01/23/2014 12:43 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

Mexico: How Much Has Changed

Enrique Krauze, Mexico's pre-eminent historian, is editor of Letras Libras and serves on the board of Televisa. His latest book is "Redeemers, Ideas and Power in Latin America."

MEXICO CITY -- There are those would say that present-day Mexico is an example of the famous phrase of Giuseppe di Lampedusa (about Sicily of the Risorgimento) that everything has changed so that everything may go on just as it was. And others say that Mexico has not changed at all. I disagree with both views. I have been a witness -- from various perspectives -- to my country's political life for almost fifty years and I am quite sure of one thing: Mexico has really changed.

For seventy years (1929-2000), a single party, the PRI, governed the country. It was an oligarchy rather than a simple dictatorship but it was very far from democracy. Today its long hold on power seems unjustifiable. The PRI was created to stabilize the still unsettled political situation of Mexico at the end of the revolutionary period. By centralizing power and creating a mode for a peaceful presidential succession, ambitious generals were persuaded or constrained to keep their pistols holstered. Could the party have implemented an internal democratic reform that might have initiated a gradual process of democratizing the nation under the tutelage of a transformed PRI? We will never know because it was never attempted. Democracy developed and imposed itself from outside the party. The open society of today is more uncertain and dangerous than the politically protected society of the past, but it is also far more honest, far more susceptible to positive improvement.

The former Mexico of the Imperial Presidency would somewhat shift its emphases according to the character and values of the incumbent president, chosen every six years by the outgoing office-holder. Both legitimate violence and sub-rosa (but unpunished) violence were essentially the monopoly of the president. Beyond the immense powers accorded to him by the Constitution (political, economic, military and diplomatic), the Imperial President was the sun for an entire planetary system that revolved around him. All the formal powers of government were dependent upon him -- Congress, the Supreme Court, governors and mayors. Bureaucrats as well as most workers' and farmers' organizations (unionized under the aegis of the PRI) would bow to the president's will. Businessmen and the Church, private and parastatal corporations, paid close attention to the President's wishes and followed his political guidelines. Both the Treasury Department and the Bank of Mexico were carefully managed and manipulated from Los Pinos (the Mexican White House). The means of mass communication were "soldiers of the PRI". Elections were punctually held and -- for all offices of any importance -- always won by the PRI through their fraudulent "electoral alchemy". Only a few journals, newspapers and publishing houses were truly independent. From 1939 on, the conservative, pro-clerical but democratically organized PAN party was the only formal opposition from the side of democracy. Leftist opposition mostly took refuge in the universities though at times became more radical and attempted localized, armed revolt (which was always -- before the Zapatista uprising of 1994 -- rather easily and brutally crushed).

In 1968, hundreds of thousands of students (I was among them) dared to march down the principal avenues of Mexico City, demonstrating against the authoritarian and especially repressive government of President Díaz Ordaz. We were not only protesting against the government's monopoly of official truth but also of public spaces where other versions of reality might be expressed For us to act in this way, particularly under this president, involved a risk to life and limb which we were well aware of and which culminated in the government massacre of unarmed students, hundreds of whom (though the exact figure will never be established) died at the Plaza of Tlatelolco in Mexico City.

Forty-five years later, Mexico has changed. It has adopted the values and principles of liberal democracy to a great degree. The president is no longer a monarch and can only make use of his constitutionally approved powers. Congress is independent , the Supreme Court is autonomous, federalism has become a reality (for better or worse, like States' Rights in America) because state governors are their own masters. When they behave "imperially", which unfortunately occurs, or turn corrupt and locally unaccountable, they now at least run the risk of being exposed in the press or by their political adversaries. In the public sector the great unions are neither democratic nor transparent in their functioning but they are no longer merely obedient to the will of the President. Business groupings are more independent of the state, the Church is free of legal limitations, and the mass media are untrammeled by direct or indirect government censorship. If businessmen and union hierarchies abuse this freedom (through monopolistic practices) or the mass media do the same because of their own hidden agendas, laws can now be passed to limit such abuses. (Some of the reforms proposed by the government in 2013 have exactly this purpose: to set limits on the potentially damaging expansion of today's "de facto powers.")

An autonomous institute oversees elections (not the ruling party itself which was the case during the hegemony of the PRI). Every six years, a million election watchers volunteer to monitor the polls. And those opposed to specific policies of the present government have numerous and varied outlets to express their opinions. They are a growing army of evaluators and critics, often balanced and incisive, often intolerant and muddled, but nevertheless a major contribution to political freedom. Today, for instance, students with radical politics exist in hundreds and thousands but not hundreds of thousands and their goal is not to free a country but to significantly alter the patterns of education. And Mexico City is one of the most liberal cities in the world (though, of course, there are other areas of the country that are much more conservative).

There are those who continue to speak and write about the "system" but they rarely explain what they mean or propose meaningful alternatives. The truth is that the Mexican "system" established by the PRI fell into a coma in 1997 and died in the year 2000. What we have now is a democracy certainly subject to defects, limitations, manipulations, but not a "system."

Yet a sector of radical opinion exists outside the Congress, with immense influence. It argues that democracy does not exist in Mexico. A social democrat like myself has tried over and over to remind them of what our country was like forty years ago. It can be an exhausting task, especially with those who never lived through that epoch christened, by Mario Vargas Llosa, as a "perfect dictatorship" by which he meant smoothly functioning and only occasionally in need of official violence. The contrast with present-day Mexico is eminently clear but many fail to adequately recognize it.

I must add that after the debacle (in large part) of the PAN governments, the recent return to power of the PRI - even with its apparent impetus toward reform - is viewed by many Mexicans as a return to the days of the Imperial Presidency. In the elections of 2012, the left, which should have and could have won its turn at power, preferred a radical candidate to a more moderate one who might have attracted support across a wider range of the political spectrum. But this present leadership does reflect the beliefs of a significant and influential part of the population and public opinion.

One part of this grouping has doubts - in my opinion incorrect - as to whether representative democracy even exists in Mexico. They consider the practice of Mexican democracy to be corrupted, almost sequestered by the present powers that be: big business and the media, Another element goes much further and disdains the current political order, preferring a return to Rousseau's "general will" which they see as to be expressed not at the ballot box but in massive public demonstrations. Both of these currents are the ideological children of the Mexican Revolution, strongly committed to statist, unionist and nationalist convictions. They reject the free market (even its mixed variety as in contemporary Brazil). They firmly believe that the social programs meant to combat poverty across the last two decades have been at the very least inadequate. And it must be recognized that, on this point, they are not wrong.

This radical opposition to the liberal and social democratic project includes true idealists and cynical manipulators. All mixed together. A central need of our time in Mexico is the question of how to establish a dialogue between this sector and those who disagree with them. A simple consensus may not be possible but Mexicans can hope for an accord on how to administer our country, despite disagreements. The alternative to an accord is discord, which would limit Mexico, slow down and corrupt its forward progress. And prevent the country from achieving political and moral leadership in Latin America.

Translated by Hank Heifetz