- Redeeming the Revolution: The State and Organized Labor in Post-Tlatelolco Mexico by Joseph U. Lenti
From 1970 to 1976, Luis Echeverría was president of Mexico. During his term he presented himself as a truly radical politician. On the international stage, he became the leader of the tercermundista movement of non-aligned countries, which struggled against both U.S. imperialism and foreign capitalism. On the national stage he sought to remake the alliance with Mexico's old left by distributing land, releasing political prisoners, increasing education, and publicly attacking business leaders as "emissaries of the past." Yet, at the same time, Echeverría presided over a period of unrivalled state repression. During the early 1970s, the army, the judicial police, and the rapidly expanded secret service persecuted, murdered, and disappeared certainly hundreds and possibly thousands of dissidents and guerrillas. Repression reached a peak during the final year of Echeverría's term with the formal creation of a murderous paramilitary force (the brigada blanca), the militarization of the drug war, and the state-backed takeover of Mexico's most outspoken independent newspaper, Excélsior.
At the time Echeverría's government was extremely controversial. For many Mexican leftists, he followed in the footsteps of Mexico's 1930s president, Lázaro Cárdenas, albeit in more constrained Cold War circumstances. For journalist Fernando Benítez, the choice was simple: "Echeverría or fascism." For other, more militant radicals, Echeverría's fist-pumping leftism was little more than hollow rhetoric, which disguised pro-U.S. policies, on-going pacts between the state and business elites, and the violent suppression of nonconformist groups.
To this day, divisions over Echeverría's policies and legacies remain. They not only demonstrate the difficulty in pigeonholing Latin American populists according to simple right-left dichotomies but also go to the heart of the debates over the nature of the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI state. Was the PRI, at times and in certain places, left-wing, nationalist and at least partially democratic? Or were such presumptions mere artifice, designed to win over a repressed or politically ignorant populace? As such, Echeverría's presidency cries out for a new historical work, especially work using a blend of declassified sources, eyewitness accounts, investigative journalism, and interviews to piece together the complexities and contradictions of this crucial period in Mexican history. [End Page 1460]
In some ways, Lenti's book fits the bill. It concerns Echeverría's attempts to win over unionized workers. This was a crucial element of the president's move to the left and persuaded many Mexicans to maintain their support for the official party. The prominence given to May 1 celebrations, the New Federal Labor Law (actually signed in 1970), the signing of new collective contracts, the funnelling of increased corporate taxes into state-run businesses, and the clash with Monterrey's right wing factory-owners all indicate Echeverría's aim to win over the working class. In fact, Lenti's chapter on the confrontation between the president and Monterrey's industrialists is the most cogent and comprehensible section of the book, showing quite clearly how Echeverría's policies cemented new alliances with urban workers.
Unfortunately the rest of the book is let down by four essential problems. I shall deal with them in ascending order of import. The first is the writing. Simple, short, unencumbered statements are rare; instead long, multi-clause sentences are the norm. Mixed metaphors are commonplace and either confusing or unintentionally comic. Take the following sentence, which seems to accidentally invoke slash-and-burn agriculture. "The government's repression of the student movement fuelled an already incendiary situation, but as the previous chapter explains, the seeds of Tlatelolco were planted well before the questions of university autonomy and democratization first began to burn on Mexico's campuses" (69). Finally, the passive voice is so omnipresent, one wonders if Mexicans actually had any agency at all—paramilitary units, for example, "spr[i...