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Before Democracy: Memories of Mexican Elections
by Kate Doyle

Research Assistance: Isaac Campos Costero

Additional Research: Tamara Feinstein and Emilene Martínez Morales

Posted - July 7, 2003

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This new Electronic Briefing Book on elections in Mexico is the fifth to appear based on a collaboration between Proceso magazine  and the National Security Archive and launched on March 2, 2003. The collaboration grew out of a shared desire to publish and disseminate to a wide audience newly-declassified documents about the United States and Mexico. Each month, Proceso magazine will publish an article by the Archive's Mexico Project director, Kate Doyle, examining new documentary evidence on a chosen topic. The series - called Archivos Abiertos (or, Open Archive), will draw from U.S. and Mexican declassified records on a range of issues that could include, for example: drug trafficking and counternarcotics policy, Mexican presidential elections, human rights cases, immigration, U.S. training of the Mexican military, NAFTA negotiations, the role of the press, peso devaluations, and state repression during Mexico's "dirty war." On the same day that Proceso's article appears in Mexico, the National Security Archive will post an Electronic Briefing Book on its web site, containing an English-language version of the article, a link to Proceso's web site, and all of the declassified documents used for the piece, reproduced in their entirety.

Link - Proceso Magazine
El artículo en español (PDF format - 315 KB)

Before Democracy: Memories of Mexican Elections 

by Kate Doyle
Not so long ago, most Mexicans went to their polling places and cast their votes in national, state and local elections knowing in advance what the outcome would be: the candidates of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) would once again be declared the winners. Whether there was one name on the ballot or many, whether the majority of voters were radical leftists, staunch conservatives or somewhere in between, the result was a foregone conclusion.

The United States knew this too, and U.S. officials in Washington and in Mexico were kept well informed as to the nature of the PRI political machine and the lengths to which it would go to maintain power. Privately, they did not hesitate to discuss the machinations of the Mexican elite and their effects on the country?s political system. 

 In public they tread more carefully. But if one searches the open historical record in vain for critical statements about Mexican politics by American officials, declassified U.S. documents about past elections in Mexico offer a bracingly honest account of the years of scheming, fraud, sophisticated cooptation and orchestrated violence that lay behind the hemisphere?s most ?perfect dictatorship.? 

 Nothing that you are about to read will surprise you, dear reader. But as Mexican voters go to the polls once more, Archivos Abiertos provides you with the following snapshots of elections gone by ? seen through the lens of the United States government ? as a reminder of how far the country has come in search of democracy.

The Dark Ages

Let?s go back to that not-so-distant era . . . a period long after the golden age of the PRI ? when President Lázaro Cardenas nationalized Mexico?s oil and became the champion of the campesinos ? but well before the political reforms of the late 1970s that would finally begin to loosen the PRI?s monopoly on power. 

Secret U.S. assessments about the Mexican government?s political legitimacy in those years could be astonishingly bald. In 1967, the CIA?s Intelligence Directorate produced a critical review of the Díaz Ordaz regime entitled Mexico: The Problems of Progress. Although the agency praised the country?s record of ?political stability,? it questioned the government?s unwillingness to address mounting economic and social problems such as rural poverty. The CIA laid the blame on the ruling party, which, it claimed, had grown too comfortable with the status quo to want to consider change of any kind.

?The PRI has been a highly effective instrument of the small clique that has pre-empted political power while lavishly promoting the trappings of partisan competition. Successful maintenance of a benevolent dictatorship behind a façade of a federal republic responsive to the popular will has depended on an uneducated, backward ?electorate? resigned to unethical practices and political bossism.? 

 In an analysis marked ?No Foreign Dissemination? (?This document MUST NOT BE RELEASED TO FOREIGN GOVERNMENTS?), the CIA described a regime unresponsive to Mexico?s growing middle class, which was increasingly resentful of old style politics and had begun to challenge them openly.

 ?A serious defiance of the dedazo practice, whereby Mexico City chooses local and regional PRI candidates, occurred early this year in the state of Sonora. Between February and May the state was in a virtual condition of insurrection, with the citizenry protesting the PRI?s choice for the governorship. Federal troops restored calm, and electoral fraud delivered a PRI victory in the 2 July election.?

 The agency pointed out that Díaz Ordaz had introduced some minor political reforms in effort to acknowledge increasing popular pressure. ?These attempts, however, have created serious strains in the party and have deeply antagonized those elements whose power base would be diminished by the reforms envisioned. The reaction makes it clear that the political moment has not arrived when the PRI, as a united organization, can bear a really significant step toward democratization.?

Jalisco 1967

On the ground in Mexico, U.S. embassy and consular officials witnessed the operations of the political machine up close and described what they saw in unequivocal terms. In the state of Jalisco in October 1967, for example, consulate officer R. B. Lane explained how the system worked to choose PRI candidates for state deputies. 

 In those days, Jalisco was divided into 18 electoral districts; the most important among them became spheres of influence, or ?cacicazgos? of powerful politicians ?who have, through  money, time, friendships, dispensation of favors, and in some cases, use of force, created fiefdoms in which they select mayors, city councilmen, state, and sometimes federal deputies.? 

 ?Every effort is made to parcel out placebos to those factions whose support is felt to be essential to the continued good health of the Party. This is apparently done without regard to the wishes of the people whose interests are theoretically furthered and defended by their elected representatives. Consequently, candidates are selected to represent regions of which they are not residents, of which they have no specialized knowledge, and in which they have, in many cases, no particular interest except furthering their personal political careers. The only apparent criterion is that they ?play ball? with the Governor and be acceptable to the PRI State Executive Committee.?

 The decisions were followed by nominating conventions held in the headquarters of each electoral district. ?These meetings were characterized by ?spontaneous? demonstrations of enthusiasm for the candidates and ubiquitous placards proclaiming the candidates? suitability, dedication to the Revolution, honesty, and so forth, though the vast majority of those present had no voice whatsoever in the selection of their standard bearers.?

 The same Mr. Lane was even more frank in his assessment, some six months later, of local government in Jalisco, in an airgram that analyzed the political systems of three small Jaliscan municipalities: La Barca, Ocotlán and Jamay. Lane described how the PRI controlled the nomination of municipal presidents through continuismo and political favor, choosing ?candidates? for their loyalty to the system rather than their adeptness at the job. ?The State Executive Committee of the PRI has, of late, tried to change the image of the local caciques from that of blundering ignoramuses to one more favorable. Nevertheless, most of the Presidentes are not educated beyond the primary school level and a number are actually illiterate. Understandably, they are in constant need of ?advice? from Guadalajara.?

 In rural communities, it was normally members of the PRI?s agricultural sector who were selected. Such representatives were not, however, peasant farmers but the large landowners who earned their living from enormous properties farmed by campesinos. ?The Presidentes selected from the campesino sector are in politics primarily to see to it that the squatters (paracaidistas) make no attempts to dispossess them of their lands, or if they try, that the police power will be in friendly hands. In other words, the leaders of the campesino sector are normally wealthy farmers who have a vested interest in the political control of their communities.?

Yucatán 1969

In 1969, voters in the Yucatán went to the polls to elect a new governor. The state had been in political turmoil since 1967, when the opposition National Action Party (PAN) capitalized on growing popular discontent with the PRI to win control of the mayoralty of Mérida, the state capital, and two of nine deputy seats. The opposition?s unprecedented victories prompted a backlash from the local PRI apparatus; in September 1968, the American consulate documented instances of the PRI bribing PAN city councilmen to resign in exchange for tens of thousands of pesos. 

 As the election approached, the PRI?s pressure on the opposition became more overt. Four months before the vote, U.S. officials described an attack by PRI activists against a group of Panistas outside the city of Tekax in southern Yucatán ? an attack, according to one consulate source, deliberately provoked by hard-line PRI members who were increasingly unhappy with the rural successes of traveling PAN delegations. State PRI officials were less anxious about the election; over lunch a few days later, party functionary Luis Peraza told the reporting officer that he considered the entire campaign irrelevant, ?since the PRI is going to win the November election in any event. When asked why he was so certain, Peraza smiled and replied, ?one third of Yucatán?s votes are from Mérida, but the other two-thirds are from the countryside ? and election results are easier to arrange there.?? 

 Washington?s perspective on the election was upbeat. The State Department?s intelligence branch viewed the gubernatorial race as representative of growing disenchantment with the PRI not just in the Yucatán but around the country, increasing the pressure on the party to institute genuine political reforms. Although the department was skeptical about the PAN?s chances of winning, it averred that ?the myth of the Revolution is wearing a bit thin,? and declared that ?The day when an opposition party can mount a substantial challenge to the official party at a politically significant level has arrived. . . . [O]ver the long run there seems to be no alternative but to face the issue of growing dissatisfaction with the status quo. The Yucatán elections may reveal the PRI?s first response to this problem.?

 And so it did. According to consulate reports, the election took place amidst an onslaught of PRI-orchestrated ?fraud, irregularity and outright theft?; on the day after the vote, the PRI candidate for governor declared himself the victor by 90 percent. ?The non-violence called for by the PRI throughout the campaign up to the last minute,? wrote the reporting officer, ?clearly meant, as events have shown, ?be docile while we steal the election.? The PAN charge that there was wholesale fraud is also beyond a doubt. . . .

 ?It has been a sordid spectacle.?

Veracruz 1970

Following the presidential elections in July 1970, the U.S. consulate in Veracruz obtained the actual voting statistics for one district from the state?s Federal Electoral Commission. In an airgram to Washington entitled, ?Ballot Counting ? Veracruz Style,? the reporting officer compared the real numbers with the ?official? ones, concluding that while the declared results gave the PRI candidate Luis Echeverría 94 percent of the vote in that district, the actual total was about 36 percent.

According to the U.S. official?s source inside the commission, the published results were assigned by the PRI National Committee to the State PRI Committee, ?which, in turn, assigned the final vote totals for each of the 14 electoral districts in the State of Veracruz.? As an indication of the indifference and disgust of many citizens, ?a majority of the 108,931 registered voters in Veracruz?s 11th District either abstained from voting or spoiled their ballots. The total not voting or having their votes cancelled was 72 percent of the eligible electorate.? Many of those whose votes were annulled had written ?farce? on the bottom of their ballots.

?Review of the vote totals by precincts shows that in several precincts the vote total exceeded the number of registered voters. While officials claim that this is the result of a number of people shifting their residences since registration, this appears highly doubtful. It is more likely a case of ?ballot-stuffing? by over-eager PRI precinct chairmen or election observers.?
?There is no doubt,? continued the consulate, ?that the PRI won the election in Veracruz?s 11th District. However, the PRI?s winning margin was less than claimed in the public media. One questions how long the PRI will be able to maintain this hypocrisy and continue to deceive the public. . .?

How did these kind of field observations filter up to senior policy makers in Washington? One month after the July 1970 presidential election, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger prepared President Richard Nixon for a farewell visit meeting with Díaz Ordaz in Puerto Vallarta. Briefing his boss on Mexican domestic matters, Kissinger commented on the victory of Luis Echeverría as the country?s next president. ?Echeverría won almost 86 percent of the vote and the PRI slate won by a landslide. Although there may have been some irregularities in the election, the results probably are a relatively accurate indication of popular support for the PRI, which will continue its monopoly of power in Mexico.?

Legitimacy vs. Stability

It is not surprising that American officials ? however much they knew about the inner workings of the Mexico?s political machine ? were publicly and consistently supportive of the government. After all, throughout the Cold War at least, the bottom line for U.S. interests in Mexico was national security and stability, not democracy. As one secret briefing paper written for Secretary of State Kissinger stated succinctly in 1972, "It is important to our security that there be in Mexico a friendly, cooperative and politically stable government and that no hostile power have access to the territory of Mexico." 

 There were other reasons for Washington to be silent on the issue of democracy in Mexico. For one, U.S. officials knew that blunt asseverations about the anti-democratic practices of the government would provoke immediate outrage inside the country, as sensitive as it was to any sign of interference from its powerful neighbor. Indeed, when U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Joseph John Jova rashly spoke his mind at a conference in Washington in 1976 ? calling Mexico?s political system ?monarchical? ? he was treated to a torrent of indignation and anger within Mexico from government officials and leftist intellectuals alike, according to a New York Times article written about the incident.

 A more complicated factor may also have been at play ? what scholar Jacqueline Mazza called ?implicit policymaking? in her recent book on U.S. attitudes toward Mexican democracy (Don?t Disturb the Neighbors: The United States and Democracy in Mexico, 1980-95. New York: Routledge, 2001.) Mazza discovered through interviews with senior American officials and an analysis of the public record that there was what amounted to an unspoken agreement within Washington to avoid public criticism of Mexican political practices altogether. For U.S. purposes, Mexico was a successful regime, so why create trouble by alienating friends?

According to the declassified documents, some U.S. officials recognized that Washington?s silence on the issue could reflect poorly on the United States. Writing in 1969, Ambassador Robert McBride worried that ?repeated affirmations of excellent relations between our two countries, our known preoccupation with problems of security, and the disposition of many Mexicans to believe that our only other foreign policy concern is the protection of U.S. investments, lead some persons currently in opposition or dissent to view the U.S. Government as the chief bulwark of the political status quo in Mexico.? 

But in the end, the core legitimacy of the Mexican regime was irrelevant to the United States given the unshakeable political ?stability? that it achieved. In its 1972 ?Country Analysis and Strategy Paper? ? an annual document which examined the issues at stake in the U.S.-Mexican relationship ? the American embassy flatly stated that a key objective in Mexico was to ?Preserve the stability of the Mexican political system.? According to its own reporting that year, the system to be preserved was one that relied on fraudulent elections, political manipulation and control of opposition parties at the federal, state and local levels, repression of dissent, and indifference and inaction toward fundamental problems such as rural poverty, unemployment and an alarming population increase.

A historical review of Mexico?s political system makes the inability of the present government to capture the public?s imagination and convince citizens to participate in today?s election all the more disheartening. As this article goes to press, political analysts are predicting that fully half of Mexico?s registered voters, some 32 million people, will not go to the polls on Sunday. This staggering abstentionism ? just three years after the triumph of Vicente Fox that heralded the country?s long-awaited democratic transition ? reflects not only a disenchantment with the failure of Fox and the PAN to transform Mexican politics on a national level. It is also a sign that the public?s long-standing skepticism about the country?s political system endures.

Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
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Document 1:
Mexico: The Problems of Progress
CIA, secret intelligence report

Less than a year before Mexican student discontent would erupt into mass demonstrations and the massacre by federal troops at Tlatelolco, the CIA offers dire warnings of growing political disillusionment throughout Mexico's urban and rural sectors. Persistent rural poverty has undermined the traditional support for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) among campesinos, while an increasingly prosperous and educated urban middle class is growing resentful of Mexico's monopoly on political power. "Successful maintenance of the benevolent dictatorship behind a façade of a federal republic responsive to the popular will has depended on an uneducated, backward 'electorate' resigned to unethical practices and political bossism." The report argues that real reform appears unacceptable to many key sectors of the PRI and thus peace will continue to be maintained by an army "which is both brutally effective and politically astute."

Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library, National Security Files
CO-Mexico, Vol. 3, Box 60, "3/67-11/67 (1 of 3)"

Document 2:
Political/Economic Report for the Month of October
U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara, confidential airgram

As Mexico's ruling party begins to select its candidates for local and state elections in Jalisco, the American consulate in Guadalajara analyzes the process, providing a vivid glimpse into the workings of local PRI machine politics. "Every effort is made to parcel out placebos to those factions whose support is felt to be essential to the continued good health of the Party. This is apparently done without regard to the wishes of the people whose interests are theoretically furthered and defended by their elected representatives. Consequently, candidates are selected to represent regions of which they are not residents, of which they have no specialized knowledge and in which they have, in many cases, no particular interest except furthering their personal political careers." 

Source: National Archives, RG 59, 1967-1969
Pol 2 Mex, Box 2337

Document 3:
Municipal Government in Jalisco: 1968
U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara, limited official use airgram

A frank examination of the inner workings of Mexican politics at the most local level, the "municipio." The American consulate officer explains how local and state PRI officials conspire to choose municipal leaders who will guarantee fealty to the party over the interests of their constituents. Although opposition to the system exists, the consulate officer writes, "it can reasonably be concluded that, for the immediate future, the system herein examined is unlikely to change dramatically. The reasons are manifold and ubiquitous; widespread ignorance and illiteracy, political apathy, lack of tradition of resistance to authority, the realities of economic power available to the Caciques, and fear of the unknown. The PRI, by political sophistry in some instances and enlightened benevolence in others, manages to stay a few steps ahead of real difficulty."

Source: National Archives, RG 59, 1967-69
Pol 18 Mex, Box 2342

Document 4:
PRI Tries to Buy out the PAN Municipal Government
U.S. Consulate in Mérida, confidential airgram

After an unexpected 1967 victory by the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) in Mérida, capital of Yucatán state, the city becomes a crucial symbolic battleground with both state and national implications for the PRI. In September 1968, the American consulate reports on a particularly egregious instance of political corruption involving efforts by the state PRI organization trying (successfully) to bribe PAN city councilmen in exchange for their resignations. The scheme was apparently hatched by PRI Governor Luis Torres Mesías "to save his demolished political career by regaining Mérida for the PRI. . . . If four out of seven regidores could be induced to resign, the constitution would permit the governor to name a commission (PRI, of course) to rule the city."

Source: National Archives, RG 59, 1967-69
Pol 18 Mex, Box 2342

Document 5:
FY 1971 Country Analysis and Strategy Paper for Mexico
U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, confidential airgram (extract)

This extract of the U.S. embassy's annual Country Analysis and Strategy Paper (CASP) for 1971 reiterates previous warnings of growing discontent about Mexico's political system. The United States, argues the embassy, should encourage reform or "adaptations" that might increase political participation by Mexicans. Nevertheless, "we should recognize that the present system has provided a political framework for stability and progress on a broad front. Hence, we should encourage adaptations only at a pace determined by developments in Mexico and in consonance with the views of those in command . . ." 

Source: National Archives, RG 59, 1967-69
Pol 1 Mex, Box 2344

Document 6:
Armed Clash Highlights Pre-Election Campaign
U.S. Consulate in Mérida, confidential airgram

As key state elections draw nearer in the Yucatan, PRI functionaries block a PAN delegation's path to the city of Tekax, ultimately provoking a shootout between members of the two political parties. "The Consulate believes that the PRI has decided to with the State gubernatorial election at almost any cost. Given the pro-PAN sentiment in the state, this means force and pressure rather than persuasion."

Source: National Archives, RG 59, 1967-69
Pol 23-8 Mex, Box 2343

Document 7:
The Political Situation in Yucatán
U.S. Embassy in Mexico, confidential airgram

Amidst the pre-election buzz of rumors and rising tensions in the Yucatán, the U.S. embassy in Mexico City provides a detailed analysis of the political situation there. Local PAN successes in 1967 have turned the 1969 governor's race into a crucial battleground for the PRI, almost a litmus test of their continuing rule nationwide. While a "rigged PRI victory" is not a certainty, the embassy does not discount such an outcome. "This might involve the blatant falsification of votes, the arbitrary determination of a PRI victory regardless of the contents of the voting boxes, or (as happened in Baja California last year) the throwing out of election results favorable to the PAN-i.e. the annulment of the election."

Source: National Archives, RG 59, 1967-69
Pol 18 Mex, Box 2342

Document 8:
Mexico: Ruling Party Faces Challenge in State Elections
Department of State, confidential research memorandum

Analysis from the State Department on the impending Yucatecan elections emphasizes the importance of the governor's race within the national political context. "One-party dominance by the PRI has served Mexico well, but the PRI's claim to represent the basic sectors of Mexican society becomes open to question if it is repudiated by substantial numbers of voters whose interest it is theoretically designed to represent. Regardless of the outcome of the election, a strong showing by the opposition may well lead some PRI leaders to reexamine their party's role."

Source: National Archives, RG 59, 1967-69
Pol 12 Mex, Box 2340

Document 9:
Political Change in Mexico
U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, confidential airgram

In another long analysis of the Mexican national political scene, the U.S. Embassy presciently predicts that the clash between growing discontent and dogged resistance to change will result in the "overt use of force in support of and against the established political system" during the early 1970s. At the same time the report details the tricky position in which the United States will find itself, with conservative elements blaming demands for change on U.S. influence and more radical elements linking establishment reaction to Washington's "known preoccupation with problems of security, and the disposition of many Mexicans to believe that our only other foreign policy concern is the protection of U.S. investments."

Source: National Archives, RG 59, 1967-69
Pol 2 Mex, Box 2337

Document 10:
Election in Yucatan
U.S. Consulate in Mérida, confidential airgram

In the wake of the gubernatorial elections in the Yucatan, the American Consul in Mérida reports that events have proved " a sordid spectacle." Violence and widespread allegations of fraud by the PRI, "all probably true," mar the outcome of this crucial election. "The PRI charge that the violent incidents were started by the panistas is probably true?.The non-violence called for by the PRI throughout the campaign up to the last minute clearly meant, as events have shown, 'be docile while we steal the election.'"

Source: National Archives, RG 59, 1967-69
Pol 18 Mex, Box 2342

Document 11:
Ballot Counting-Veracruz Style
U.S. Consulate in Veracruz, confidential airgram

Following the 1970 Mexican presidential elections, the American consul in Veracruz provides analysis of the official results which were doctored by the PRI to provide overwhelming victory for Luis Echeverría. Less typical were an extraordinarily large number of "spoiled" ballots. "The high percentage of annulled votes may have been a result, as several residents commented, of their having written 'farce' on the bottom of their ballots. This action was a protest against the PRI and its complete control of the Mexican system of government. Since the total of the annulled votes cast was higher than the vote for the PAN in the City of Veracruz, it appears that the Veracruz voters did not accept the PAN as an alternate governing party." 

Source: National Archives, RG 59, 1970-73
Pol 15 Mex, Box 2475

Document 12:
Country Analysis and Strategy Paper FY 1973 and 1974
U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, secret airgram (extract)

While the embassy's analysis of political developments in Mexico suggests that the PRI might very gradually begin to open up the political system over the coming years, it also argues that the U.S. should avoid pressuring Mexico in this direction as there is very little positive influence the U.S. can have in these matters. "The [United States Government's] overall low level of concern for the Political Development of Mexico is based on the lack of any direct or immediate threat to U.S. interests, the lack of opportunity to affect internal political developments of Mexico, and the inadvisability of unilateral U.S. action within basic U.S. policy of non-intervention." 

Source: National Archives, RG 59, 1970-73
Pol 1 Mex-US, Box 2477

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