Unrevolutionary Mexico: The Birth of a Strange Dictatorship
By Paul Gillingham
Yale University Press, 2021, 464 pp.
Gillingham digs deep into the archives of two contrasting Mexican states in the early twentieth century: rural, disorderly Guerrero, on the Pacific coast, and the more urban, cosmopolitan, if fragmented, Veracruz, on the Caribbean coast. He seeks to explain how state builders during the 1940s and 1950s at the provincial and national levels constructed a remarkably enduring system of dictablanda, or “soft dictatorship”—a mixture of conciliation and coercion, competitive democracy and strong-armed authoritarianism that foreshadowed the hybrid regimes increasingly common around the world today. Gillingham explores the repressive violence of official police forces, state-driven socioeconomic modernization, and the elevation by the nation-state of a hegemonic cultural narrative of heroism, altruism, and social justice that sought to suppress radical factionalism. Systemic corruption helped maintain political stability by satisfying dissidents, even as its shocking scale undermined the legitimacy of governments. This soft dictatorship goes some way toward explaining how Mexico avoided the Latin American disease of rule by a full-fledged military dictatorship, but Gillingham forgets geopolitics. The implicit security guarantee (however much Mexican nationalists might refuse to acknowledge it) of the dominant regional power, the United States, and the demilitarization (at least until recently) of the country’s long northern border helped empower civilian leaders in Mexico City.