With this article, the Americas Program introduces a new series in conjunction
with the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. As Mexico Project Director
Kate Doyle explains: "The main objective of the project is to challenge
the myths of foreign policy–on both sides of the border." To that end,
Doyle combs nearly four decades of U.S. and Mexican archives to uncover new
evidence and bring to light the hidden histories behind the bilateral relationship.
The results, presented in this monthly series, offer the unprecedented opportunity
to separate the rhetoric from the reality, and provide a foundation for rebuilding
binational diplomacy on the basis of shared interests, transparency, and citizen
involvement. The original documentation, as well as previous articles, may
be found at www.nsarchive.org/mexico.
Your comments are welcome at <americas@irc-online.org>.


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

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."


The Dark Ages

One of Mexico”s darkest political ages was under President Díaz
Ordaz, who ruled the country 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

"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."

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 an 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 constituted the 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

"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 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 (municipal presidents) 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 rather were 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 best online casino political control of their communities."


Yucatan 1969

In 1969, voters in the Yucatan 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 Merida, 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 PAN members outside the city of Tekax
in southern Yucatan. The attack, according to one consulate source, was 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 Yucatan”s
votes are from Merida, 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 Yucatan 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 Yucatan 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%. "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 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% of the vote in that district,
the actual total was about 36%.

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% 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 kinds of field observations filter up to senior policymakers
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% 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 the July 6th elections all the more disheartening. Nearly
60% of Mexico”s registered voters did 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.