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Rural Protest and the Making of Democracy in Mexico, 1968–2000

Dolores Trevizo


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Rural Protest and the Making of Democracy in Mexico, 1968–2000

Dolores Trevizo

“[Rural Protest and the Making of Democracy in Mexico, 1968–2000] is an ambitious and mature book, rich in complexities and depth while keeping the big picture in focus. Using a mixed-methods approach [Dolores Trevizo] looked at primary sources in the United States and Mexico, conducted interviews, read participant auto-biographies, and did an extensive review of secondary sources, census data, national security archives, human rights reports, along with a quantitative analysis of peasant protests from an event catalogue constructed from reports in the then independent Mexican newspaper Excelsior between 1970 and 1975. Few stones are left unturned. . . . This book is a worthy read for scholars interested in leftist social movements, right-wing countermovements, democratization, and recent Mexican history.”


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When the PRI fell from power in the elections of 2000, scholars looked for an explanation. Some focused on international pressures, while others pointed to recent electoral reforms. In contrast, Dolores Trevizo argues that a more complete explanation takes much earlier democratizing changes in civil society into account. Her book explores how largely rural protest movements laid the groundwork for liberalization of the electoral arena and the consolidation of support for two opposition parties, the PAN on the right and the PRD on the left, that eventually mounted a serious challenge to the PRI. She shows how youth radicalized by the 1968 showdown between the state and students in Mexico City joined forces with peasant militants in nonviolent rural protest to help bring about needed reform in the political system. In response to this political effervescence in the countryside, agribusinessmen organized in peak associations that functioned like a radical social movement. Their countermovement formulated the ideology of neoliberalism, and they were ultimately successful in mobilizing support for the PAN. Together, social movements and the opposition parties nurtured by them contributed to Mexico’s transformation from a one-party state into a real electoral democracy nearly a hundred years after the Revolution.
“[Rural Protest and the Making of Democracy in Mexico, 1968–2000] is an ambitious and mature book, rich in complexities and depth while keeping the big picture in focus. Using a mixed-methods approach [Dolores Trevizo] looked at primary sources in the United States and Mexico, conducted interviews, read participant auto-biographies, and did an extensive review of secondary sources, census data, national security archives, human rights reports, along with a quantitative analysis of peasant protests from an event catalogue constructed from reports in the then independent Mexican newspaper Excelsior between 1970 and 1975. Few stones are left unturned. . . . This book is a worthy read for scholars interested in leftist social movements, right-wing countermovements, democratization, and recent Mexican history.”
“Traditional accounts of democratization tend to credit elites with most of the ‘heavy lifting’ via the fashioning of democratic ‘pacts.’ More recently, a newer generation of scholars has focused attention on the role of grassroots movements in democratizing episodes. In her exemplary account of the fall of the PRI from power in Mexico, Trevizo does both, arguing that it was the complex interaction between grassroots and elite groups that ultimately undermined the party’s hold on power. In doing so, she also extends her analysis over a much longer period of time than most studies of democratization. The result is one of the richest, most detailed accounts of democratization produced to date.”
Rural Protest and the Making of Democracy in Mexico, 1968–2000 provides a unique, in-depth exploration of the underlying causes of Mexico’s democratic electoral transition. Dolores Trevizo, relying on years of field research, analyzes the importance of the 1968 student massacre for distributing student leaders among nonviolent peasant movements in the 1970s and 1980s. The author pursues an original strategy, providing case studies of the prodemocratic agrarian movements and the businessmen who strengthened the PRD and the PAN, respectively, in their opposition to the PRI. She enhances our understanding of how the PRI combined a complex, repressive, and pluralistic approach to different groups in its ultimately failed attempt to put a lid on the legitimacy crisis created in 1968.”
“[Rural Protest and the Making of Modern Democracy in Mexico, 1968–2000] powerfully reveals how developments in rural Mexico fostered electoral democratization, manifested in the victory of the opposition (the PAN) in the 2000 and 2006 presidential elections. . . . It adds a very important dimension to our understanding of the emergence of Mexico's still-young and incomplete democracy by showing how events in the rural parts of the country invigorated both the left and the right. The author provides a wealth of data to support her conclusions, derived in part from extensive field work and the equally extensive use of primary documents. Moreover, she utilizes a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches to analyze these data in sophisticated ways. . . . [This] is a very interesting, comprehensive, and original addition to the literature on Mexican democratization.”
“Detailed and meticulously researched, this book offers an important contribution to the scholarship of Mexican politics and social sciences.”
Trevizo raises fresh insights into the evolution of Mexico’s democratic transition and on the role of these groups in generating electoral change, opposition party growth, and the establishment of human rights organizations. The author’s broader theoretical findings on actions and reactions among social movements, and between those movements and the state, offer valuable comparative material for studies of past or ongoing change in other political systems.
“In a sweeping and ambitious work, part historiography, part social movement ethnography, and part quantitative assessment of human rights and democratization, Dolores Trevizo has convincingly called several aspects of [the stylized story of Mexico’s transition to democracy] into question in her opus Rural Protest and the Making of Democracy in Mexico. This smart and enterprising book offers an important critique of the conventional wisdom, and, even more important, lays the groundwork for a more nuanced formulation of Mexico’s dramatic transition. . . .
“. . . The implications of this important book will be with us for some time as we use her wisdom to consider how social movements can take on authoritarians and win, staging their battles from the countryside as well as from the cities. Rural Protest and the Making of Democracy in Mexico is necessary reading for all students of democracy, human rights, social movements, and political opportunity structures, from the Suez Canal to Tierra del Fuego.”

Dolores Trevizo is Professor of Sociology at Occidental College.


List of Figures and Tables

Preface and Acknowledgments

List of Abbreviations

Introduction The Rural Roots of Mexico’s Nascent Democracy: The Role of Peasants and Agrarian Capitalists in Opposition Politics

1. Social Movements and Democratization

2. The “Banner of 1968”: The Student Movement’s Democratizing Effects

3. State Repression and the Dispersal of Radicals into Mexico’s Countryside, 1970–1975

4. Capitalists on the Road to Political Power in Mexico: Class Struggle, Neopanismo, and the Birth of Democracy

5. The Rural Sources of the PRD’s Electoral Resiliency

Conclusion The Post-1968 Struggle for Democracy in Rural Mexico





The Rural Roots of Mexico’s Nascent Democracy

The Role of Peasants and Agrarian Capitalists in Opposition Politics

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, urban and rural social movements helped give birth to Mexico’s democracy. While democratization was a slow, evolutionary process, the magnitude of change was historically significant. Mexicans transformed their highly fraudulent electoral system into one that most analysts agree is democratic. While numerous studies have focused on these changes, few have systematically explored what rural movements contributed. This empirical neglect is all the more noteworthy given that peasants and other rural poor registered the highest levels of protest as compared to other social groups in the pre-transition period (see figure 1). Their movements, moreover, provoked a countermovement of economically powerful businessmen.

My empirical story begins in 1968, long after a democratically inspired agrarian revolution crystallized into a semi-authoritarian political system. Although the 1910 Revolution broke the postcolonial pattern of autocratic governance and violent political change, by the 1940s Mexico’s governing institutions had become authoritarian, if flexibly so, despite the liberal Constitution of 1917. This is evidenced by the fact that the official party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), monopolized power for seventy-one years within a highly centralized “presidentialist” system (Cornelius 1996; Weldon 2004). Yet despite being semi-authoritarian, the PRI ruled hegemonically for many of those years; it operated, that is, primarily through mass support rather than force.

Political support for the PRI state was mobilized by the official party, which organized most groups in civil society into corporatist associations that patronized the masses by providing them with collective and individual benefits (Levy and Székely 1987; Middlebrook 1995; Rubin 1997; Otero 2000; Mitchell 2001; Magaloni 2006). Because these corporatist associations were important vehicles by which the state distributed favors to its clients, the PRI had the capacity to broker compromise between the frequently antagonistic social classes it organized. Such political brokerage explains the organizational incentives for the ideologically “flexible” policy that sustained mass support for the PRI over time. Further, while elections were not serious vehicles for consultation with the masses about policy preferences, they were held regularly (every six years for presidential and senatorial races and every three for congressional ones). As such, the ruling party’s candidates mobilized the corporatist associations as electoral machines to renew political support (via the distribution of political favors, or the promise of such distribution) (Cornelius 2004, 48).

The description of Mexico’s version of authoritarianism as “soft” derives precisely from the fact that the political system manufactured consent through corporatist organization, ideologically flexible policy, and voter mobilization via patronage. Until the late 1960s, these mechanisms were effective to the extent that the PRI could rule without relying too heavily on political violence. But toward the final third of the twentieth century, the postrevolutionary state saw a rapid loss of hegemony, as evidenced by a rising tide of increasingly organized and disruptive political contention. Middle-class students turned leftists, women, teachers, urban dwellers, informal sector merchants, peasants, workers, and even capitalists forcefully and effectively challenged the state. As seen in figure 1, however, the largest and most enduring forms of political contention occurred in the countryside. Partly for this reason, I focus primarily (but not exclusively) on the unarmed rural movements that helped to democratize Mexico’s political arena.

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As such, my story sheds light on a paradox of twentieth-century Mexican history: while peasants had historically voted for the PRI, their protest movements in the 1970s through the 1980s contributed to the erosion of the regime’s hegemony. Specifically, I explicate how corporatism, a central mechanism for PRI hegemony, alienated the “chosen” children of the regime and how their protest movements for land ultimately provoked a right-wing opposition, or countermovement, led by agrarian capitalists. The leaderships of these nonviolent social movements eventually consolidated support for two opposition political parties, the new left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD) and the old right-of-center National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, PAN). In other words, I analyze some key movement-countermovement dynamics that helped to give ideological expression to the social bases of support for the opposition political parties that successfully pressed for electoral democracy.

The following section describes the key institutions that made the state’s relation to civil society nondemocratic. It also outlines why the state institutions set up to discipline politics and control social groups sowed the seeds of political discontent, and how political protest ultimately contributed to a more pluralistic political system. A discussion of how my research contributes to the empirical literature on Mexico’s democratization follows. As the broader theoretical implications about the relationship between social movements and institutional political change will be drawn out in chapter 1, I conclude this introduction by defining theoretical concepts, offering a book plan, and discussing the limitations of the data.

The Semi-authoritarian State of the Revolution

Mexico’s twentieth-century state was born indebted to the rural masses. In 1910, tens of thousands of peasants, landless peons, villagers, sharecroppers, dispossessed serranos (mountain dwellers), and workers mobilized and successfully overthrew Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship (1876–1911). After the collapse of the ancien régime, the agrarian masses continued to risk their lives in what proved to be one of the bloodiest revolutions of the twentieth century. Their revolutionary potential did not escape the middle-class liberals who, in writing a new constitution, sought bourgeois reforms of the state. Consequently, these liberals were forced to compromise by modernizing the state while also attempting to demobilize the rural masses with political concessions to their social justice claims. The Constitution, for example, incorporated contradictory economic principles, recognizing such competing types of property as private and social property. While private property is owned by an individual or partnership of individuals with rights to sell, rent, mortgage, or bequeath it, social property was inalienable for most of the twentieth century. Because it was possessed, as opposed to owned, social property in the form of either ejidos or comunidades could not be sold, rented, or mortgaged until the 1990s.

The Constitution, moreover, contains various rules for eminent domain and clearly stipulates that land and water belong to the nation. Until the 1990s, it had powerful legal codes by which to redistribute land to those who could prove that they needed it, so long as land was available for redistribution. Exceeding the legal caps of rural property made the land vulnerable to expropriation, and this was one of several ways that it became “available” for redistribution. In theory, land caps were supposed to prevent the reemergence of the latifundio (a massive concentration of land), the grossly unequal pattern of landholding that provoked rural dwellers into revolutionary action in the first place. To prevent large landholding, constitutional law sought to create a class of small rural proprietors called pequeños propietarios. Like those who possessed ejidos, small rural proprietors were called campesinos (peasants) because they directly cultivated the soil.

The nationalist state further defined citizenship rights as collective social rights (Tamayo Flores-Alatorre 1999; Wada 2006). Citizens were promised public education, a national health program, food subsidies, urban infrastructure, and labor protections. Regardless of whether Mexico’s welfare state lived up to its social justice claims and distributive promises, many people believed that they had constitutionally backed rights to an education, affordable food, and land (Williams 2001, 70; Wada 2006, 98). And though it is arguably the case that Native Americans were economically and politically forgotten by the Revolution, government officials sought to assimilate them into the nation. Official nationalist discourse generally emphasized some form of indigenism, whether the whitewashing variety that overstated mestizaje (racial mixing) or the more multicultural kind that formally granted Indians some legal privileges.

But while the Constitution of 1917 and subsequent laws codified important democratic and social justice principles, the political institutions that ultimately replaced the Porfiriato were decidedly undemocratic. The consensus among most scholars is that Mexico’s postrevolutionary political system was semi-authoritarian, at best (see Middlebrook 1995; Loaeza 1993; Levy and Székely 1987). To begin with, the postrevolutionary state was a presidentialist system that concentrated power in the executive. For most of the twentieth century, presidents commanded the entire federal state apparatus, controlling the judiciary, national legislature, and military (Middlebrook 2004b, 24). During their nonrenewable six-year terms, they also presided over the ruling party. In this role, they exercised metaconstitutional powers, including the right to select their successors via a secretive process called the dedazo (meaning to “handpick” by pointing with one’s finger) (see Garrido 1989). As head of both the ruling party and the nation, presidents helped to select the PRI’s state-level gubernatorial and mayoral candidates, who, in turn, were elected by the populace. Local legislatures and courts also tended to follow the presidential line (Cornelius 1996, 26; Gómez Tagle 2004, 84). According to Wayne Cornelius, Judith Gentleman, and Peter Smith, presidential power “commanded supreme authority . . . [as presidents] had the final word on all major policy questions” (1989, 8). Worse still, many presidents made arbitrary decisions without congressional consultation and sometimes even extinguished Mexican lives by fiat.

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This presidentialist system was structurally reinforced by a corporatist system of interest representation. Corporatist organizations are compulsory, state-chartered, interest-representing monopolies. In addition to the National Peasants’ Confederation (CNC) and the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) shown in figure 2, the PRI organized teachers, women, professionals, government bureaucrats, and small merchants in the National Confederation of Popular Organizations (CNOP). While numerous other organizations were formally affiliated with the PRI, peasants and workers were the most important official “clients” of a “patron” state. Their primary function was to exchange votes and other legitimacy signs for material favors (Mitchell 2001; see also Williams 2001). Rural patronage, for example, could range from production inputs all the way to settling land disputes in a village’s favor. For this reason, the government’s peasant confederation, the CNC, was one of the largest organized bases of support for the ruling party through the 1980s. Organizing two million peasants and nearly one million more would-be peasants, the CNC’s mobilization of the peasant vote made the rural areas Mexico’s primary “electoral fraud belt” (R. Bartra 2002, 115–18).

While most businessmen were technically excluded from the PRI, from the 1930s on, they too were required by law to join noncompetitive trade associations (see examples under “private proprietors” in figure 2). These trade associations were also compulsory representational monopolies recognized by the state despite their formal exclusion from the ruling party. In addition, government officials used political office as a selective incentive for those corporatist and quasi-corporatist leaders who played by the official rules of the game. Opportunities for political office extended from public sector jobs to the PRI’s congressional candidacies, as well as to appointments to ministries or parastate organizations (Tirado 1982, 150–51; Cornelius 2004).

With the power of economic and political patronage, the postrevolutionary state had the capacity to impose tripartite negotiations among the government, capitalists, workers, or peasants. This meant that government officials could compel union leaders and business representatives to negotiate wage rates and labor conditions. The outcome was widespread corruption, given that political advancement depended on being responsive to the PRI and the president rather than on finding solutions to the problems faced by workers or peasants.

It is difficult to overstate the leverage that government officials had over most social groups and classes, including economically powerful businessmen. As demonstrated by other authoritarian political systems, rather than functioning as vehicles for authentic interest representation, corporatist organizations are “devices for social control.” Social groups and classes in Mexico indeed felt like “supplicants at the feet of the state” (Drake 1996, 43). As the following chapters demonstrate, antagonistic classes independently concluded that the government’s corporatist associations failed to represent their interests by forcing them to accept political compromise.

Boldly put, the Mexican state had colonized civil society by trying to secure social peace through corporatist cooperation. In doing so, officials neglected to build democratic institutions and processes. Without politically independent organizations, civil society was weak. Consequently, social groups had little space or capacity to discern, articulate, and assert their interests effectively. Not only did the corporatist organizations fail to genuinely represent social groups vis-à-vis government officials, but they further sacrificed political rights by undermining the democratic potential of regularized elections. Because corporatist associations organized and mobilized PRI voters, presidential elections were reduced to mere performances in which the dominant party worked to ratify its candidate, the lame-duck president’s handpicked successor.

Further, until 1996, the dominant party controlled the very institutions that decided either the legal registration (registro) of real political parties or the legitimacy of contested electoral results (see table 2). Electoral laws also ensured that the ruling party had greater financial resources than its competitors, as well as the greatest share of congressional seats. The PRI even received more favorable media attention than the opposition because the privately owned media were financially dependent on the government. Journalists who dared to criticize the government were intimidated.

Electoral law, public spending, and a financially dependent media created a “hegemonic party system” in which the PRI had a monopoly on political power, even though some (not all) parties were legally allowed to compete in elections (Crespo 2004, 59; Gómez Tagle 2004, 82). In reality, the PAN was the regime’s only real opposition, and until the early 1980s, it was a weak one at that. From its origins in 1939 until the early 1980s, the PAN was ambivalent about legitimating an unfair and fraudulent electoral system, even by participating in elections (Crespo 2004; Shirk 2005). In 1976, for example, it opted out of the presidential election, leaving the official party’s candidate, José López Portillo, to campaign unopposed. Concerned about the threat to democratic appearances if the PAN withdrew from the electoral arena altogether, the regime sponsored satellite parties to offer token competition.

Thus, although held regularly, presidential elections were not used as a serious means for consulting with citizens about policy options. Rather, the electoral system was such that political power at the presidential level did not alternate for seventy-one years (and for six decades at the gubernatorial level). Its democratic façade made it possible for Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to call it a “perfect dictatorship.”

While not a true dictatorship, Mexico was clearly semi-authoritarian, even if it ruled hegemonically for most of the years that the PRI held power. In the absence of a financially and politically independent media, an organized civil society, and truly competitive elections, Mexicans lacked the capacity to independently formulate and communicate public opinion. This resulted in an almost unidirectional system of communication running from state to civil society (see Lawson 2004, 385; Olvera 2004, 410). The weakness of civil society was aggravated by the exclusion of some groups from organized political action. As we shall see in chapter 4, while capitalists had direct access to the president with respect to most economic issues, they tacitly agreed to refrain from organized political activity. Further, the 1917 Constitution made it illegal for religious institutions, such as the once powerful Catholic Church, to participate in politics (or own property).

But while presidentialism, corporatism, noncompetitive elections, and the PRI’s monopoly on power weakened civil society, they did not completely disable the political opposition. On the contrary, the exclusion of genuinely alternative political voices from public debate forced political minorities to function outside of the institutionalized political arena (N. Harvey 1990). As we shall see, the difficulty that social groups faced in articulating their interests independently of the state politicized economic issues or radicalized moderate political ones (N. Harvey 1990, 196; Olvera 2004, 413). More broadly, much policy that sought to mollify peasants or workers came at the expense of capitalists, and vice versa.

As a consequence, basic interclass struggles about land or wages became complicated political contestations about Kafkaesque policies, the corrupt or inefficient implementation of policy, or state institutions. Further, social movements were radicalized by virtue of the fact that they were forced to confront corporatism, presidentialism, or both. In other words, movements arose not just at the margins of the political system but frequently in strong opposition to it. According to Foweraker and Landman, this process was not unique to Mexico. Rather, struggles over material resources turned into movements for civil and political citizenship rights precisely where authoritarian political systems in Latin America (and Spain) proved intransigent (1997, 30).

To manage political unrest, presidents resorted to pan y palo tactics (the Spanish equivalent of the carrot and the stick); these consisted of efforts at both co-optation and selective repression. Until the 1968 massacre of students (described in chapter 2), the state tended to eschew generalized violence (except when applied to armed guerrilla movements). Low-intensity selective repression worked through the 1950s but turned into a dirty war as political discontent and protest generalized after 1968. Presidents and other state agents came to approve of torture, long-term disappearances, and extrajudicial executions of armed guerrillas and even unarmed radicals after 1968.

While the armed movements received the brunt of human rights abuses, increasing state repression formed the general political context faced by nonguerrilla activists. As Luisa Paré argues, “In many ways the state used the guerrilla movement as an excuse to attack organizations involved in legal, democratic struggles which challenged interests protected by the ruling party” (1990, 83). Nonguerrilla activists understood that they could be jailed or even disappear for their political activity. In other words, from 1968 onward, the Mexican government sacrificed its “soft” version of authoritarianism to the extent that it increasingly relied on repression, including dirty war tactics, in the name of political stability.

As repression further radicalized and multiplied political dissidents, it is fair to conclude that neither the economic/political power of corporatist patronage nor the ultimate power of state violence would contain political discontent. The thesis to be demonstrated, however, is that some of the rural social movements that responded to the failures of corporatism, presidentialism, and dirty war tactics helped to democratize both civil society and the state.

The Emergence of Political Pluralism

This book tells the story of how some of the unarmed rural movements undermined the PRI’s hegemony among one of its most important clients, the peasantry. I also explain why agrarian capitalists led other segments of the capitalist class in a powerful countermovement. The leaderships of these movements and countermovements then mobilized their social bases, forming the opposition political parties that weakened the PRI by shaming it in post-electoral mass rallies protesting electoral fraud (see Williams 2001, 73).

On July 2, 2000, the right-wing opposition PAN defeated the once invincible PRI. When it did, it peacefully removed from power a party that had ruled Mexico longer than a single party had ruled any other nation in the twentieth century. In 2006, the country underwent a highly competitive, yet remarkably peaceful, presidential election in which the winning PAN candidate prevailed over the losing PRD candidate by less than 1 percent of the vote. That there was no major outbreak of political violence during mass demonstrations and a monthlong sit-in at the Zócalo after a partial vote recount suggests that Mexico’s newly democratized electoral processes are robust and have legitimacy among two-thirds of the electorate.

Beyond the presidency, opposition candidates have increasingly won power in municipalities and governorships. This is evidence of rising pluralism at the local level; such pluralism has both increased local political autonomy and eroded presidential power (Rodríguez 1997; Hernández Rodríguez 2003; see also Weldon 2004; Grindle 2007). According to Hernández Rodríguez, pluralism in Mexico goes beyond political alternation and increasing electoral competition between parties. Pluralism, he argues, “also made it possible for basic institutions, such as the federal and state congresses and the governorships, to enhance their constitutional powers, after the political homogeneity resulting from the PRI’s national dominance had disappeared. Pluralism put an end to the compulsory discipline under the executive and enabled both the legislative branch and the governorships to become efficient political counterweights to balance the executive and revitalize federalism. This process changed many traditional political practices before alternation finally reached the presidency of the republic in July 2000” (2003, 123; see also Weldon 2004).

To be clear, my claim that Mexico has evolved robust democratic electoral processes does not suggest a complete or unilinear development; nor does it suggest that procedural democracy is a panacea for all of Mexico’s social problems. In terms of the latter, democratic electoral processes can, by themselves, do little to reduce the poverty, crime, and deadly drug trade–related violence that have brought the nation to the brink of chaos. These problems can only be remedied by policies that lead to the kind of economic development that closes the gulf between the rich and poor, as well as generate the necessary state resources to adequately fund local judicial and law enforcement authorities and public prosecutors (see Magaloni and Zepeda 2004).

In addition, regimes democratize unevenly, and this seems to be especially true at the local level, where much depends on the outcome of local struggles (see N. Harvey 1998). Thus, even when there are fair and competitive procedures for the alternation of national political power, there may still remain authoritarian relations between patrons and clients, particularly in impoverished rural and urban areas (J. Fox 1990 and 1994a; Hellman 1994; Shefner 2001; Avritzer 2002; Middlebrook 2004b; Holzner 2006). Further, as Seymour Martin Lipset notes, since newly democratizing countries are “inherently low in legitimacy,” they can potentially revert back to some version of authoritarianism even at the national level (1994, 8). President Felipe Calderón’s current war against the drug cartels may be an example if the militarization of policing functions erodes some of the newfound strength of civil society.

Despite strong countercurrents, one can still argue that Mexico’s development of democratic electoral processes is both significant and robust, even if far from perfect. The PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador ran a highly competitive campaign in the 2006 presidential election despite the PAN’s and PRI’s efforts to undermine his candidacy. Further, unlike the electoral farce of 1988, the charges of fraud in the 2006 election resulted in a serious investigation in which recently independent electoral institutions annulled 237,736 votes after a partial vote recount. Mexico, in short, is more democratic today than it has ever been and begins to meet many of the theoretical criteria of democracy described below (see Domínguez and McCann 1996; Serrano and Bulmer-Thomas 1996; Domínguez and Lawson 2004; Eisenstadt 2004; Shirk 2005; Levy and Bruhn 2006).

According to McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly (2001), democracy involves a consultative, constitutionally bound relationship between states and people in civil society. In their view, a society is democratic if the government has the capacity to enact policy per the “protected consultation” of electorates in civil society (see also Dahl 1971). Lipset contends that democracy not only requires a strong, vibrant, and politically autonomous civil society capable of influencing state policy, but must also have “social requisites.” Specifically, democracy requires capitalism, a large middle class, a growing and increasingly egalitarian economy, and even a supportive political culture. Democratic political cultures are those that, at a minimum, value tolerance (including tolerance of political and religious differences), practice pluralism, and have nonauthoritarian religious beliefs and traditions. Lipset emphasizes that citizens, as much as political elites, must accept such principles as “freedom of speech, media, assembly, religion, of the rights of opposition parties, of the rule of law, of human rights, and the like” (1994, 3).

Combining these two working definitions of democracy makes it possible to analyze changing political dynamics. The point of this book is not, however, to engage in the theoretical debate surrounding the question “What is democracy?” (see Touraine 1997). Rather, I will concentrate on some heretofore ignored actors that help to account for the democratic transformation of Mexican civil society as well as its electoral arena. Specifically, I intend to show that political protest by rural actors contributed to that transformation. The working definitions of democracy outlined above simply focus the analysis on some of the changes in the way that the Mexican state relates to social groups in civil society.

Rural Sources Contributing to Mexico’s Democratization

As chapter 1 makes clear, the literature on Mexico’s democratization tends to concentrate on the 1980s, a period of serious economic and regime crises and, toward the end, greater electoral competition. Much of this scholarship emphasizes that economic globalization led to the eventual emergence of political liberalism. Specifically, the globalization literature argues that the international pressures that resulted from having to refinance the debt in 1982 led to economic neoliberalism, which, in turn, led to political decentralization and eventually electoral pluralism.

While the international pressure to liberalize the economy is indeed important, I will show that civil society blossomed well before the mid-1980s. This goes a long way toward explaining some of the historically significant PRI reforms of the political arena. Electoral reforms were initiated in 1977, for example, and these paved the way for real electoral competition. It follows that Mexico’s political liberalization began well before the adoption of neoliberal economic reforms in the mid-1980s and 1990s.

I argue, moreover, that organized and disruptive political protest not only antedated the emergence of neoliberalism and its economic shocks but also contributed to economic liberalization. This is to say that in addition to the well-documented pressure that the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) placed on Mexico to liberalize its economy, there were internal political dynamics pressing for the state’s withdrawal from direct production and from the subsidization of specific industries and sectors, and for economic deregulation and free trade (see also Gates 2009). Chapter 4 documents, for example, that Mexican businessmen pressed for both political and economic liberalization in reaction to internal class struggles. While their demands did not play the dominant role in Mexico’s economic reversal, the part that they did play has been overlooked by the scholarship.

Further, persistent internal political pressure could well explain why Mexico was one of the first Latin American countries to adopt neoliberal economic reforms. As Leslie Gates emphasizes, the long-term viability of neoliberalism in Mexico suggests that the internal political forces favoring economic liberalization have been crucial. Indeed, the very way in which pro-market state bureaucrats (called “technocrats”) reorganized the state was responsive to the political mobilization among Mexican business leaders (Gates 2009, 68–69).

Yet scholars who stress processes internal to Mexico have either focused on electoral reforms (Avritzer 2002; Eisenstadt 2004; Lawson and Klesner 2004; Shirk 2005) or on how political campaigns since 1988 have influenced voter preferences (Domínguez and McCann 1996; Domínguez and Lawson 2004). Thus, Lawson likewise notes that “over the last decade, research on Mexican politics has focused on 1) institutional reform, especially in the electoral sphere, and 2) mass behavior, especially voting” (2007, 45). While important, Mexico’s democratization story neither begins nor ends in the electoral arena. Electoral reforms, new courts, and changing campaigns are indeed significant, but the impetus for the change of these institutions and processes requires explanation.

My research explores the origins of such change by looking outside of the institutionalized political arena controlled by political elites. As social movements are the central subjects of civil society (Foweraker 1989), I examine how some politically disruptive rural movements and countermovements were catalysts for legal-institutional change as well as for the making of party constituencies and ideologies. According to Foweraker (1989), change in civil society not only precedes a democratic transition, but the prior transformation of civil society is itself important to the viability and consolidation of democracy (see also Avritzer 2002). As such, I examine some movement-countermovement dynamics in civil society in the final third of the twentieth century. I pause at key moments of conflict so as to understand the changing political conditions in civil society that made Mexico’s democratization possible.

While I focus on how some movements eventually supported opposition political parties, I neither trace the origins nor explore the development of the PAN (Shirk 2005) or the PRD (Bruhn 1997). Intraparty struggles over strategy are important, but such analyses tend to gloss over the bigger social-political context. These accounts also neglect to illuminate how and why social actors adopt the political positions necessary for party militancy and/or constituency in the first place. Even research that surveys political attitudes on the individual level finds it hard to unpack when or why people adopt their political views.

My analysis explains the origins of some of the political allegiances on the left and on the right that were clearly brought to the fore during the 2006 presidential election. I argue that a shift to the right resulted from the fact that key sectors of the business community were led by an agribusiness leader, Manuel Clouthier. Clouthier and his fellow businessmen revitalized the PAN as part of a general strategy to influence political power directly. By strategically framing the issues, they not only led a movement of key sectors of the capitalist class but also built a mass base of support among the middle class for the PAN. The businessmen’s political mobilizations, in turn, were counterpunches to peasant protest and mounting interclass struggles led by leftists during the 1970s. For its part, the left’s involvement in earlier rural social movements had an enduring political legacy that helps to account for some rural voters’ long-term loyal support of left presidential candidates. This legacy also helps to explain why some local electorates proved decisive in electing left (PRD) governors in some states. In other words, over the course of two decades, movement and countermovement dynamics in the countryside polarized activists and, as a consequence, the political ideologies that they developed. These struggles eventually led to the revitalization/formation of two opposition parties that successfully pressed for democratization (Bruhn 1997; Shirk 2005).

My research contributes to this historiography insofar as I identify the role of actors outside of state elites—specifically students, peasants, and businessmen—in changing state-society dynamics over time. This is not, however, an argument about “the” most important determinant. Since the literature on the transition to democracy focuses on the 1980s, the prior transformation of civil society is the least understood part of the process. Specifically, this book traces when, how, and why some politically significant rural forces shook off the shackles of corporatism to become politically contentious and how their disruptive mobilizations mattered over time. Understanding the contribution of these earlier movements illuminates some of the transformations within civil society that made structural change and the ultimate transition to democracy possible.

Figure 3 illustrates my general argument about how the student, and subsequent rural movements, helped to catalyze democratic change. At a theoretical level, this story about the relationship between social movements and institutional political change is consistent with recent work on the democratizing impact of social movements in Latin America and Spain (Foweraker 1989 and 1990; Munck 1990; Schneider 1995; Foweraker and Landman 1997; Paige 1997; Avrtizer 2002). As the theoretical implications of my research are discussed in the next chapter, the section that follows defines key theoretical concepts.

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Theoretical Concepts

According to the classic definitions in the literature, social movements are networks of people and organizations engaged in ongoing and challenging noninstitutionalized political practices so as to change society according to their ideologies (Tilly 1978; Tarrow 1994; McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001). A countermovement is essentially an opposing movement comprising its own networks and organizations that have opposing political ideologies and, consequently, goals. While a movement in its own right, the term “countermovement” signals that people mobilize reactively to make “contrary claims . . . to those of the original movement” (Meyer and Staggenborg 1996, 1631).

Although the boundaries between them are always permeable, social movements are distinguished from political parties not only in that the latter seek to govern but also in that social movements operate primarily, though not exclusively, through disruptive political contention. Whereas political parties tend to play by the institutionalized rules of the game and compete peacefully in elections, social movements rely more heavily on politically disruptive tactics than on such normal politics as voting, lobbying, or petitioning. Nonviolent politically disruptive tactics run the gamut from symbolic acts, such as demonstrations and rallies, to tactics that directly challenge established social relations, including land occupations, blockades, and sit-ins (Schock 2005, 39–40; see also Sharp 2005).

As Goldstone (2003) points out, rather than perceiving social movements and political parties as constituting a simple binary, it is more accurate to describe them as being located along a continuum in which the latter have the most access to and influence over policy and power and the former have the least access to these things. Goldstone (2003) emphasizes that social movement organizations and political parties can slide up or down that continuum. When they are viewed from the perspective of a continuum, rather than as a simple dichotomy, it becomes clearer that political parties will sometimes mobilize disruptively in the streets and social movement organizations will sometimes operate peacefully in electoral parties.

Another example of the large gray area between the extremes is that some organizations may call themselves political “parties” even though they neither compete in the electoral arena nor engage in normatively acceptable forms of communicating policy preferences. In this analysis, for example, I treat the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) as a social movement organization on the grounds that for much of its history it was not allowed to compete in elections. When this was so, the PCM adopted an antiparliamentarian stance and engaged in politically disruptive protests both in the urban centers (among teachers, electricians, and railroad, steel, and telephone workers) and in the countryside. It called itself a “party” to signal that it had a rigorous political ideology and because it expected a certain amount of Leninist discipline among its cadre. But for most of the twentieth century, it could not compete in elections and, as I will show, both its cadre and its grassroots networks engaged in politically disruptive contention.

The Book Plan

Because I argue that Mexico’s democratization was the outcome of rural movement and countermovement dynamics unleashed by a massacre of students in 1968, I present a path-dependent analysis of “reactive sequences” of causally linked events. The chapters are arranged chronologically to offer what Mahoney (2000) refers to as “scene-by-scene” descriptions of the causal paths for subsequent events. The historical narrative is punctuated by occasional quantitative techniques used to make and assess causal claims.

Chapter 1 argues that one theoretical implication of my research is that social movements are politically consequential in the short through the long term and in unexpected ways, even in repressive contexts. As in democracies, movement characteristics interact with the political opportunity structure and cultural context to shape movement outcomes. However, in repressive contexts, leadership and politically independent organizations seem especially helpful to movement success by offering key cultural, social, and material resources, such as political ideology, social networks, information, hiding locations, and effective movement frames. In combining the framing literature and social movement outcomes literature, I illuminate not only the role of leadership within civil society but also movement-countermovement dynamics. These micro- and meso-level phenomena have historically been neglected by the focus on single-movement emergence. Finally, my emphasis on how social movements on the left and on the right democratized Mexico complements, rather than refutes, the globalization thesis. I demonstrate how domestic social movements prior to the 1980s gave shape and culturally specific depth to democratizing processes within Mexico.

Chapter 2 examines the 1968 student movement that emerged in Mexico City. This urban detour is necessary because most scholars agree that 1968 was a historical catalyst, not only because of the legitimacy crisis of the state but also because so many of the social movements that constituted a cycle of protest lasting from the 1970s to the end of the 1980s were led by ex-student radicals (Monsiváis 1987; Foweraker 1990, 9; Pérez Arce 1990; Bennett 1992). This book argues that they also participated in nonguerrilla rural protest by working with communist militants (of all political tendencies) and especially with members and former members of the PCM and its youth wing. In the context of increasing state repression, former students and other leftists mobilized in clandestine or loose networks and helped to organize a flurry of nonviolent peasant protests from the 1970s through the 1980s. In addition to consolidating a left activist identity among youth, 1968 also spawned human rights organizations composed of ex-students and their families. I conclude that both the radicalization of youth and the mobilization of human rights organizations led to important legal reforms that contributed to the democratization of the political arena.

Chapter 3 documents how and why ex-student radicals and peasants mobilized despite the state’s intensification and extension of a dirty war. I argue that they were motivated by their deep ideological commitment to a definition of social justice and to their leftist activist identities, although they risked jail sentences, indefinite disappearances, and even death. The chapter further examines what this peasant/left collaboration contributed to Mexico’s democratization.

Chapter 4 shows that agribusinessmen responded to peasant protests for land in defensive countermovements that helped to transform their entire class as well as Mexico’s subsequent economic and political development. To defend themselves in the course of class conflict, businessmen created politically autonomous peak associations that functioned like radical social movement organizations. Their doing so created the organizational infrastructure through which to develop and disseminate neoliberalism—the ideology promoting the rights of private property, deregulation, “free” markets, and capitalism. Though once an “alternative” ideology, neoliberalism became policy in part because of the businessmen’s mobilizations. By the 1980s, businessmen had not only helped to push a neoliberal agenda onto the nation but also succeeded in mobilizing middle-class people for the PAN by strategically reframing their grievances. In so doing, radical businessmen turned the PAN into a competitive political party capable of defeating the once invincible PRI.

Chapter 5 focuses squarely on the rural sources of electoral support for the left-of-center party, the PRD. I argue that some rural voters have been loyal to the PRD in presidential races since 1988 because of the history of left-led movements in the countryside. This history created pockets of rural supporters who, along with the left in general, have helped to prop up the PRD, leading it to gubernatorial victories in some states. The PRD’s electoral resiliency since 1988 has contributed to democratization in part by making Mexico’s political system more pluralistic. The PRD has blocked the road to a two-party system, and viable three-way electoral competition has ensured that policy options do not regress toward the center. In offering Mexicans genuine political alternatives to neoliberalism and economic shock therapy, the PRD has played a leading role in turning elections into increasingly ideological races between the left and the right. Indeed, the PRD’s definition of social democracy as social justice turned the 2006 presidential election into a referendum on neoliberalism. As such, the critical voice offered by the PRD both engaged citizens in a public conversation about Mexico’s future and helped to activate civil society. As C. Wright Mills noted, such critical publics are central to democracy (1956, 323; see also Avritzer 2002; Olvera 2004).

Chapter 6 concludes that the struggles on which I focus were not just class conflicts over economic interests. Although peasants and agribusinessmen first opposed each other because of material interests, they also had in common their increasing alienation from the PRI state. Peasants and businessmen would eventually find it more effective to mobilize for their material resources by focusing on organizational autonomy from the state. By their very existence, the voluntary (as opposed to compulsory) associations that they created contributed to the democratization of civil society to the extent that they undermined corporatism and confronted presidentialism. In breaking free from the state’s control, peasants and businessmen created organizations through which to articulate their policy preferences and defended their political autonomy from the state. In increasing their bargaining capacity with state officials, they also expanded the very boundaries of civil society (see N. Harvey 1990). Over time, both peasants and agribusinessmen would incorporate democracy as a goal and either directly or indirectly play an important role in strengthening or consolidating the opposition parties that ultimately defeated the PRI.

The evolution of economic struggles into political ones is, according to Foweraker, a common feature in democratizing stories. He argues specifically that grassroots mobilizations rarely start out focusing on democracy. Ordinary people frequently engage in interclass conflict, the contingent outcomes of which may (or may not) move civil society in the direction of democracy (Foweraker 1989). Mexico’s story departs from other democratizing stories, not so much in the evolution of interclass conflicts into political struggles but in the fact that the cycle of protest began with a moderate, but violently repressed, pro-democracy student movement. As I will show, youth who had survived the repression of 1968 were behind many peasant struggles for land. Thus, while students did not get what they demanded in 1968, they contributed to democratization through their continued involvement in left protest activities despite increasing state repression.

To conclude, my contribution is in offering an explanation of the rural sources of left vs. right movement-countermovement dynamics that significantly contributed to electorally competitive political parties in Mexico. I show that while the PAN and left opposition parties have long independent histories, they were ultimately transformed by post-1968 political crises, including movements in the countryside. This analysis suggests a relationship among social movements, political ideologies, parties, and institutional change.

Data Limitations

As the reader will undoubtedly want a more nuanced analysis of the people engaged in high-risk protests, I explain here what this book will not address. The existing data do not permit giving the percentage of protestors who were women or Native Americans, because the newspaper stories on which the data sets were built reported “campesino” unrest by state (not always the municipio, or county). Rarely did those brief stories provide details as to whom the campesinos comprised (see appendix B). What we can say for certain is that extra-local peasant leaders tended to be male. While women indeed participated in high-risk peasant struggles, such as invading lands or occupying government offices, only a few were recognized as local leaders (see Carbajal Ríos 1988; Stephen 1992). The capitalists in my story were either white or mestizo men.

While Native American peasants were involved in land invasions in significant numbers, especially in those protests that occurred in the south of the country (Rubio 1987; Paré 1990; N. Harvey 1998), my efforts to identify specifically indigenist claims in these protests were anachronistic. Various native languages, social-political institutions, and customs and beliefs did survive the state’s efforts to homogenize all native groups as mestizos, and indigenous cultural practices were integral to daily life at the community level for millions of Mexicans (Hernández Navarro and Carlsen 2004). However, this is not to say that Indians refrained from making extra-local political claims on the state. Indeed, they did, but until the 1990s, they tended to do so in the most politically effective way, by claiming rights as campesinos, landless farm workers, and, after 1976, producers (in ejido unions) (N. Harvey 1998; Womack 1999, 165). Rubio specifies that unlike the protests of the first half of the 1970s, land invasions in the second half of the decade and during José López Portillo’s administration sought to reclaim native lands taken by large landholders (1987, 32). In these struggles, Native Americans worked in broad coalitions with mestizos and, as I demonstrate throughout this book, were frequently led by ladino leftists transplanted from urban centers.

In other words, politically independent mobilization foregrounding Native American claims did not begin in earnest until the late 1980s and early 1990s, against the backdrop of the impending quincentennial anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas (Hernández Navarro and Carlsen 2004, 444–45; Martin 2005, 210; Carton de Grammont and Mackinlay 2009, 31). In anticipation of the 1992 anniversary, Mexico signed the ILO Convention on indigenous peoples’ rights in 1991; it reformed Article 4 of its Constitution a year later to acknowledge the right of Indian peoples to their own “languages, cultures, customs, and resources” (Hernández Navarro and Carlsen 2004). What is more, the political capital of indigenist claims increased at the very moment that the political capital of “campesino” claims decreased (with the state’s loss of patronage resources, the end of land reform, and the withdrawal of the state from the economy). Finally, the success of the Zapatistas in Chiapas gave further momentum to the growth of a pan-Indian movement in Mexico (N. Harvey 1998; Stahler-Sholk 2008, 119) in the context of greater organization and communication among native groups across Latin America that had mobilized to protest the anniversary of Columbus’s arrival.

This brings me to the subplot of this book. Two of the chapters concern unarmed peasant movements, but I also frequently mention the armed guerrilla movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The guerrillas’ broad support from rural peoples helped them to elude soldiers. This explains why the government intensified the dirty war against them and extended it to the unarmed left and, indeed, to entire rural communities. The evidence is clear that soldiers and lower-level police units not only violated the human rights of nonguerrilla rural activists but sometimes even killed such innocents as the elderly or young boys; they also raped women. But while the unarmed peasant movement clearly did not operate in a vacuum, I am unable to tell the story of the government’s dirty war against the armed rural guerrilla movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, I concentrate on why and how some nonviolent rural movements operated in the context of increasing state repression, because these data, while difficult to assemble, were more available than data on the armed guerrillas or the army’s actions.

For these reasons, I examine how nonviolent rural movements spawned by the events of 1968 contributed to Mexico’s recent democratization. As unarmed social movements are more common than armed struggles, my focus has broad implications for the scholarship on social movements and countermovements. These are developed in the following chapter.