari of the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez, to end the old modus vivendi between the Church and the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). This arrangement came about after severe official persecution in the 1920s and 1930s had reduced the Mexican Church to a purely "pastoral" role. The Church avoided clashes with the PRI-run state, while the PRI muted its anti-Catholic rhetoric and let many of the anticlerical provisions of the 1917 Constitution go unenforced. In the 1970s, activist clergy influenced [End Page 170] by liberation theology, the Medellin bishops' conference of 1968, and the violent repression of student protests that same year tried and failed to mobilize the poor to challenge the unjust economic system in Chihuahua. This campaign for "social justice" managed to alienate the middle classes in Chihuahua, one of Mexico's most developed states, while simul-taneously dividing both the clergy and laity throughout Mexico.

In the 1980s, by contrast, instead of promoting class conflict and direct action by the poor, the Church hierarchy in Chihuahua began advocating "electoral democracy" and denouncing the sinfulness of fraud and cor-ruption in the electoral process, as well as the apathy and authoritarianism in Mexican political culture. The bishops inspired the formation of a coalition, spearheaded by the middle class but reaching across class lines, to push for a more honest political process in Chihuahua. Chand's analysis strongly suggests that by giving priority to cultural and institutional changes, rather than demanding redistributionist economic policies and a "preferential option for the poor," the Church and other institutions in civil society discovered that, in the long run, they were likely to achieve more of both.

The Church's new orientation coincided with and helped to nourish the virtual explosion of civic and nongovernmental associations that Mexico experienced during the 1980s and 1990s. Most noteworthy is Chand's observation that, although these civic associations had no formal ties to the Church, "a significant proportion of . . . members and leaders were drawn from the Catholic Church" (p. 230), and that most of these associations "based their ideology on traditional Catholic social doctrine as enunciated in papal encyclicals" (p. 233). Advocating broad principles such as the inherent dignity of the human person, the defense of the family, the pursuit of the common good, the diffusion and protection of private property, the importance of intermediate organizations, and the concept of subsidiarity, these civic associations transformed the political culture. They also furnished new leaders and constituencies for the National Action Party (PAN), Mexico's longtime...