Mexico’s strengths still shine through the gloom

By Yu Kun-ha
  • Published : Jan 2, 2012 - 16:59
  • Updated : Jan 2, 2012 - 18:36
The news from Mexico, in recent years, has most often been bad. For a while, it was largely reports of corruption, electoral fraud and economic crisis. These days, it’s all about crime and insecurity.

The country hasn’t been given sufficient credit for the good news it has generated since the 2000 elections broke the 71-year hegemony of a single party: the Institutional Revolutionary Party, better known as the PRI. Neither the international press nor we Mexicans have fully acknowledged what has been achieved or maintained. Still, Mexico’s dark image is valid, up to a point, but it’s only a fragment of the truth.

Corruption in government, for instance, has by no means disappeared. Yet in stark contrast to the long period of PRI domination (1929-2000), it has greatly diminished at the federal level, thanks to the 2002 Federal Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information. Mexico is now a democracy, with a true division of powers, full democratic freedoms and elections supervised by an independent electoral institute.

The economy also has shown notable advances. After serious crises in 1976, 1982, 1988 and 1994, the country has learned its lessons, demonstrated resilience and developed a civil service that can maintain stability in the shifting world economy.

Nonetheless, Mexico’s problems run deep and some seem almost insoluble. And, for the time being, they will surely continue to produce the kind of bad news that we have grown accustomed to reading on the world’s front pages. It would be absurd (and impossible) to ignore these dark areas, but in the interest of truth ― and in keeping with the Christmas spirit ― it seems fair to list some of contemporary Mexico’s strengths.

Much of our planet is convulsed with conflicts based on race, regionalism or culture. Mexico, on the whole, isn’t. Our culture is generally inclusive. Almost the entire population of the country is mestizo, of mixed origin, American Indian and Spanish. In some areas (and in some minds), lingering bigotry toward “Indians” persists, but it is by no means widespread.

Instead, Mexico displays a cultural inclusiveness in major and minor matters, in our cuisine, in the names of our streets and villages, in our art and in the nature of our religious practices. Racism, where it exists in Mexico, cannot even be remotely compared to the strain in Europe in the 20th and 21st centuries. Consider, for example, that while Evo Morales of Bolivia became the first indigenous president in Latin America only relatively recently, Mexico installed Benito Juarez ― of indigenous origin and a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, whose moral and historical stature wasn’t dissimilar ― as president in 1858.

And Mexico today doesn’t suffer from any acute religious conflicts. Our 19th century was strongly marked by the divisions between often anti-clerical (though not necessarily anti-religious) Liberals and generally pro-Church Conservatives in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Even now, less than 90 percent of Mexicans identify themselves as Catholic.

But under the leadership of Juarez, starting with the Liberal victory in the War of Reform (1858-61) and the Reform Laws that followed, Mexico chose to separate church and state and to enshrine freedom of religion in legislation.

In recent times, except for the bloody Cristiada uprising of the 1920s, when Catholic peasants (mostly in the west of Mexico) rebelled against the anti-clerical measures of President Plutarco Elias Calles, religion hasn’t been an important source of discord. In contrast with some other Latin American countries, the division between church and state has been an enduring strength.

Despite the overwhelming numerical predominance of one religion, Mexico is tolerant of religious diversity. Protestantism has made advances in the last few years, a trend that is especially clear in some poorer states such as Chiapas (which has a large indigenous population) or the southeast states of Tabasco, Quintana Roo and Campeche (with a majority of recent migrant populations). In Chiapas, in particular, less than 70 percent of the population is still Catholic. We are witnessing, within the context of religious freedom, a quiet and generally peaceful evolution toward religious pluralism.

Many Mexicans, especially if they are young, now attend fewer church services than their parents or grandparents did. But the old piety still holds, inculcated from childhood, handed down from mother to child. People of every occupation, even criminals, have their patron saint. And the Virgin of Guadalupe, a symbol of the nation, draws millions of worshippers, from all over the country and all social classes, to her shrine north of Mexico City on her feast day of Dec. 12.

The Mexican family, with its strong binding force, enhances social cohesion. And though women are still burdened with relics of machismo, their role is evolving. From the absolutely central position they have long had within the structure of the family, women are entering the labor market in increasing numbers, sometimes as the family’s sole source of income. And they are steadily advancing in the country’s political, cultural and economic life, often taking important leadership roles.

Even the massive migration to the U.S. (where there are now almost 20 million people of Mexican origin, compared with about 5 million in the 1970s) reflects certain strengths of our culture. Immigrants remain closely attached to their families in Mexico and send for them when they can. In contrast with earlier immigrants, they rarely give up their language (although most also want to learn English), or their religion (especially a devotion to their local saint), or a taste for the food and customs of their region.

Mexico is a country that measures its time in centuries and even in millennia, but not in the same way as Egypt or Greece.

In this sense, it is perhaps more like India. Both are complex countries blessed by and burdened with history. Like India, Mexico is premodern, modern, postmodern and antimodern. And sometimes it is all of those things at the same time.

Such cultural wealth is a great asset. And despite our real problems (especially crime and poverty), if we can finally confront and subdue what is wrong with us and continue to expand the economy ― within a democratic framework ― our nation could retain the strengths of its past while moving toward the future.

Enrique Krauze, the author of “Mexico: Biography of Power” and “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.

By Enrique Krauze