Eulalia Cruz Islas was for years a typical Mexican housewife,
limiting her attention and energy to caring for her home and
family, participating little in the affairs of her central Mexico
Then last year something clicked.
"One day I got tired of seeing the garbage in the streets, the
clogged drains, the poor services," she says. "I decided I couldn't
expect things to change if I didn't get involved." So she joined
her neighborhood improvement committee and now makes regular visits
to city hall.
Mrs. Cruz is part of a wave of citizen participation that is
transforming Mexico and strengthening faith in democracy.
Long a country where people kept to close-knit families but left
public affairs to a paternal and distant government, Mexico is
seeing its concept of democracy overhauled as thousands of Mexicans
realize their demands for change will only be realized if they
The boom in citizen activism reflects a new plurality since the
crumbling of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party,
which almost single-handedly governed Mexico for much of the last
It also mirrors a broadening of democracy that resulted in the
election of Vicente Fox to Mexico's presidency on July 2. Mr. Fox
ran a very different campaign from anything Mexico had known
before. Over several years he developed grass-roots organizations
and favored building contacts with citizen groups instead of
sticking to his own political party.
Even the implementation of the North American Free Trade
Agreement since 1994 has played a role. The free-trade agreement
began a process of opening Mexico to global influences and
encouraged formation of watchdog citizen groups to evaluate social,
labor, and environmental aspects of Mexico's economic shift.
The emergence of international human rights standards has worked
in a similar way to create interest in government-oversight
When Fox won the presidency, he called on all Mexicans to take
part in the country's transformation.
People are responding by submitting resumes to propose themselves
for high government posts; manning weekend cleanup brigades;
setting up impromptu, albeit nonbinding local referendums; and
speaking out at meetings with government officials.
"Fox's election was like a spark, igniting enthusiasm for
participation and involvement after 70 years of a system based on a
single party," says Silvia Aguilera Garcia of the nongovernmental
Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.
"The question now will be how to sustain that enthusiasm long
enough to change the political culture of a country."
Says Rogelio Gomez Hermosillo, coordinator of the national
democracy watchdog group Alianza Civica: "People are no longer
interested in confrontation; they want shared responsibility, but
that will require new laws and mechanisms to translate this desire
into something concrete."
The new-found citizen enthusiasm is evident in surveys. A poll
last month in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma showed the number
of Mexicans satisfied with the way democracy is working has jumped
from 29 percent in October 1999 to 51 percent now. The survey also
showed large increases in confidence in institutions like the
federal election agency, the federal government in general - and
even NAFTA. …