Democracy in Mexico topic of discussion

By Carolina Bolado

Prominent Mexican scholars, elected officials, and diplomats met this weekend at the International House to discuss the changing political scene in Mexico and the state of the country’s democratic institutions. The conference, called “Consolidating Democracy in Mexico” and organized by the Chicago Society, began Friday evening and continued all day Saturday.

Panelists debated democratic reforms underway in Mexico and suggested others to strengthen democracy in the country. They also spoke about the roles of political parties and non-governmental actors in the democratization process.

A recurrent theme through the conference was the fragility of Mexican democracy and the need to strengthen it. “We are trying something completely new. There is no historical precedent for what we are doing,” Lorenzo Meyer, a historian and political analyst who teaches at El Colegio de Mexico, said.

Mexico has had regular elections since early in the twentieth century—technically making it a democracy. But the country was ruled exclusively by a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which used its corporatist structure to control every level of government. But other political parties slowly gained strength throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and in the 2000 presidential election the National Action Party candidate, Vicente Fox, defeated the PRI candidate. Political scientists heralded Fox’s election as Mexico’s transition to democracy.

According to Meyer, the PRI still controls most of Mexico’s political institutions. And the people have become disillusioned with the current administration.

“Today Fox’s presidency is paralyzed. In fact it’s under siege—surviving, but not leading,” Meyer said. “Democratic disillusionment is a fact in Mexico.”

According to Jorge Chabat, a researcher at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Economica, a Mexican think tank, improving national security is crucial for strengthening democracy. A confusing legal framework, a judicial system that favors the rich, and a corrupt and inefficient police force need to be reformed to protect the democratic institutions in place, he said.

The conference also featured keynote addresses from Santiago Creel Miranda, Mexico’s minister of the interior and the second-highest ranking political figure in the country; José Woldenberg, former president of the Federal Electoral Institute; and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a three-time presidential candidate and the founder of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

The event was a follow-up to a consortium last spring about violence in Colombia. Following that success, the Chicago Society began preparations for a similar conference to discuss Mexican democracy. According to Alonso Bustamante, a third-year in the College who helped organize the event, students have been very receptive to Latin-American topics.

“We wanted to utilize the fact that Chicago has a large Mexican population,” Bustamante said. “We’re trying to get the academic world and the University to interact with the Mexican community and vice versa.”

According to Bustamante, he and three other students—Steve Coats, Laura Cedillo, and Amanda Berenstein—have been planning the event since the beginning of the school year. Though students did most of the work, the group received a great deal of logistical and faculty support in the preparation. The Student Government Finance Committee, the Center for Latin American Studies, the Mexican Studies Program, the Harris School of Public Policy, and the Norman Wait Harris Fund all donated money for the program. The students also sought money outside of the University and secured donations from the Midwest chapter of the U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce.

According to Bustamante, Mexican officials and academics were eager to attend the conference. “People who are thrilled by the idea of being invited by the University of Chicago and people who were really thrilled about the idea of democracy in Mexico—it’s not nearly debated enough in Mexico,” Bustamante said. He added that the “University name went a long way.”