By Jubilee Cheung
Irving Tragen, a Berkeley law graduate, has taught courses, is an expert on labor law and has held diplomatic positions in Latin America. On Wednesday, May 7, he gave a lecture concerning the PRI’s role in Mexico’s move away from mercantilism, after the Mexican Revolution that spanned from 1910 to 1920.
The Mexican Revolution came about in response to unhappiness with the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, whose 31-year reign is sometimes referred to as the Porfiriato. Díaz distributed wealth and power among a very select few, and gave the people little ability to express their views and opinions. The rural peasant class, in particular, suffered under Díaz, whose government forcibly seized large portions of land and effectively deprived the peasant class of work. Díaz’s regime also saw to it that roughly 20 percent of all land in Mexico was given to foreign entities in what was likely a supreme act of commercialism; as the rest of the land that remained under local ownership mostly belonged to affluent families, the agrarian workforce suffered tremendously. Many were forced to live on plantations as a direct result.
In 1910, Francisco Madero issued a letter that called for reform, which rallied the rural peasants of Mexico to his side. Madero’s cause attracted the support of other rebel leaders, among them Pascual Orozco and Francisco Villa. Though Madero did eventually overthrow Díaz and attempt to establish a democratic government, he proved an ineffective leader and was removed from power himself. His death in 1913, suspected by many to have been an assassination orchestrated by rival Victoriano Huerta, led to a period of political and social unrest that would continue for years after.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was developed in response to the post-revolutionary instability. Control of the party was concentrated among the Central Executive Committee, although the PRI made a conscious effort to maintain the illusion that it was an institution of the people. Its elected leader, Lázaro Cárdenas, would take mercantilism to another level by expropriating Mexico’s oil supply, a fairly unpopular decision at the time. The expropriation of oil eventually led to labor unrest as the industry became less profitable on a local level. Cárdenas responded positively by nationalizing a number of operating oil companies. Cárdenas would go on to nationalize a number of other industries. The PRI was renamed Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM) under Cárdenas, who, to quote Tragen, “focused Mexico on Mexico.”
Despite Cárdenas’s nationalization of foreign industries, the PRI (which has undergone a large quantity of name changes throughout its 71 years of existence) was, for the most part, heavily corrupt, and retained a shady reputation among the people. There were occurrences of fraud where elections were concerned, and officials utilized tactics rooted in blackmail, and bribery to control opposing parties. Tragen made personal note of the heavy corruption, recounting that people often carried extra cash to pay off the police that might pull them over on the streets; this was such a customary practice, he explained, that it was accounted for in determining the policemen’s salaries. The party would go on to maintain control of Mexico from 1929 to 2000. To date, Mexicans display mistrust in their government, with as few as 33 percent asserting that they place faith in it.
The corruption of the PRI has left a lasting impact on the confidence that the Mexican populace places in its government. The PRI has also since returned to power as of 2012, much to the concern of the people, a large number of whom fear a return to the corruption of the past. Enrique Peña Nieto, the current leader of the PRI, promises that such fears are ungrounded. Only time will prove the validity of this statement.
Image by Britt Reints