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Reviewed by:
  • Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy
  • Judith Adler Hellman
Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy. By Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. Pp. Xii, 594. Illustrations. Notes. Index. $30.00 cloth; $15.00 paper.

This is a book written by two journalists with an unfaltering capacity to select the telling anecdote or the compelling first hand account that will engage any reader, and will dispel any doubt that, as the saying embroidered on so many souvenir place mats, carved on onyx bookends, and engraved on sword-shaped letter openers puts it, "Como México, no hay dos."

Moving through the years from the 1968 massacre in the Plaza of the Three Cultures at Tlatelolco and the earthquake of 1985, which gave birth to a robust civil society that would underpin the long, steady march toward a more democratic political system, Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon direct our attention to a central question: How did we go from the suppression of mass movements and strikes, successive economic crises, assassinations of political figures famous and unknown, a full scale indigenous uprising, a political elite at least partially penetrated by drug lords, abductions of the rich and not-so-rich, endemic corruption and electoral fraud to the August 2000 election of Vicente Fox and the quiet, gentlemanly, dignified acceptance of the ruling party's defeat by the sitting president, Ernesto Zedillo?

Much of the spicy flavor and intensity of Preston and Dillon's narrative of these events and this process come from their use of arresting first person narratives and "witness to history" accounts provided to them by the intellectuals and the political figures they came to know and rely upon as sources during their work from 1995 to 2000 as correspondents of the New York Times. In fact Preston and Dillon count among their friends and acquaintances actors arrayed across the political spectrum and these people tell an interesting story. Indeed, in the 600 pages of this work, there is hardly a dull moment as Mexico lurches along from calamity to crisis, and even if the telling were not so vivid and fresh (including in the case of well known events [End Page 680] like Tlatelolco) the facts themselves would grab the reader from the opening chapter in which the exhilaration engendered by the defeat of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional pours off the page, to the final section that recounts the onset of disillusionment with Fox—whose principal contribution to history was getting himself elected. Of course Preston and Dillon are fortunate, in a way, to have ended their work as correspondents as well as their book with the August 2000 election. This is because the Fox sexenio was a lot less thrilling than the Fox victory, and nothing about the contested presidential election outcome in 2006 would arouse much hope that the process of transition to democracy, which is the theme of this book, has continued at the same encouraging pace.

Given the authors' use of almost a hundred in-depth interviews with major political and cultural figures, there is, to be sure, a strong urban bias to this account, and while the coverage of the Zapatistas in Chiapas is extremely astute, rural Mexico, as a whole, is largely offstage. Having, myself, been eye witness to the events that are the touchstones of this contemporary history, the 1968 massacre and the 2000 elections, I can speak to the remarkable accuracy of the descriptions as well as the effecting manner in which these moments in Mexican history are presented. What is much more difficult for this reviewer to assess is how clear and comprehensible the work would be to a reader less familiar with this period. Nonetheless, the book should provide very stimulating reading for anyone who could wish to review this extraordinary epoch of change in Mexico.

Judith Adler Hellman
York University
Toronto, Ontario


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pp. 680-681
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