The unannounced, unexpected snow storm that is following me around the Iberian Peninsula has arrived in San Sebastián. I woke up from the sounds of frozen mix pelleting my balcony door. We are warned to stay inside, and this gives me a chance finally to talk about Mexico.
Hispanic countries (including Spain) have historically found it next to impossible to establish lasting, stable democracies. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, they experienced an unending stream of coups, civil wars, and dictatorships.
What makes democracy work its the longevity and stability of its institutions. A young democracy is weak in comparison with the established one. In the Hispanic world, the only country that has experienced something akin to democracy for a long, uninterrupted stretch of time is Mexico.
Mexico hasn’t had a dictatorship since 1910. This is big for the Hispanic world. Everybody else has had so many that it’s hard to keep track. Mexico inspires other Hispanic countries to believe that they, too, can eventually claw their way to democracy. It’s also very large and other Latin American countries have come to rely on Mexico to moderate disputes in the region and act as an authority.
Of course, Mexican democracy, the longest uninterrupted democracy in the Hispanic world, isn’t necessarily what we’d call a democracy. For the first 70 years of this “democracy’s” existence (from 1930 to 2000), Mexico was effectively a one-party state. One single party “won” every “election” for 70 years.
“Erm,” you’ll say. “This is what you call democracy?”
I mean, yeah, it doesn’t sound like much but for a Hispanic country to have actual elections where people come and go (even if they are all in the same party) and nobody starts a military coup – that’s already an enormous achievement.
After 70 years of one-party rule, Mexicans were ready to try an actual democracy. You know the kind. Different parties with different ideas run and whoever gets most support wins and takes office. Aaaaahhh! Scary!
To bring this possibility into existence, the National Election Institute (INE) was created. It’s an organization that is supposed to make sure that elections happen without undue pressure from the ruling party. As everything in Mexico, INE soon became a swollen bureaucratic institution. But it worked. Mexico started seeing actual elections, with different parties, and even new parties arising pretty much out of nowhere and still being able to win.
What does this mean? It means that for the past 20 years Mexico has had a real democracy. This is pretty much incredible and, yes, it took 70 years of a pseudo-democratic one-party rule to even make this possible. That’s Latin America for you.
And then things started curdling. Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known for his woke rhetoric and love of austerity measures, decided to destroy INE. The organization’s budget is to be decimated and 85% of its workers are to be fired. Almost a thousand polling places will remain without any INE oversight during elections. There will be absolutely nobody at those voting stations to prevent the shady shit that takes place everywhere else in Latin America.
As he works to destroy the civilian institutions shoring up Mexican democracy, López Obrador has been playing footsie with the military. In the Hispanic world, the military doesn’t have the same role as it does in Anglo countries. The military there isn’t just a political force. It’s THE political force that likes to step in and take power whenever the desire to do so comes over it. It’s been nothing short of a miracle that the Mexican military has been kept at bay for so long. The reason why it’s possible is that the country has strong civil institutions. Yes, those institutions (like INE) do get bloated and overly bureaucratic. But it’s either that or a military dictatorship. What would you choose?
INE is so far from perfect, I could write a 1,000-page treatise bemoaning its ills. Believe me, I’m the last person to idealize INE. But, folks, what Mexico badly needs is more, not fewer, civil institutions. It’s better to have a deeply imperfect INE than no INE and see the growing reliance of politicians on their friends in the military. The state is already massively weakened in Mexico by the struggle between the cartels and the government forces. Abolishing institutions responsible for bringing democracy to Mexico is going to weaken the state even more. Many Mexican citizens understand this and have been protesting:
There’s nothing for Americans to do other than to know about it and hope that Mexicans will be able to defend their democracy. If they aren’t, it won’t be pretty. Mexico is very large and very close. If, God forbid, there’s a coup, it won’t be pretty.
Before I leave everybody in peace on this subject, I want to reiterate that the danger here isn’t as much the plan to dismantle INE but that it’s now suddenly OK in Mexico to play a game that was considered completely unacceptable only a short time ago. I don’t prefer any Mexican party or politician. All I want is strong, democratic, peaceful Mexico. And today that seems less possible with every passing moment.