FOR a half a century up to 1876, the one political certainty in Mexico was that any government, regardless of party or announced purpose -- good, bad or indifferent -- would be overthrown. Only two governments in all this time lasted through their allotted periods, and even these only because they had the good luck to defeat numerous efforts to overthrow them. Almost every part of Mexico at one time or another threatened to set up a separate government, and the miracle is that only Texas carried the threat to fruition. Entire regions were independent of the federal government for years at a time.

The Díaz régime produced the great political miracle in modern Mexico -- stability. It is probably true that the Díaz régime was no more just or free from violence than the previous improvised administrations. But it did keep order. At least everyone knew where the power rested -- in the person of General Diaz. By controlling the army he controlled the country. It was under this régime that Mexico became a nation with a sense of destiny and coherence. An extensive program of development of railroads, ports, telegraphs and so on was possible, and this in turn contributed to political consolidation.

The revolution of 1910 returned the nation to chaos. Between 1910 and 1930, the country was either torn by revolution or in active preparation for revolution. The local caudillo reappeared and the federal government did not dare challenge him for fear that he and his friends -- or he and the government's numerous enemies -- would prove stronger than itself. The governments lived upon sufferance. All the astute ruthlessness of Obregón and Calles, with the deliberate killings of leaders of any uprising, was required to give the political situation a semblance of stability.

Even under Cárdenas there was a revolution, and that was as late as 1938 -- a revolution by a man who may be said to have been the last of the revolutionary caudillos, Saturnino Cedillo. He was a semi-literate man who had risen to power in local fighting, unillumined by any political doctrine except a greed for personal aggrandizement. At one time, during the Cristero rebellion, he had control of more than 8,000 men who belonged to him, and whom he had armed and brought into the field. He had a certain kind of loyalty to his own, but was completely ruthless. He traveled, even on horseback, with armed guards with sawed-off machine guns right behind him, and his automobile, in which I once rode, was crowded with arms, machine guns and ammunition -- a fort on wheels. I heard him say one day to a man who had some grievance, "I ought to have you strung up." In the state of San Luis Potosí his will was the law, the rule and the way. There was no authority to which an appeal could be addressed, for even the federal government, unless it wished to stir up a rebellion, preferred not to interfere too much. The governor of the state, a nondescript little man in black, with a squeak in his voice, once said when I asked him who he was, when he made an unexpected visit to the home of Cedillo, "Who, me? I am the governor of the state. It is a job the old man gave me." Such a situation made rebellion inevitable, and revolution the natural beginnings of any election. As it turned out in this case, Cedillo rose in rebellion and was finally killed in the mountains.

In the election of 1940, when General Avila Camacho succeeded to the presidency, there was active talk of an uprising, and only the strength of General Cárdenas and the well-known policy of the United States Government to give implicit support to the government in power prevented a revolution. This violence evidenced the narrow basis upon which Mexican government rested. The relative peace of the last 20 years may be taken to mean that the purpose of the Constitution of 1917 to strengthen the government has succeeded. It brought into being the agrarian and labor organizations upon which the government could fall back in time of crisis.


But it is still true that the army is the chief source of the government's power. As President Cárdenas once expressed it, "When the land belongs to the villages, the government will also belong to them, but now the government depends upon the army." That day may come, but it has not yet; and it has not because the very machinery of the government is self-defeating. The government of Mexico is the president. There is no other way of expressing it. If the president is not strong enough to be the government, then he is overthrown, as was Ortiz Rubio. Or if he is not strong enough to be the president, then the real power is some caudillo -- the great man who can and does control the government. In recent history, that was Calles. He did not wish to be a caudillo in the beginning, but was forced into the position of dictator to prevent the recurrence of chaos. The leaders accepted his will because he could enforce it, and that settled the matter.

I recall meeting a general in charge of troops in one of the northern states one day in a train. We were on the way to Tehuacan, where Calles, long after he had retired from the presidency, was recovering from an illness. I asked him where he was going, and he replied, "Well, yesterday I saw the president in the City of Mexico, but now I am going to see el mero Jefe" -- "the real chief." And that was that. To prove that he was in control, Cárdenas found it necessary to put Calles on a plane and ship him out of the country.

The president is the government, and all discussion of Mexican politics must assume that fact. It is possible to discern other trends, and the day may come when this will no longer be true. But for the time being, the president has in his hands the military, political, administrative, legislative and judicial power. The legislature takes its policies and its laws from the president, and there is and can be no effective opposition in the Congress. The judiciary takes its views from the administration. All one has to do is to read the decisions of the courts under the Carranza, Obregón, Calles and Cárdenas administrations in matters of land and labor to be convinced that the court reflects, as a matter of course, the political predilections of the head of the state. He is the effective chief of the administration, and the members of the cabinet are simple instruments of his will; and if he is an energetic and hardworking man, he keeps track of even the minutest details of their labor. He is also the active head of the army, and it is he who decides where and at what post this or that general is to be placed. The total pattern is such that nothing within the political or governmental realm escapes his control, and all decisions, even of minor importance, are made by him.

In a subtle sense, the mass of the rural population, Indian or mestizo, illiterate or schooled, expects the president of the country to play the part of the great father. There is an implicit submissiveness, a bending of the head, which unconsciously forces upon the president the exercise of arbitrary power. Only the president can make a final decision. No other power is final, no other authority is absolute. He who would govern must also rule, or he will not be able to govern. Like every father, he must rule personally, in detail, and cannot delegate his authority. If he does, he will risk losing it. Men, big and little, will sit for weeks in the antechamber to be heard over a detail that any clerk might have disposed of. But the clerk is a poor shadow of the great father, and so is the member of the cabinet. The personality of the president must be part of every minor transaction between the rural folk and their government -- time matters not at all. Years may be spent in securing an audience just so as to have the judgment come from the only source where authority is not only political, but also moral. It is in this situation that administration breaks down.

Like a good father, the president cannot say no, and if he does, the no is not final. Surely the father's heart can be mellowed, his kindness reawakened, his true virtues as the father of his children brought to bear upon the issues in hand. These issues are so small, so unimportant, and the president is so great and so all-powerful, that only bad advisers stand in the way of his doing the justice the people ask for. And if he refuses, then he is no true father, he is no true leader, he governs arbitrarily and without moral authority. He is a stepfather, a tyrant, a usurper, a villain, or he has no power, being a tool of unfriendly and inimical forces. It becomes essential to drive him from office. There is no alternative between personal government and revolution. Inefficiency, corruption, cruelty -- if personal -- are all acceptable. What is not acceptable is the cold, impersonal, efficient government. Compliance is not important, the promise is. The people will wait, if they are not denied.

Traditionally speaking, the president of Mexico must be able to do everything he wants to, or he will be unable to do anything he wants to. He either has all power or no power; there is no middle ground. The constitutional formula for a division of powers among the legislative, judicial and executive is merely a formula. And this is so because, outside of the army, there is really no effective body politic that the government can rest upon.

The administration -- that is, the president -- must be its own architect of political security. The government is unstable except in so far as the president can stabilize it, and all of his efforts are bent toward giving it permanence by surrounding it with friends in every office, every post, every organization, every significant grouping. Those that he cannot control are enemies. If he cannot control his friends, they too become enemies. In effect, he manages all of the political life of the country. The charge that Díaz had puppets in the state governments was true enough. This has always been the case, but it is now easier, legally, than ever before for the central government to determine who can be elected, who can stay in office if elected, and who is to be removed if it becomes desirable that he should be removed. The cause can always be provided, the machinery to eject the undesirable official is permanently available, and the fiction of state sovereignty remains a fiction as always. The Constitution of 1917 has made it simpler for the president to be a dictator than it used to be. It has always been necessary.


The organization of the P.N.R. (Partido Nacional Revolucionario) by Calles in 1928 merely facilitated what was already a sanctioned if not a sanctified practice. Under the Constitution, the Senate has the duty of deciding upon the legality of a state government, or of breaking off all federal relations with the state; and the Senate, therefore, ultimately decides who has been elected governor. But the Senate, like the governor of a state, is also a creature of the president, and the permanent committee of the Senate, which acts when that body is not in session, is hand-picked by the president. It is he who finally decides who has been elected governor of the state. The question of the legality of the state government comes before the federal government in many ways. Most frequently the question comes before the federal government because two and sometimes three governors, each with his own legislature, claims to have been elected by a huge majority. As the local legislature must decide who has been elected and then must have the count accepted by the federal government, it always follows that each candidate for state governor has his own legislature elected with him. After the election, two or three state legislatures each announce that their candidates have been elected, establish themselves as near the state capitol building as possible, organize a government, and bombard the president, the secretary of the interior, and the Senate with telegrams announcing their candidate's election. It is a little difficult to believe that three candidates have all been elected for the office of governor at the same time. It therefore falls upon the permanent committee acting for the Senate to make the decision as to who was really elected. But the permanent committee is the arm of the president, and the president, therefore, really makes the final decision. Once the issue has been settled, the local military chieftain is instructed to see to it that the properly certified governor is permitted to take office, and to enter the state capitol building. The president has to make the decision. If he did not, there would be civil war in the state.

I recall one instance in Aguascalientes, after an election for governor, when the president happened to arrive there. He was met by a large crowd in an organized parade, armed with banners, demanding that its candidate be recognized, insisting that he had been elected. There was much shouting and yelling, and the president heard many strong words and speeches on his way to the state capitol building. Finally, after settling down in the state capital for a while, he came out on the balcony and made a statement to the people in the square below. He said that the central government had no interest in the local election except that a good man be elevated to the office of governor. Two men could not both occupy the governor's chair at the same time, and if the candidate the crowd was clamoring for had really been elected by a majority, he would see to it that he was put in office in spite of the fact that the other man had already been declared legally elected. But if the man they were opposing was really the properly chosen official, he would take the responsibility of keeping him in office. To keep the peace, the federal government must choose the local governor, and be prepared to enforce its decision, as there is no other authority which could enforce its will, or even the will of the majority, without a test of arms.

There have been many instances when within one year the federal government removed a number of governors. Thus in 1935 the Senate removed the governors of Sonora, Sinaloa, Guanajuato and Durango. President Alemán has removed six governors in the last two years. The governors, in spite of the federal system established by the Constitution, are the instruments of the president. And it is further clear that this is so because it is the only way of minimizing the prospect of rebellion.

The continuous fence-building so essential to the preservation of the president's political power takes another form. The president controls the election of the members to the Congress and the Senate. No one can be elected to either without his consent and approval. I have seen a man who thought himself elected senator, and whom everyone else thought to have been elected, arriving in Mexico City, flushed with victory, living in the best hotel, spending money freely. Then suddenly I saw him crestfallen, moving out of the hotel, counting his pennies. "What has happened?" I asked. "The old man thinks I was not elected." "What are you going to do?" "The old man has given me a good chamba. He has made me collector of customs in Matamoros. He really is a good person and knows what is best."

The technique is a simple one. The Senate and Congress each pass on the credentials of their own newly-elected members, and they seat the right persons. The Senate and the Congress have to be hand-picked. They are an essential tool in the effective political control of the country. If the members of Congress were not controlled by the president, it would be impossible to govern in Mexico, except by sheer and unattenuated dictatorship. This way there is some semblance and, in effect, some measure of democratic politics even inside so highly centralized a government.

The same course occurs with members of the House of Congress. A friend of mine in Mexico, a young and devoted attendant of the president, told me one day that he wanted to be a member of Congress. I asked him if he had talked with the president. "Oh, yes," he replied. Two months later I learned that he had been elected. "Tell me exactly what happened. I want to know how you were elected." "Well, it was this way. We had an election but my opponents stole all my ballots." "What did you do?" I queried. "Well, you can't go before the committee without ballots so my friends and I sat down and made up the ballots. We knew everyone had voted for me." "And you were elected?" "Yes, unanimously." Two years later he had been elected senator. I said to him, "I hear you have been elected senator." "Yes," he replied, "unanimously." This is a verbatim report. He could only be elected at the will of the president, as was everyone else.

It is not that there is no electoral machinery. There is. Nor is its greatest shortcoming the cumbersome manner in which it is administered. The difficulty lies in something else. It lies in the absence of an effective independent political conscience and organization upon which a government can rest. The government, to survive in peace, must devise its own party, its own governors, its own members of Congress. The alternative is chaos and rebellion. It is not necessarily true that this system in the hands of a good man is less representative of the interests of the people. It may be in a sense democratic, but it does not rest upon effective suffrage. It is no one leader's fault. It is not even the fault of any one historical period. Nor is it suddenly and easily remediable.

It will not be easy for the reader to understand the significance of these controls unless he recognizes them as part of the technique for passing on the administration from one president who can complete his term to the next incumbent in office. If the machinery were to break down, the next election would be settled by violence and civil war. It is really an instrumentality for the maintenance of internal peace. I am not sure that the Mexicans themselves appreciate this fact. The behavior is automatic and determined by tradition, and it operates upon a kind of political "instinct" or intuition. But that is the function it serves. The most important decision that the president has to make, and that fairly early in his own administration, is who is to be his successor. Someone has to make that decision, and he who can make it becomes the effective head of the government. If the president cannot or will not do it, then he will either be faced with a revolution or become a mere puppet of the group surrounding the new candidate.

I am not even sure that the decision has to be formalized until fairly late, but there arises a kind of implicit commitment which everyone "in the know" understands. Watching Mexican politics closely, one begins to discern the drift of the new alignment by noting changes in the cabinet, and asking: Whose friends are they? What is true of members of Congress and the cabinet is true of the army. Who has been promoted, or retired? Who has been shifted in command from one post to another? All are evidences of political manœuvring. An unreliable general is suddenly shifted to another state in which the president feels absolutely sure of the lower officers. The general knows it and his hands are tied. It used to be customary for the general to move with his own troops. He had raised them and trained them, and they were his people. It took three unsuccessful revolutions after 1920 and the purging of hundreds of army officers before the principle could be established that the troops a general commanded did not belong to him, and that he could be moved without them. It was one of the essential conditions to the peaceful succession of power


The election campaigns, speeches and propaganda are part of the play for the alignment of the popular opinion for or against the prospective candidate; and, at the same time, they tend to strengthen the conviction that the right candidate has been chosen. A political campaign in Mexico is in the nature of make-believe. The candidate who has official approval is certain of election. Tradition and popular expectation ask for a campaign and for General Cárdenas, for example, the period of the campaign was an opportunity to travel into every corner of the country and visit the humblest villages in the mountain regions. But the election itself is never in doubt. The opposition candidates have, in spite of an active campaign, no expectation of being elected. They know that their people will probably not be permitted to vote; that if they do vote their vote will not be counted; that, if counted, and sent into the final test in the national Congress, it will be disregarded; and finally, that if elected by some strange accident, they could not govern. An opposition candidate, elected to the presidency, could not if he took power even name his own private secretary. In fact, the election is decided before the voting takes place. It is decided by those who are going to count the votes officially, and their count was determined before they were entrusted with the privilege of going through the motions.

What, then, is the purpose of the opposition candidates, parties and campaigns? The answer, I think, is clear: it is to build up moral justification for a revolution. No one is fooled by the process. No one expects the opposition to win. No government has ever lost an election unless it was first driven from office by force. What the opposition does expect is that it can so work on the popular discontent, so stir up political passions, so confuse public opinion that it can win the allegiance of large masses of people to its side, and especially that of the army. There is always some hope that parts of the army can be won over -- sometimes the whole army, or nearly the whole army, as in the electoral campaign of Obregón against Bonilla in 1920. If the army can be won over, or if a part of the army can be won over, then the electoral campaign may have helped to provide the moral environment within which the rebellion can be successful.

Luis Cabrera has suggested that there have been more than a thousand pronunciamientos between 1812 and 1921, but only three revolutions. The distinction is important. The military uprising is an electoral device, a way of changing the authorities in power, of driving out one government and replacing it with another. A peaceful election is frequently regarded as an evidence of imposition. When the government is strong enough to assure the election of the official candidate without violence, as in the case of the long Díaz régime, it is a sure sign of tyranny. A rebellion has, therefore, the respectable dress of an attempt to give the opposition a chance to secure office. The fact that, if successful, it will play the same preponderant rôle as the actual government in electing the next preferred candidate, is beside the point. If there had been no rebellion, the government in office would have perpetuated itself by imposing a chosen candidate. Rebellion, therefore, is an accepted instrumentality in an electoral campaign. If it does not occur, it is sometimes due to the fear that the United States will take sides with the government in power. That was certainly the case in the election when Almazán was defeated for the presidency.

But while rebellion is an electoral device, revolution is an accepted instrument of social and economic change. This kind of revolution may have the approval even of the conservative elements in Mexico. An illegal revolution, which ultimately becomes legal because it succeeds in imposing its desires upon the nation by force and rewriting the law to fit its program, is considered necessary "in such countries as ours." The political philosophy of Mexico is saturated with the belief in violence, both for electoral purposes and for social change.

The official government party, regardless of the various names which have been given it by the different governments, is in effect the recognized electoral machinery of the administration. Although other parties are in existence, free speech is unrestricted, and political activities and organizations go on, the effective electoral control is organized by the government through this new instrumentality, and it has tended to reduce violence in political elections. If there were no official party, the elections would no more reflect popular suffrage than they do now. But they would be less free from local violence. The party in power -- that is, the group that made the revolution in 1910 and retains its hold in office -- has found a medium to carry on the government without having to fight a new revolution over every presidential election and face civil strife in every state at every local election.

The political outcome of the revolution has, clearly enough, greatly strengthened the power of the central government and of the president. The one single government-party system is merely additional evidence of the fact. It has given the presidency an officially sponsored agency to deal with Mexican politics. The older Díaz tradition of control by disregard of the law -- for it has been truly said that the Constitution of 1857 was forgotten in his personal administration -- has been replaced by a constitutional mandate to control the state governments. The creation of an officially sponsored party has facilitated the control of Mexican politics.

To some extent, the difference between the old system of Díaz and the present one is the difference between open and secret control. Both the constitutional provisions and the government party system tend to make the centralized control of the political life of the country matters of greater public knowledge, and to that extent tend to make them a more conscious part of the life of the nation. Their very legality and publicity tend to have a restraining influence upon the too arbitrary use of the powers at the president's disposal. With all of their shortcomings, these changes must be recognized as, on the whole, a stabilizing and democratizing influence in Mexican political life.


The Mexican complex is such that the alternative to highly centralized power is anarchy; and, for the time being, anyway, the revolution has tended in the direction of centralized temporary power. The one clear gain, politically, is the principle of no reëlection. Obregón tried for reëlection but was assassinated, and that, perhaps, was the last attempt in that direction for a long time. The president can, within limits, perpetuate his policies by throwing his influence toward the election of his successor; in fact, as we have noted, he must do so. But he cannot succeed himself or, as things stand, be a candidate again at any time.

This change has not eliminated the army from politics, but it has to some extent changed the character of the army's participation. The individual general probably can no longer impose himself upon the nation because he happens to have a group of friends who will follow him in battle. But as long as the central government has to use the army for its own political purposes in controlling the states, the army is bound to possess great political influence, and no man could come to the office of the presidency against its will.

But a significant new influence has come into being, politically speaking, in the form of the organized labor unions and the agrarian communities. These have given the government a wider base in the populace, and this change is especially important for its latent implications. In a crisis, as was shown at the time of the De la Huerta and Escobar rebellions, the labor unions and the agrarian communities, especially the latter, proved of very real military value to the government. The rebels found that they could hold only the land they physically occupied, for the agrarian communities were hostile to them and actively supported the government. These two new institutions are, however, bound hand and foot by the government.

It is hard to see how the agrarian communities can emancipate themselves. The government's participation, especially in the large coöperative ejidos, is such that it has, in a measure, replaced the old plantation owner. The Banco Ejidal extends credit to these communities between the crops. It does not pay wages. The credit is a weekly allowance to be repaid out of the crop. The profit is divided between the members of the ejido. But the bank must, for its own safety, have a degree of supervision which makes the federal government an integral part of their every activity. Presumably, in time -- but not at any visible time -- these communities will accumulate enough savings to become their own credit agency. They could then become an independent influence in politics. For the time being, they are part of the governmental machine, but nonetheless they have given the government a wider base than it had before.

Something of the same is true of organized labor. There is no independent trade union movement of any consequence in Mexico. There are a few unions that have outlived government opposition, but they are not strong or numerous. The great movements in labor were not self-sustaining -- in the time of Calles the C.R.O.M. (Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana) was a child of the Obregón and Calles governments, and the C.T.M. (Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos) was a creature of the later administrations. The government has financed, protected and nurtured the trade union movement as a stick to lean upon, or to be used against its political enemies in and out of the country. But the stick is only as strong as the arm that wields it. The trade union movement may, in time, become politically independent. Today it is important chiefly as the vehicle of the politics of the administration, that is, the policies of the president. The unions and the ejidos serve one important function; they give the president a seeming, and in a measure a real, support in the populace. That has political significance for the future.

But with the widened base for the government, there has come an increase in the range of its responsibilities. The federal government has both by constitutional mandate and by legislative provisions assumed a supervising interest over all mining, the moving picture industry, commerce, banking, the electrical industry, public health, public education, labor, land distribution and agricultural credit through the ejidal bank. In addition, there are other activities which are now largely in the hands of the federal government, such as road building, aviation, the railroads, the oil industry, coastwise transportation, the tourist industry, telegraphs, and through the control of labor or credit, textiles, sugar and cotton.

That is, the centralized government has assumed the burden of managing the greater part of the economy of the nation. The president has become the arbiter of the economic activities of the people. The burden of governing is infinitely greater than it was when the revolution began, and the political instrumentality has not grown to equal the new burdens. The idea of a directed economy has taken increased hold of the government, while the character of the political machinery has changed but little in comparison to the new administrative responsibilities. Nor has the efficiency of government nor the integrity of the bureaucracy kept pace with the increased powers of the government over the national economy. There is even some reason to assume that the older habits of petty graft have increased with the newer opportunities. It is no accident that the prevailing political mood in Mexico is cynicism. Graft had a kind of traditional sanction when most of the economy of the nation was in foreign hands, when government officials shared through special favors some of the profits of private concerns. But when the government itself is the major entrepreneur, through direct or indirect control, the problem is different. The growth of that kind of selfless public service which the situation demands is not in sight.

The political disequilibrium in Mexico lies in part in the nature of the tax system. Most of the tax collected goes to the federal government. The states receive a pittance and the municipalities even less. It thus turns out that all other political units in the government are dependent upon the federal government for favors. I have seen towns build their schools with their own hands, and then sit around for years waiting for the state or federal government to give them the money to buy the windows or doors which they could not make, or even send a delegation a hundred miles to see the governor or even the president in Mexico City for the same purpose. What is true of the school is true of a bridge, of a pipe for a water system, of an engine to turn a mill. There is really no prospect of Mexico possessing a vigorous democratic government resting upon a broad popular base unless the flow in income from taxes is redirected so that the towns, the municipalities and the states can enjoy financial independence. This is probably the change most essential to Mexico's welfare, but it is the one least likely to occur.

This analysis should not be thought to be an unfriendly comment on the presidential powers. The executive must be strong in Mexico, or Mexico will face revolution. The alternative to a strong president is rebellion. The alternative to political decisions made in detail and enforced by the president is decisions which no one can enforce. The fact of the matter is that the president must decide because no one else's decision will be accepted. The older tradition that the king rules has survived in modern dress: the president rules. He rules rather than governs, and must do so if he is to survive in office or if he is to keep the country at peace. The issue, in political terms, is the absence of effective political opposition. All opposition presumes eventual revolution. If and when there develops in Mexico the tradition of "his majesty's loyal opposition," loyal to the government, even if opposed to its policies, then it may come about that party government rather than personal government will become the rule. But that day is still a long way off.

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  • FRANK TANNENBAUM, Professor of Latin American History at Columbia University; author of "The Mexican Agrarian Revolution," "Whither Latin America?" and several other works
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