Political Stability and Democracy in Mexico: The "Perfect Dictatorship"?

By Dan A. Cothran | Go to book overview
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2
The Institutionalization of the Mexican State

An important factor that accounts for much of Mexico's political stability is the institutionalization of the regime. Although this was a long process that took many years and involved the contributions of many people, choices made by Lázaro Cárdenas during his presidency ( 1934-40) and afterward were crucial to the stabilization of the regime and to the building of a strong Mexican state. In fact, the career of Cárdenas is a textbook case of how an individual leader accumulated personal power and then contributed it to the political system in order to build a state that would endure beyond his own time in office. Other leaders who did this were George Washington, Kemal Atatürk of Turkey, and Rómulo Betancourt of Venezuela. 1 Some who did not were Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, and perhaps Fidel Castro of Cuba. 2

In late 1934 when Cárdenas became president of Mexico, he inherited a situation that had been stabilized to some extent but still had explosive potential. This chapter describes how he built elite and popular support, transformed the ruling party to channel that support, defeated competing regional warlords, incorporated labor and peasants into the regime, and then proceeded to transfer his personal power to other men and institutions and to watch over them until the new pattern was firmly in place. 3 In 1940 he handed over to his successor a regime with the essential characteristics that would remain until the present. Mexico has had an unbroken succession of presidents every six years since 1934, without serious military rebellion, and no president has stayed in office more than one term. Such depersonalization of power is rare in developing countries, but it is necessary if a stable political system is to outlast the time of an individual leader. Unlike most previous Mexican leaders and many other political leaders in Latin America, Cárdenas, despite being the most popular Mexican leader of the century, generally behaved in ways that moved Mexico away from the personalistic rule of caudillos and toward greater reliance on

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