Mexico Sees Federalism as Best Bet for Economy and Democracy

By De Leon, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce | Canadian Speeches, September-October 1999 | Go to article overview

Mexico Sees Federalism as Best Bet for Economy and Democracy


De Leon, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce, Canadian Speeches


Mexico has been a federal state in name since 1858 but excessive centralization is blamed for retarding both economic and democratic development. Now, much greater decentralization is underway, particularly in the two largest sectors of government spending, health and education. For nations with diverse cultures and political plurality, federalism Is seen as the best means of achieving economic progress, social Justice, and democracy. Speech delivered at the International Conference on Federalism, Mont Tremblant, Quebec, October 6, 1999.

This is a timely moment to examine federalism, since history has shown that in the 20th century, democracy and federalism go hand in hand.

As Timothy Anna, a distinguished scholar in Mexican history from the University of Manitoba, has pointed out, in the three countries forming North America, federalism has been "an intimate component of our histories and our own identities."

Although the United States was the first country to develop this system, Mexico, in 1824, and Canada, in 1867, following their own traditions and guided both by geographical realism and political reasons, were also constituted as federal unions.

In Mexico, the notion of federalism arose practically at the same time as the demand for independence.

We Mexicans achieved our full independence in 1821; yet until a relatively short time ago, federalism had been more an aspiration than a reality.

On attaining its independence, Mexico was a mosaic of very diverse regions and localities. Clearly, neither a national state nor an integrated market existed. Our extensive territory included isolated and even unpopulated regions, with limited communications between them, and they enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy which they were determined to defend.

The first experiences of democracy in Mexico showed that from early on in our independent life many aspired to a federalist organization. Actually, some of the representatives elected to the very first Congress that established our nation in 1824, brought with them the mandate of their states to adhere to it under the condition that a federal system be adopted.

Yet 300 years of colonial life had left a deeply-rooted and strong centralism. For more than three decades Mexico literally lived through a recurrent civil war between those in favor of federalism and the supporters of centralism.

This war had devastating results: Mexico suffered foreign aggressions and invasions. More than half of its national territory was lost. The population was decimated and our incipient productive capacity was severely impaired.

It was only in 1857 that a new Constitution inspired by liberalism established our democratic, republican and federalist regime.

Once again, the constitutional ideal was one thing, while the practice remained something quite different. For very good reasons, the need to build a national State and to subordinate the political activity of the various regions and communities to the interest of the Republic returned to preeminence. Unfortunately, this process was only consolidated by means of a centralized, authoritarian dictatorship.

Thus, Mexico entered the 20th century without democracy and individual political liberties, while state and municipal governments lacked the capacity for decision-making - what the law stated was inconsistent with real life.

That was one of the reasons for the emergence of a revolution in favour of the ideals of democracy and social justice, but which also vindicated the political rights of states and municipalities. That is to say, the revolution vindicated a true federalism that would promote democracy and also lessen social inequalities.

This revolution gave rise to a new constitution, enacted in 1917, which fully ratified Mexico's federalist principles.

In fact, it is interesting to note that two main articles of Mexican federalism - Articles 40 and 41 of our Constitution - retained in the 1917 Constitution the exact original wording found in that of 1857. …

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