Mexico under Siege: Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism

By Valtonen, Pekka | Ibero-americana, July 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Mexico under Siege: Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism


Valtonen, Pekka, Ibero-americana


Donald Hodges & Ross Gandy: Mexico Under Siege: Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism. London: Zed Books 2002.

The book by Hodges and Gandy deals with events and personalities that are for the most part familiar to those interested in the post-revolutionary Mexican history. It is a cavalcade of the diverse leftist resistance movements in the decades following the Cardenas government, that is, from the 1940's onwards, beginning from the independent labour and peasant movements and ending up to the Chiapas rebellion. Although some chapters - like that on the student movement of 1968 ending to the Tlatelolco massacre - offer very little new information and are based on sources that have been used numerous times by other scholars, some do include new sources acquired by the authors, mostly interviews of persons with first-hand connections to these movements.

The rationale of the book is to put the movements and events in a succession to highlight both the persistence of leftist dissidence in Mexico and the ways of domination that the Mexican political system, centered around the all-mighty presidential power, has used to suppress this dissidence. Of course, the peasant campaign of Ruben Jaramillo and the electrical workers' movement of Rafael Galván. for instance, do not have a genuine, historical connection between themselves, and therefore the succession of the movements should not be taken as to form a particular development pattern, and neither do the authors claim that such a pattern emerges from the cases they present.

However, some of the movements, especially those of the independent labour unions, have a common denominator in the fact that usually their main protagonists were or had been members of the Mexican Communist Party. Indeed, the authors claim (p. 23) that the legacy of the Communist Party as a school for labour union militants, despite the fact that from 1938 up until 1960 the Party itself was rather opportunistic, was one of the three major ideological tendencies that characterize the resistance movements. The other two were the populist agrarian reformism that had begun from Emiliano Zapata and gained impetus especially during the Cárdenas years, and the legacy of the Cuban revolution since the early 1960's.

As the sub-title of the book suggests, the resistance has been directed against the presidential despotism, that is, against the abuse of the presidential power in a formally democratic system. It is true that in Mexico the president, or "the despot in office" as the authors say (p. 68), has in many conflict cases said the final word on how the power of the state should be applied to suppress or co-optate grass-root resistance, and therefore the president can be seen as the ultimate target of a resistance movement. There are also many cases in which the president arrives at the critical moment to "solve" a conflict, ostensibly in favour of the people, not the state nor the party, sometimes almost as if according to a pre-written play, using the conflict to foster a more benevolent and democratic image of the executive. …

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