Stubbornness and Blindness: Understanding Mexico’s Neoliberal ‘Transition’

January 27, 2013

In the aftermath of Mexico’s 1988 elections, in which the ruling the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) conducted a massive fraud, the famed poet and Nobel Laureate for Literature Octavio Paz raised a critical question about the nature of democracy in the country. “Does a new period of peaceful transition to democracy begin,” he wrote, “or again, will the stubbornness of some and the blindness of others unchain the double violence that has shadowed our history and that of the parties and the government?”1

Twelve years later, the PRI lost its 71-year one-party dominance with the election in 2000 of Vicente Fox Quesada of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). Many regarded this as Mexico’s successful “transition” to democracy. However, the “stubbornness” and “blindness” of electoral fraud has continued. In the 2006 election, fraud led to the victory of another PAN candidate, Felipe Calderón, by an official margin of just 0.56%, or no more than 238,000 votes, against the candidacy of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). There is widespread accord on the evidence of the 2006 fraud, which includes the double-counting of pro-Calderón precincts; collusion between PRI and PAN governors; and highly suspect processes of political corruption charged against the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and the Federal Electoral Tribunal (TRIFE) as the supreme electoral authority.

The cycle of stubbornness and blindness was evident in the election held in July. In this instance, the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto was announced as the victor with 38.2% of the vote, followed by 31.6% for AMLO and 25% for Josefina Vásquez Mota of the PAN. The margin of triumph was just 3.3 million votes. AMLO launched a legal challenge against the election, alleging that it “was clearly neither fair nor clean” and “riddled with irregularities.”2 Although he may well be right on all fronts—with evidence of vote-buying arranged by the PRI through the distribution of pre-paid Soriana chain-store debit cards to the sum of $54 million—the IFE and the TRIFE have nevertheless confirmed Peña Nieto as Mexico’s new president. This, despite Peña Nieto’s campaign being marred by a scandal in which Televisa, a major television network, was revealed to have worked on behalf of the PRI. The evidence is said to consist of signed contracts, instructions, and proposals suggesting that Televisa subsidiaries and executives all worked to benefit Peña Nieto in the buildup to the crucial 2009 midterm congressional elections, which acted as a platform for his presidential bid, as well as smearing and discrediting rivals such as AMLO.3 Moreover, PRI spent perhaps more than six times the legal limit on the campaign. With the persistence of fraud and the return of the PRI under such dubious circumstances, how can we make sense of Mexico’s “transition” to democracy?

Within mainstream comparative political science, the dominant perspective revolves around the supposed “transition” in Latin America from instances of dictablandas (limited openings of liberalization without altering structures of authority under the tutelage of authoritarian rulers) to cases of democraduras (democratization without excessive expansion of freedoms so that restrictions remain). But the Mexican case does not demonstrate the change from military authoritarianism to democratization evident in so-called third wave transitions in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, or Brazil from the 1960s and 1970s onward. Neither does it relate to the conditions in Central America of widespread civil war, dictatorship, or popular revolution respectively experienced in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, in the 1970s and 1980s. Nor does it resemble the rule of elite-pacted democracies in Colombia and Venezuela that unraveled in the 1970s and 1980s; still less is it comparable with the example of Costa Rica, which has sustained pluralist liberal democracy since the 1950s. As Judith Adler Hellman has astutely recognized, “The attempt to shoehorn the Mexican case into models designed principally to explain the military domination or democratization of the Southern Cone and Brazil has frequently brought Mexicanists to grief.”4

Nevertheless, by the 1980s concerns about “democratization” began to replace those of “development” within the mainstream literatures of political science, as well as in the fashioning of U.S. political development assistance. In 1982, the Reagan administration launched Project Democracy, which grafted a democracy focus onto political-development assistance programs. The project was initially based on a $65 million proposal to be managed through the State Department, USAID, and the AFL-CIO, albeit with little congressional support. More modestly, USAID in the late 1980s directed about $20 million per year for human rights and democracy promotion activities, with the funds almost exclusively granted to recipients within Central America. In 1983, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was created, an ostensibly nonprofit organization with an independent board of directors, management, and staff based on a bipartisan structure. The initial grant was $18 million with the annual budget ranging between $15 million and $21 million across 1984–88 and funds to Latin America amounting to about $25 million over these years, or about one quarter the size of the U.S. democracy-assistance programs in Latin America as a whole. The annual budget of the NED is more than $30 million.

Meanwhile, the architecture of modernization and development theory also underwent modifications and shifts of emphasis. Most prominently the “transitions to democracy” paradigm emerged by advocating the construction of vibrant civil societies as supposedly autonomous realms of individual freedom and association through which democratic politics could proceed. Key foundational texts in this literature would include the collections Transitions From Authoritarian Rule: Prospects for Democracy (1986) and Democracy in Developing Countries (1989).5

There is a series of continuities between this literature and earlier political development theory, especially the preoccupation with safeguarding elite power and maintaining relatively quiescent political subjects within stable states. This focus on stability later became more a concern about ensuring and consolidating formal democracyholding clean elections, introducing liberal individual rights, creating participatory citizenshipall of which is distinct from popular democracy, which is based on the introduction and extension of socio-economic rights.

The overriding stress in democratization studies thus constituted a supposedly “objective” definition of democracy limited to the descriptive, institutional procedures of electoral rights and democratic government, understood in the limited sense of the state and party politics. A canonical set of designations became established in the work of Robert Dahl in outlining “polyarchy” as an institutional arrangement for resolving conflicts among dominant groups. In this view, democracy is, at best, seen in a truncated way, facilitating the setting up of the rule of law and judicial reform to strengthen contract rights based on individual autonomy. It was this minimalist standard of democracy that was then taken as the locus for constructing democratic governance in Latin America.

In this definition, there is also a sharp separation of politics from economics within the gradual extension of formal associational life through democratization measures under elite control. A major problem of such democratization studies is therefore the very division imposed between state (politics) and market (economics): “We use the term democracy … to signify a political system, separate and apart from the economic and social system…. Indeed, a distinctive aspect of our approach is to insist that issues of so-called economic and social democracy be separated from the question of governmental structure.”6

The problem is that the polyarchy theorists view the state in an exterior relationship with the market, controlling it separately from the outside. But the state and market appear as separate entities only due to the way production is organized around private property relations in capitalism. By neglecting the central importance of the social relations of production, democratization studies thus overlook the historical specificities of capitalism and the vital internal links between state and market, with the former securing private property within civil society to ensure the functioning of the latter. The risk, then, is that a historically specific understanding of liberal democracy is formalized and institutionalized in a universal manner, leading to de-politicization as the economic sphere is removed from political control.

This results in a failure to question the class structuring of civil society and to relate liberal democracy to the historically contingent conditions of capitalist development. The identification of capitalism and democracy within such work is held to be a matter of natural law, “rather than as a specific product of historical conditions, conflict over the pursuit of interests and class struggle,” as some critics have put it.7

A more critical approach to understanding democratization and democratic “transition” has been made by William I. Robinson and others. For Robinson, democratization is understood as the promotion of polyarchy (or low-intensity democracy) in the sense of attempts to secure institutional arrangements for the resolution of conflicts between dominant groups. Accordingly, promoting polyarchy in Robinson’s appraisal refers to “a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision-making is consigned to leadership choice in elections carefully managed by competing elites.”8 Polyarchy thus represents the institutional definition of democracy and democratic “transition” present within mainstream democratization studies as well as the practices of U.S. political development assistance and foreign policy.

This attenuated or hollow form of democracy demonstrates a preference for political contestation among elite factions for procedurally free elections, while displacing more emancipatory and popular demands. Further, once the move to separate the economic and political spheres has been made, there is a contradictory tendency to then reconnect them by claiming a natural affinity between democracy (free elections) and capitalism (free markets). At different times, the cases of Chile, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti, Venezuela, and Bolivia demonstrate the pattern of transitions to polyarchy in Latin America in leading a reorganization of the state and the deepening of neoliberalization. In Venezuela, the NED gave almost $1 million in the period from Hugo Chávez’s election to power in 1998 to the abortive coup d’état in 2002. Since then, USAID has been aggressively providing large-scale assistance to conservative and moderate civil society organizations and NGOs in Bolivia to de-radicalize the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). Robinson’s outlook is that “promoting polyarchy is a political counterpart to the project of promoting capitalist globalization, and . . . ‘democracy promotion’ and the promotion of free markets through neoliberal restructuring has become a singular process in U.S. foreign policy.”9

In the Mexican case, it would be a mistake to assume a straightforward transmission of polyarchy. There has been a long social struggle for popular democracy in the country that should not be overlooked. Yet, following the onset of neoliberal restructuring, increased levels of funding from U.S. democracy assistance programs in Mexico have been evident. For example, NED funds have sought to constitute new liberal subjects through discourses of democratic citizenship and civil society assistance, notably starting in 1994 with its support for Alianza Cívica. Since that period levels of NED funding in Mexico have been just over $5 million (1994–2000), $2.6 million (2000–6), and $7.4 million (2006–12). Such direct funds are comparatively low when compared with other cases in Latin America, yet in both qualitative and quantitative terms, such funding has been central to adapting civil society activism in Mexico to the context of formal and increasingly institutionalized liberal democracy controlled from above.

It is then perhaps surprising, but still disappointing, to witness established authorities at the NED, such as the Senior Program Officer for Latin America and the Caribbean, candidly stating to this author in an interview in 2002 that arguments about the promotion of polyarchy in Latin America are “sheer crap.” “It is just a joke with flow charts and scatter diagrams that are just cooked up out of some conspiracy theory,” said the NED officer. There is clearly more to the argument than this asinine dismissal, which adds credence to the view that anybody critically challenging the “common sense” of the transition paradigm comes to be presented as a “crazed heretic.”10 After all, as a member of the National Coordination of Alianza Cívica, the writer Sergio Aguayo, confirmed to me in an interview, “the problem of polyarchy” exists in Mexico “in a form of alienation from the institutionalized process of democracy.”

One response to the prevalence of the forms of co-optation and social control conducted through the practices of polyarchy has been a resurgence of popular forces renewing struggles over state power in Mexico. Specifically, students gathered apace during the 2012 election to protest Peña Nieto and wider issues of media manipulation surrounding the presidential election. The spark was lit on May 11 during a meeting between Peña Nieto and students at the prestigious Iberoamericana University in which he was heckled with shouts of “Coward,” “Ibero doesn’t want you!,” and “Murderer!” The latter epithet referred to the repression in 2006 during Peña Nieto’s term as governor of Mexico State, in the town of San Salvador Atenco, against a mobilization known as the Popular Front in Defense of the Land, which led to the detention of 350 people and the rape of 26 women.

The media duopoly in Mexico of Televisa and TV Azteca tried to deny the student protests’ strength against the PRI candidate and suggested that they were AMLO stooges. Through social media outlets, the response was swift, involving the posting of a YouTube video by some 131 students affirming their real identity and then followed by a buzz on Twitter, using the hashtag #YoSoy132, asserting a collective identity. An initial gathering centered at the Estela de Luz monument in Mexico City, which has controversially become emblematic of state largesse following its delayed inauguration in 2012 to commemorate the bicentenary of Mexico’s independence. A series of marches then followed, officially estimated to include some 46,000 protesters, demonstrating from Mexico City’s Zócalo to the capital’s central avenue, Paseo de la Reforma, and congregating at the monument to the Angel of Independence.

On May 26, the students held an assembly in Tlatelolco the site of the government massacre of students on October 2, 1968, resulting in a series of resolutions. These included affirming the movement as anti-PRI and anti–Peña Nieto, as anti-neoliberal, as nonviolent, as a “horizontal” organization without centralized leadership, as a unified movement stretching across public and private universities, and as a mobilization that aimed to encompass wider social participation beyond student involvement.

In June, Camila Vallejo, vice president of the Student Federation of the University of Chile (FECh) and a member of the youth arm of the Communist Party
of Chile, addressed student and public audiences gathered at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM)–Xochimilco and elsewhere in Mexico City. At the UAM-Xochimilco meeting, Vallejo called for the unity of social movements across Latin America. “We claim our history,” she stated. “We are heirs to many other generations who fought for full democracy.”11

At subsequent public meetings in the Zócalo and others reclaiming the space of the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City, Vallejo also called on the #YoSoy132 movement to “transcend the electoral conjuncture” as part of a wider social and political transformation. While the student protests in Mexico have provided an example of commitment and struggle for dignity, she affirmed, the fight will also be long and difficult.

This will be even more the case considering the complicated mix of factors influencing Mexico’s ongoing neoliberalization shaped by the polyarchic condition of democracy. This includes the likelihood of renewed state repression under the PRI and Peña Nieto; the ongoing “war on drugs” and the militarization that this represents in and beyond the country; the fallout from the election that led to AMLO’s break with the PRD, calling into question the future of the left in Mexico; and where the #YoSoy132 movement now goes in forging national mobilization after the election.

In a text on the dialogue of movements, authored by Pablo González Casanova, former rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and read out at the meeting convened at the Monument to the Revolution by #YoSoy132, the key emphasis was on how past emancipation movements have added to the student protests. The Chilean movement and those in Mexico, in González Casanova’s words, “form part of a worldwide movement that began in Mexico in 1994 with the Mayan peoples of the southeast, known as the Zapatistas, whose motto is precisely: ‘Freedom, Justice, Democracy.’”12

By contrast, the course of democratic “transition” in Mexico has furthered the institutional separation of the “economic” and the “political” characteristic of neoliberal polyarchy. As a consequence, the process of formal democratic “transition” in Mexico can be exposed as one element in the class strategy of shaping the ongoing reorganization and expansion of capitalism. As a restorative strategy, democratic “transition” is an aspect through which the class relations of capitalism are reorganized on a new basis within the uneven developmental conditions inscribing state space. The double violence of “stubbornness and blindness” marring Mexico’s “transition” to democracy seems set to continue.

Summarizing the ideological decay of a ruling power bloc with fragile cultural and political integration, Antonio Gramsci once stated that “between consent and force stands corruption/fraud (which is characteristic of certain situations when it is hard to exercise the hegemonic function and when the use of force is too risky).”13

In the absence of hegemonic conditions, the emphasis on corruption and fraud captures well the “democratic” imposition, rather than “transition,” in Mexico.

One result has been that some of the most intense pressure for democratization, as anticipated by Gerardo Otero, has come from rightward institutional processes of opposition, which have resulted in the PAN and now the PRI as obvious beneficiaries of democratization from above.14 This sober assessment reminds one of the brazen stance within the “transition” literature, that, “put in a nutshell, parties of the Right-Centre and Right must be ‘helped’ to do well, and parties of the Left-Centre and Left should not win by an overwhelming majority.”15 The problem, then, is the managed and measured institutional emergence of neoliberal democracy in Mexico. U.S. interest in democratic “transition” in Mexico has never been sought at the expense of jeopardizing elite rule itself, which has always been more concerned with maintaining political order and controlling populist-based change. Whether popular forces can enact a shift in basic class relations and command spaces of resistance is the major challenge now facing democracy in Mexico.



Adam David Morton is Associate Professor of Political Economy and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).




1. Octavio Paz, “Paz: en México hay un avance inexorable hacia la democracia,” La Jornada ( July 7, 1988.

2. La Jornada, “Anuncia AMLO que impugnará la elección” 3 July 3, 2012.

3. Jo Tuckman, “Mexican Media Scandal: Secretive Televisa unit Promoted PRI Candidate,” The Guardian June 26, 2012.

4. Judith Adler Hellman, “Mexican Popular Movements, Clientelism and the Process of Democratisation,” Latin American Perspectives 201, no. 2 (1994): 125.

5. Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, eds., Transitions From Authoritarian Rule: Prospects for Democracy. 4 vols (The Johns Hopkins University Press) and Larry Diamond, Juan J. Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Democracy in Developing Countries. 4 vols (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1989).

6. Larry Diamond, Juan J. Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Democracy in Developing Countries. 4 vols (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1989), xvi.

7. Barry K. Gills, Joel Rocamora and Richard Wilson, eds., Low Intensity Democracy: Political Power in the New World Order (Pluto Press, 1993), 5.

8. William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 49.

9. William I. Robinson, “Promoting Capitalist Polyarchy: The Case of Latin America,” in Michael Cox et al., eds., American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies, Impacts (Oxford University Press, 2000), 313.

10. William I. Robinson, “Promoting Polyarchy in Latin America: The Oxymoron of ‘Market Democracy,’” in Eric Hershberg and Fred Rosen, eds., Latin America After Neoliberalism: Turning the Tide in the 21st Century (The New Press, 2006), 97.

11. La Jornada, “Para enfrentar los retos actuales hay que actuar como red en AL: Camila Vallejo,” June 16, 2012.

12. Pablo González Casanova, “El diálogo de los movimientos Bienvenida a Camila Vallejo,” La Jornada 17 June 17, 2012.

13. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 80n.49.

14. Gerardo Otero, “Mexico’s Economic and Political Futures”, in Gerardo Otero, ed., Neoliberalism Revisited: Economic Restructuring and Mexico’s Political Futures (Westview Press, 1996): 242.

15. O’Donnell and Schmitter, eds., Transitions From Authoritarian Rule, vol. 4: 62.



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