United Mexican States (Estados Unidos Mexicanos) is the
official name of the country. Location: Southern North America. Area: 761,600 sq mi (1,972,547 km2). Population: 95,700,000 (estimate). Capital and Largest City: Mexico City. Major Language(s): Spanish (official); various Indian languages. Major Religious Group(s): Roman Catholic.
Government: Republic. Head of state and government--president.
Legislature--Congress (made up of the Senate and the Chamber
Chief Products:Agricultural--corn, beans, wheat, cotton,
coffee, sugarcane, fruits and vegetables, livestock. Manufactured--motor
vehicles, processed foods, iron and steel, chemicals (including
petrochemicals), synthetic fibers, electrical machinery. Mineral--petroleum
and natural gas, silver, copper, manganese, zinc, lead, iron ore,
Monetary Unit: Peso (1 peso = 100 centavos)
Mexico is a country of North America, lying between the United States on the
north and Guatemala and Belize to the south. It is bordered by the Pacific Ocean
on the west and the Gulf of Mexico on the east. Culturally, Mexico is the northernmost
country of Latin America, which includes the mainly Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking
nations of the Western Hemisphere. It is the third most populous country in
the Western Hemisphere, after the United States and Brazil.
A land of often striking contrasts, Mexico consists of snowcapped mountains
and broad plateaus, lush tropical rain forests and parched deserts. Parts of
the country are as modern and progressive as any places in the world, but there
are also isolated areas where the people cling to age-old ways. The Mexicans
themselves are the heirs of two distinct cultures, those of the native Indian
civilizations and the Spanish conquerors who supplanted them.
Ancestry and Religion. The majority of the people are
mestizos--that is, of mixed Indian and European (mainly Spanish) ancestry. An
estimated 30 percent of the population is of pure Indian ancestry and about
15 percent is of European origin. Most Mexicans are Roman Catholics, with rural
people tending to be more religiously observant than those in the cities. Freedom
of worship is guaranteed under the constitution, and there is complete separation
of church and state.
Language. Spanish is the official language. Mexico
is, in fact, the world's most populous Spanish-speaking country. At the same
time, some 6 million Mexicans, living mainly in isolated mountain areas or near
the southern border, speak only Indian languages--chiefly Nahuatl, Maya, Zapotec,
Otomi, or Mixtec. As their contacts with the cities increase, however, more
and more Indians are also expressing themselves in Spanish.
Many senior government officials, professional people, and business executives
are fluent in English. Numerous language schools also offer courses in English,
which are usually attended by ambitious middle-class students eager to land
a job with a large Mexican or U.S. company.
Education. The basic course of study includes six years
of primary education, required by law for all children, followed by three years
of secondary schooling. Qualified students may continue their education at upper
secondary schools to prepare themselves for entrance to a university or to be
trained for technical or commercial occupations. Education at state-run schools
is free from primary grades through the university level. There are, in addition,
private and parochial schools in the large cities.
A growing population and a shortage of schools and teachers, particularly in
rural areas, has hampered full implementation of Mexico's educational program.
Less than half the students actually complete the full six years of primary
schooling. Nevertheless, the government has succeeded in raising the literacy
rate (the percentage of people able to read and write) from 10 to 20 percent
in the early 1900's to about 90 percent today.
Mexico has hundreds of institutions of higher learning. The largest is the
National Autonomous University of Mexico, with about 300,000 students, located
in Mexico City. It was originally founded in 1551 and is the oldest university
on the North American continent.
Population Growth. In recent years, Mexico has had
one of the world's highest rates of population growth, due to improvements in
health care and living conditions, which dramatically lowered the death rate.
Between 1960 and 2000 the number of people more than doubled, with about one-third
of the population under 15 years of age.
Concern about Mexico's ability to provide sufficient schooling, housing, and
other social necessities for its people, and for the economy to generate enough
jobs for the booming population, eventually led to a government-sponsored program
of family planning. The result has been a reduction in the birthrate from more
than 3 percent annually in 1972, when the program was adopted, to about 2 percent
in 2000. Projections for the future indicate an even slower pace of population
Migration to the Cities. Until the middle of the 1900's,
most Mexicans lived in rural areas. Beginning in the 1950's, however, there
was a large-scale migration of people from the countryside to the cities. By
the year 2000, about 75 percent of Mexicans were city dwellers, with about one-quarter
of the total population living in or near Mexico City, the capital and largest
There were several reasons for this change. Government-subsidized bus service
provided inexpensive and convenient transportation between rural and urban areas.
Small, unproductive plots of land made it increasingly difficult for the peasants
who tilled the soil to scratch out a living, while the growth of industry and
better public services in the cities seemed to offer the promise of jobs and
a better way of life.
Mexican Society. Of the three main groups of Mexican
society, those of European heritage constitute a small elite. They often enjoy
wealth, live in spacious, servant-filled homes, fly to the United States for
medical treatment, and send their children to private schools in Mexico before
enrolling them in prestigious universities abroad. Such families are often found
in the top ranks of business and in high government posts.
At the opposite end of the social scale are the Indians, who traditionally
have lived in their own villages, spoken their distinctive languages, and eked
out a modest living from the land. Their religious practices are a blend of
Roman Catholicism and native Indian beliefs. Those who have moved to the cities
typically inhabit the shantytowns that form part of the urban landscape. Most
live impoverished lives with limited opportunities for education and employment.
Between the two are the mestizos, the largest social group. The average mestizo
family lives in an apartment or small house and possesses an automobile and
a television set as well as the usual home appliances. Family gatherings are
the focus of their social life. When not in school, children amuse themselves
playing soccer or baseball and listening to the same kind of music as their
counterparts in the United States. Women increasingly work outside the home
to help make ends meet.
Strong family attachments are common to all classes. One often finds three
generations living under the same roof, with a grandmother or older aunt helping
with child-rearing and other household chores. Children usually display great
respect, as well as affection, toward their parents and older relatives.
Food and Drink. The tortilla, a flat, thin corn cake
of Indian origin, is eaten throughout Mexico. When rolled or folded and filled
with cheese, chicken, or ground meat, it forms the basis for tacos, enchiladas,
and tostadas. Frijoles (beans) and rice are also basic foods. Turkey mole, made
with chocolate, nuts, and spices, is a traditional holiday dish. Roast goat,
sun-dried beef, fish stews, shrimp, and mussels are popular regional foods.
Cactus and maguey plants yield both food and drink. One variety of cactus produces
tender shoots for salads; another furnishes the prickly pear used in desserts
and preserves. The maguey is a source of two kinds of alcoholic drink--the fiery
tequila and the milder, milk-colored pulque. Mexicans have also developed a
taste for fast food from the United States. Restaurants selling hamburgers and
pizza can be found in most cities.
Sports. Most popular sports in Mexico were brought
from Spain. Jai alai is a kind of especially fast handball that originated in
the Spanish Basque region. Soccer has many enthusiasts, as does bullfighting,
which is considered more of a spectacle and art than a sport. Bullrings are
found in all the major cities. Baseball, introduced from the United States,
is quite popular. Mexicans have played in the major leagues, and many fans look
forward to the day when their country will field a major league baseball team
of its own.
Holidays. The colorful blending of Mexico's Christian
and Indian traditions is most evident during the Christmas season. Every night
from December 16 through December 24, families re-enact the pilgrimage to Bethlehem
with special prayers and songs. At the end of each day, the children play a
game to receive their holiday treats. A piñata, a brightly colored
earthenware pot or other vessel, is suspended over the head of a blindfolded
child, who tries to break it with a stick. The children then share the candies,
fruits, and coins that pour out of the cracked piñata.
On All Souls' Day, people make a point of visiting the graves of their ancestors
to pay them respect. The celebrants pray, sing, and traditionally eat foods
that were favored by their ancestors. On December 12, many Mexicans make a pilgrimage
to Mexico City, to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the country's patroness.
Mexico also has a number of civic holidays, most of which commemorate the country's
progress from a colony to a modern nation. The most important is September 16,
which celebrates the beginning of the revolt against Spanish rule in 1810. On
Revolution Day, November 20, Mexicans observe the anniversary of the 1910 Revolution.
Mexico has won international recognition for its contribution to the arts.
Most of its famous painters and architects have taken their inspiration from
the country's past. Among these are painters Diego Rivera (1886-1957), José
Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), and Rufino
Tamayo (1899-1991), as well as architects Juan O'Gorman (1905-82) and Luís
Barragán (1902-88). The composer Carlos Chávez (1899-1978) has
frequently utilized Mexican folk elements in his work.
Mexican writers include the critic, poet, and scholar Alfonso Reyes (1889-1959),
the novelist Carlos Fuentes (1928- ), and the renowned
poet Octavio Paz (1914-98), winner of the Nobel Prize for literature (1990).
Mexico also has a large motion-picture industry, whose most acclaimed directors
included the Spanish-born Luis Buñuel (1900-83) and Emilio Fernández
More information on the arts in Mexico can be found in the separate articles
Latin America, Art and Architecture of, Latin America, Literature of, and Latin
America, Music of in this encyclopedia.
The Central Plateau. The Central Plateau (also known
as the Mexican Plateau) is Mexico's most extensive geographical feature. It
contains most of its population and many of its important cities, and accounts
for the largest share of its agricultural production, industry, and mineral
wealth. The plateau is shaped roughly like an inverted triangle, with its base
along the U.S. border and its tip extending south to the area around Mexico
The northern part is dry, requiring irrigation for farming, and much of it
is sparsely populated. The plateau rises as one moves southward, toward central
Mexico. This is the heartland of the country--well watered, with fertile soil,
and densely populated.
Mountain Ranges. High, rugged mountain ranges border
the Central Plateau. On the west is the Sierra Madre Occidental, which has a
number of spectacular volcanoes. A second range, the Sierra Madre Oriental,
lies along the eastern edge of the plateau and joins with the Sierra Madre Occidental
near Mexico City. At their juncture stands the country's highest peak--the snowcapped
volcano of Citlaltepetl (or Pico de Orizaba), which rises 18,700 feet (5,700
South of Mexico City is the Sierra Madre del Sur, whose mountains lie along
the Pacific Ocean. Other Pacific highland regions are the Southern Uplands and
the Chiapas Highlands, the latter extending to Guatemala.
Coastal Plains and Lowlands. The Pacific Coastal Plain
extends from the United States border to Cape Corrientes, about halfway down
the western coast of Mexico, and includes the long, narrow peninsula of Baja
California (Lower California). The Gulf Coastal Plain, bordering the Gulf of
Mexico, and the Yucatán Peninsula in the southeast are the most extensive
lowland areas. Several of Mexico's major rivers flow into the Gulf of Mexico,
including the Rio Grande, which forms most of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. The
Yucatán Peninsula is especially notable for its ancient Maya temples.
Climate. The climate generally varies from tropical
and wet to temperate and dry, depending on region and elevation. The coastal
plains are hot and humid, with heavy rainfall. The north is dry, with extremes
of temperature, while the region around Mexico City has a pleasant, temperate
climate. Temperatures usually fall as elevation increases. Most of Mexico receives
inadequate rainfall, except for the coastal areas and parts of the central region.
Natural Resources. Because of its generally dry climate,
Mexico has only limited land suitable for farming. It has a wealth of mineral
resources, however. It ranks fifth in the world in oil production and is the
world's leading exporter of silver. It is also a major producer of copper, manganese,
zinc, lead, iron ore, sulfur, and gold and has deposits of numerous other minerals.
Forests cover nearly one-quarter of the land. The government has established
14 forest reserves and 47 national park forests. But threats to the forests
remain, from overlogging and the clearing of the land for farming.
There is a wide variety of animal life. Wolves, bears, coyotes, foxes, and
deer are found in the cooler north and mountainous areas, while tropical Mexico
is home to jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, monkeys, and colorful parrots, macaws,
and other birds. The burro (a small donkey) is commonly used as a pack animal
in rural areas. The waters of the Pacific coast and the Gulf of Mexico abound
in fish and shellfish.
Agriculture. Agriculture presents the greatest problems
for the Mexican economy. It is in the rural areas that most of the country's
poor can be found. Only about 12 percent of the land can be farmed, and only
about half of that is actually cultivated. Although more than 23 percent of
the labor force is engaged in agriculture, it produces less than 8 percent of
Mexico's gross domestic product (GDP), the total value of its goods and services
produced in a year.
Subsistence agriculture is dominant in central and southern Mexico, where most
farmers grow basic food crops of corn and beans on small plots of land. By contrast,
in the north, large, modern irrigated farms produce specialty fruits and vegetables
(especially strawberries, melons, cucumbers, and tomatoes), most of which are
exported to the United States. Cotton, coffee, and sugarcane are also major
commercial crops. Livestock are raised in the drier, nonirrigated areas.
In addition to the small family holdings and large commercial farms were the
numerous ejidos, or communal farms. These first came into existence in
the early 1900's, when the government broke up many of the haciendas,
or great estates, and distributed parcels to landless farmworkers, who collectively
worked the property. A reform in the early 1990's, designed to increase farm
productivity, allowed ejido lands to be rented, divided, or jointly operated
Manufacturing and Mining. Manufacturing employs only
about 11 percent of the workforce, although it accounts for about 23 percent
of Mexico's GDP. The chief manufactured products include motor vehicles, processed
foods, iron and steel, chemicals (including petrochemicals), synthetic fibers,
and electrical machinery.
Exports of minerals are a major source of income. Oil is the most important,
providing about 30 percent of Mexico's total export earnings. More than 75 percent
of the oil is exported to the United States, Mexico's principal trading partner.
The oil industry is controlled by PEMEX (Petróleos Mexicanos), a government
agency. Mexico has, in all, about 7 percent of the world's proven oil reserves.
The largest fields are in the coastal waters and mainland of the Gulf of Mexico.
Tourism and Other Industries. Tourism and other service
industries form the fastest-growing sector of the economy, contributing about
half of the GDP. Tourism is, after oil exports, Mexico's largest source of foreign
exchange. Some 6 million tourists come to Mexico each year.
Fishing is an industry of long standing. Shrimp and other shellfish, sardines,
tuna, and pompano are the most valuable commercial catches. There is a small
forestry industry, with mahogany and other tropical hardwoods, pine, and oak
the main trees cut for lumber.
Mexico City is Mexico's capital and largest city and
one of the world's major cities. See the article on Mexico City.
Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city and the
capital of Jalisco state, is a major industrial and commercial city, a popular
tourist center, and a hub of transportation. Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León state,
is an important industrial center and the chief city of northern Mexico. Puebla (Puebla de Zaragoza), the capital of Puebla
state, once known primarily for its textiles, now produces automobiles, petrochemicals,
and iron and steel. The city is also famed for its many churches.
León is an industrial city of central Mexico
and the heart of the country's shoe production. Ciudad Juárez, situated on the Rio Grande,
and Tijuana, in northern Baja California, are both commercial
cities with large tourist industries. Mexicali, is the capital of the state of Baja California
Norte. Acapulco, a famed resort city, is situated on the
Pacific coast of southern Mexico. Veracruz is Mexico's chief port on the Gulf of Mexico.
Mexico is a federal republic composed of 31 states and the Federal District
of Mexico City. The government is based on the Constitution of 1917. The head
of state and government is the president, who is elected for a single 6-year
term. The legislative body is the Congress, made up of the Senate, whose members
are elected for six years, and the Chamber of Deputies, which is elected for
three years. The third branch of government is the judiciary, or court system.
The federal judiciary is headed by the Supreme Court, whose members are appointed
by the president, subject to approval by the Senate.
Each state government has its own elected governor and legislature. The state
governments have authority over local matters.
Background. Mexico is an ancient land that, long before
the arrival of the Europeans, had already seen the rise and fall of great Indian
empires. The Olmec were the first, followed by the Maya, Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec,
and the Maya again. The Indian civilizations made important breakthroughs in
agriculture and science. They built great cities and created remarkable works
of art. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the most powerful Indian empire
was that of the Aztecs.
The Spanish Conquest. The first Spaniards to reach
Mexico landed on the coast of Yucatán in 1517, but they were soon driven
off. In 1518 a second expedition explored part of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
This time Indians and Spaniards exchanged gifts. A third expedition, led by
Hernando Cortés, landed on the Gulf coast in 1519 and founded the city
of Veracruz. From this point, within less than three years, Cortés would
conquer all of Mexico.
Several factors helped Cortés in his conquest. His army, although small
(it numbered about 500 or 600 men), was disciplined and equipped with some horses
and a few cannons, both of which the Indians had never seen before. Cortés
also had the military assistance of Indian opponents of the Aztecs. In addition,
many Aztecs were killed by an epidemic of smallpox, a disease new to them, brought
by the Spaniards. There is also the familiar legend that the Aztec emperor Montezuma
II welcomed Cortés because he believed him to be the Indian god Quetzalcóatl.
In 1521 the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán (the site of present-day Mexico
City) fell to the Spaniards, and the rest of Mexico followed soon after.
The Colonial Period. For 300 years, Mexico, then known
as New Spain, was ruled as a Spanish colony. The colony's wealth lay in its
silver mines and agriculture. The Indians taught the Spanish how to cultivate
corn, tomatoes, and cacao (from which chocolate is made), crops unknown in Europe.
The Spanish, in turn, introduced sugarcane, wheat and rice, and large-scale
cattle and sheep raising.
But only a relative few enjoyed the colony's prosperity. The ruling minority
was composed of colonists born in Spain. They were the great landowners, who
controlled all important government posts and dominated commercial enterprises.
The criollos, or Spaniards born in the colony, were next in importance.
Although often wealthy, they were allowed only minor government offices. Next
came the mestizos, who frequently worked as supervisors or storekeepers or served
as soldiers or parish priests. At the bottom were the Indians, who labored in
the mines or on the large estates under conditions of virtual slavery.
Wars of Independence. In 1808 the French emperor Napoleon
I invaded Spain and placed his brother Joseph on the throne. The resulting conflict
sparked the Mexican independence movement, whose first leader was a priest,
Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.
On the evening of September 16 (the date commemorated by Mexicans), 1810, Hidalgo
summoned his parishioners to revolt. His army, composed mainly of mestizos and
Indians, grew rapidly and won a number of victories, but they were eventually
defeated by royalist troops in 1811. Hidalgo was captured and executed.
The struggle was kept alive by another priest, José María Morelos
y Pavón, Hidalgo's former student. After two years of fighting and several
victories, in 1813, Morelos called together a congress, which declared Mexican
independence and drafted a constitution.
But Morelos was defeated in battle soon after. In 1815 he, too, was executed,
leadership of the movement passing to Vicente Guerrero. The final victory was
achieved after a royalist officer, Colonel Agustín de Iturbide, who had
earlier been defeated by Guerrero, switched sides. Spain eventually was forced
to sign the Treaty of Córdoba in 1821, acknowledging Mexico's independence.
The Struggle to Build a Nation. Although independent,
Mexico had as yet no real government. Iturbide seized power in 1822, declaring
himself emperor. Once again Guerrero rose to fight him, along with Antonio López
de Santa Anna, an army officer. Their successful revolt overthrew Iturbide and,
in 1824, made Mexico a republic. For a short period the country enjoyed constitutional
rule under Guadalupe Victoria, its first president, and Guerrero, its second.
Mexico's progress to nationhood, however, was to be slow and difficult. Conflicts
between conservatives and liberals weakened and divided the country. The conservatives
supported a strong national government and sought to maintain their traditional
privileges; the liberals advocated decentralized rule, sharply diminished church
influence, and broad social reforms.
The Era of Santa Anna. In l833 the presidency passed
to Santa Anna, who dominated the country's life for more than twenty years.
It was a time of political turmoil, with numerous governments succeeding one
another. Foreign wars also sapped the country's strength. A dispute with France
over Mexican debts brought French troops to Veracruz in 1838. The French were
repulsed, but in a war with the United States (1846-48), Mexico lost nearly
half of its territory.
War of the Reform: Juárez. The liberals exiled
Santa Anna in 1855 and began to lead the country out of chaos. Among their leaders
was Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian, who became one of Mexico's greatest
statesmen. Juárez played a leading role in framing the Constitution of
1857, which limited the power of the army and the church, recognized civil marriage,
and called for freedom of religion, press, and assembly.
Conservatives violently opposed the constitution, and Mexico was plunged into
a three-year civil war known as the War of the Reform (1857-61). With a liberal
victory in 1861, Juárez became provisional president. But the conflict
had bankrupted the country. When Juárez suspended payment on debts owed
to France, Spain, and Britain, troops of the three countries occupied Veracruz.
French Aims: Maximilian. The British and Spanish soon
departed, but France's emperor Napoleon III, urged on by the conservatives,
seized the opportunity to establish a monarchy in Mexico. French troops invaded
the country in 1862 and captured Mexico City the following year. Juárez'
government, forced to flee the capital, began a campaign of guerrilla warfare.
Meanwhile, Napoleon III and the conservatives had chosen as emperor of Mexico
the archduke Maximilian of Austria, who arrived in 1864 with his wife, the empress
Carlota, to assume the throne.
Maximilian was a well-meaning but weak ruler who tried to govern benevolently.
His moderate policies and acceptance of the reforms that had deprived the church
of much of its land cost him the support of the church hierarchy and conservative
political leaders, however. When Napoleon III, under pressure from the United
States, withdrew the support of French troops in 1866, Maximilian was left isolated
in the nation he supposedly ruled. In 1867 he was captured by republican forces
The Republic Restored. Once again free to govern as
president, Juárez laid the foundation for Mexico's industry as well as
its transportation and communications system. Most important, he introduced
a program of free public education that reached out to the great mass of Indians
and mestizos who could neither read nor write. When he died in office in 1872,
Mexico had become a nation.
The Long Rule of Porfirio Díaz. Porfirio Díaz,
one of Juárez' generals, seized power in 1876 and served several terms
as president. Known as Don Porfirio, he ruled Mexico with an iron hand for nearly
35 years. He brought stability to the country, built railroads, improved harbors,
and increased agricultural output. He established the country's oil industry,
promoted good relations with other countries, and encouraged foreign investment
At the same time, under Díaz, the church, the aristocracy, and the army
regained their old privileges. The Indians found themselves with less land than
ever, city and rural workers were impoverished, and political opposition was
The Revolution of 1910. Díaz' dictatorial rule
brought about a revolution in 1910. Pancho Villa, a former bandit and guerrilla
fighter, led the uprising in the north. In the south, Emiliano Zapata, a tough
peasant leader, took up the cause of the landless Indians. Díaz was forced
to resign, and Francisco I. Madero, the liberal son of a wealthy landowner and
a champion of political reform, was elected president in 1911.
In the years that followed, Mexico was torn by almost continuous violence in
the struggle among rival revolutionary leaders. Victoriano Huerta, a general
supported by the conservatives, had Madero assassinated in 1913 and seized power.
Villa and Zapata rebelled against Huerta, as did Venustiano Carranza, the governor
of Coahuila state. Huerta was deposed and Carranza became president in 1914.
By 1915, however, Carranza was at war with both Villa and Zapata, particularly
over the slow pace of land reform. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson twice intervened
on behalf of Carranza, and in 1915 he dispatched a cavalry force against Villa,
who had raided a U.S. border town. In 1916 the victorious Carranza called for
a convention to draft a new constitution.
The Constitution of 1917. The 1917 Constitution revived
Juárez' ideal of free public education and government control of church
property and wealth. It regulated hours and wages for workers and upheld their
right to unionize and strike. It also affirmed the government's right to reclaim
ownership of all land, as well as the resources beneath the surface, in the
name of the nation. Although socially progressive, many provisions of the new
constitution were not carried out because of a lack of funds and political will.
The Post-Constitutional Era. Carranza was himself
deposed in 1920 (and later killed), when he tried to prevent Alvaro Obregón
from becoming president. Obregón was a cautious man who achieved some
results in land distribution, education, and labor reform. His successor, in
1924, was Plutarco Elías Calles, who expanded the distribution of land.
He also enforced the constitutional provisions against the church, which led
to the bloody but unsuccessful Cristero revolt (1926-28) by militant Catholics.
Under Calles' successors, however, the pace of reform slowed down. He was succeeded
in the presidency by Emilio Portes Gil, Pascual Ortiz Rubio, and Abelardo Rodríguez.
The three held office between 1928 and 1934.
A New Political Party. Although he retired as president
in 1928, Calles remained for some six years thereafter the most powerful figure
in Mexican political life. In 1929, in order to stabilize the country's fragmented
political system, he created a new party, the National Revolutionary Party,
to include the various revolutionary factions. It was the predecessor of the
Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which remains the dominant political
Lázaro Cárdenas, elected president in 1934, restored the revolutionary
fervor of an earlier time. He recast the party, making it national in scope
and bringing it under presidential control, and he undertook a number of bold
economic and social changes. He nationalized the oil industry (much of which
was foreign-owned) and the railroads, distributed more land to the poor than
any previous president, and greatly increased the number of schools.
A New Direction. The presidents after Cárdenas
stressed Mexico's industrial development, placing less emphasis on social and
economic reforms. This policy began during the administration of Manuel Ávila
Camacho (1940-46), who also made peace with the church and took Mexico into
World War II on the side of the Allies. It continued under his successors--Miguel
Alemán Valdés (1946-52), Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952-58), and Adolfo
López Mateos (1958-64).
While Mexico did achieve rapid industrialization, it was accompanied by the
great migration of people to the cities, high unemployment, and inflation. Criticism
of the government intensified during the presidencies of Gustavo Díaz
Ordaz (1964-70) and Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1970-76). It was
under Echeverría that a national family-planning program was launched
to combat the enormous population growth.
From Prosperity to Crisis. The discovery of new oil
resources ushered in a period of prosperity during the presidency of José
López Portillo (1976-82). But his free-spending policies and falling
prices for oil led to an economic crisis in 1982. His successor, Miguel de la
Madrid Hurtado (1982-88), sought to curb wasteful programs and bring the country's
enormous foreign debt under control. He also linked Mexico economically to the
international community through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
Efforts to improve the economy continued under Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94),
who returned the nationalized banking system to private ownership and sold off
state-owned steel mills, copper mines, and airlines. Even more important was
his negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the
United States and Canada. But the Salinas years also saw an increase in drug
trafficking, official corruption (particularly within the country's police forces),
and a revolt in poverty-stricken Chiapas state by the Zapatista National Liberation
Army, a peasant guerrilla group.
Recent Events. The 1994 presidential election was
marred by the assassination of the PRI candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio. Soon
after winning election, his successor, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León,
faced an even more severe economic crisis. To prevent a default on Mexican government
bonds, the United States loaned Mexico $12.5 billion in 1995. Additional funds
were provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
To restore the reputation of the PRI, which had come under increasing attack
because of its single-party rule and entrenched corruption, Zedillo introduced
political reforms intended to make Mexico a true multiparty democracy. He promised
fair and honest elections, consultations with the opposition on key issues,
a strengthened judiciary, and political democratization. He also negotiated
with the Zapatista rebels, although violence in Chiapas continued. Zedillo's
reforms contributed in 1997 to the PRI's loss of control of the lower house
of the legislature for the first time in the party's history.
In early 1998, opposition candidates won six gubernatorial races, but by the
end of the year, the PRI appeared to be regaining strength. Nevertheless, in
2000 an opposition candidate, Vicente Fox Quesada of the National Action Party,
was elected president, ending 71 years of PRI presidential rule.
John M. Ball
Author, Migration of People in Mexico
George W. Grayson
Author, The United States and Mexico: Patterns of Influence