welcome to Mexico
Mexico on Picture
high cactus in Oaxaca Mexico
Press: The major daily newspapers published in Spanish are El Heraldo de México, El Universal, Esto, Excélsior, La Prensa and Reforma. The English-language papers available are Mexico City Times, New York Times, The News and USA Today.
History and Government
History: Mexico’s earliest known civilisation was the Olmec in the second century BC, which reached its height about 1200 BC. The Olmec (meaning ‘people from the rubber country’) were an advanced Mayan culture in religion, architecture and mathematical systems. By AD 500, two great cities had emerged, Teotihuacan (with a population of approximately 200,000) and Cholula, a religious centre near Puebla that survived until the Spanish Conquest in 1521. The height of Mayan civilisation was reached between AD 600-900.
The Toltecs, whose capital was Tula, were the predominant civilisation of this time. Known for their fine architecture, elegant speech and intellectual pursuits, they were the ancestors of the famous Aztecs who were thriving at the time Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492. In 1519, a Spaniard named Hernan Cortés arrived from Cuba with a crew of 550 sailors and explorers and settled just north of today’s city of Veracruz. By this time, the Aztec Empire controlled vast territories from the Yucatán peninsula to the Pacific, with over 370 individual nations under their authority. Ruling from their capital city, Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs demanded heavy tribute from their subjects, which may have caused some to side with Cortés in his attack on the Aztecs.
The other factor on Cortés’ side was the lucky coincidence that 1519 was the exact year when legend had it that the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, had promised his followers he would return from the east and so Cortés was mistaken for a god. After two years of fighting and great loss of life on both sides, the Aztecs were defeated under their final ruler, Cuauhtemoc. Under Spanish rule, local culture was suppressed and native traditions were discouraged.
Mexico achieved independence after the wars of 1810-21. In 1824, a constitution was adopted and Mexico’s first President, Guadalupe Victoria, was inaugurated and both Britain and the USA officially recognised the Republic of Mexico. But stability was short lived. In 1847, Mexico was forced to cede half of its territory to the USA. In 1861, Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian from the state of Oaxaca, was elected President. Faced with overwhelming debts (mainly owed to France, Spain and the UK), Juárez announced a two-year moratorium on payment of foreign debts. The French Emperor Napoleon III sent an army to Veracruz to enforce his claim to payment.
A series of civil wars and conflicts with European governments and the USA punctuated the next 30 years. However, Juárez was elected to a third term and is now considered among Mexico’s most popular leaders, having come from a humble background and instituting such welcome changes as a total reform of the education system (making primary school attendance free and obligatory) and completing a railroad from Mexico City to Veracruz. Afterwards, the dictatorship of Porfirio D’az (between 1876 and 1910) brought an autocratic stability to the Republic. Several revolutions and coups followed before the egalitarian 1917 Constitution was introduced which led to the accession of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI).
The PRI created an effective one-party state within the framework of an elective democracy and ruled virtually unchallenged until the mid-1970s, by which time opposition parties had managed to build up strong bases of support. Occasionally they would mount one-off electoral challenges, but the reins of power remained firmly in the hands of the PRI. Radical opposition was dealt with far more harshly: like their counterparts in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the Mexican security forces engaged in wholesale kidnapping, torture and murder (some of the perpetrators are now being brought to account).
From the 1960s onwards, Mexico developed a largely oil-based economy. Under the government of Lopez Portillo, who was elected President in 1976, the country was brought to the verge of bankruptcy by the negotiation of enormous foreign loans, totalling US$80 billion, borrowed against future oil revenues to finance a massive programme of economic and social development. Corruption and mismanagement, coupled with a collapse in the oil price during that period, precipitated a major political crisis in 1982. This was handled by Lopez Portillo’s successor, Miguel de la Madrid, with limited success in the face of entrenched vested interests.
It was Madrid’s successor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who really transformed Mexico during his term of office (which began in 1988). The new government embarked on a major economic reform programme comprising a package of devaluation, tax reform, privatisation and deregulation. The programme, dubbed ‘Cactus Thatcherism’, met with widespread opposition. The programme also included an application to join GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, forerunner of the World Trade Organisation) and the instigation by Salinas of a free-trade treaty with the USA and Canada. This eventually led to the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which was ratified by the three countries during 1993.
The Salinas government also improved its standing in Washington by cracking down on drug trafficking. Popular as all this was overseas, Mexicans saw little benefit as living standards for most people fell sharply. The traditional political opposition was all but emasculated by PRI’s stranglehold over the country, but at the beginning of 1994, in the impoverished southern state of Chiapas, an armed insurrection started with land reform at the heart of its aims. The guerrillas described themselves as ‘Zapatistas’ (after Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata). The Mexican government initially waged a classic counter-insurgency war, using a mixture of force and incentives on the largely pro-guerrilla peasant population.
This was a problem that Salinas was happy to leave to his successor, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, who won the next round of presidential elections held in August 1994. After six years of struggle and bouts of negotiation, the Zapatistas and the Government reached a deal – the San Andreas accord – conceding autonomy to the region. However, nothing was done to implement the deal and the Zapatistas, disillusioned by its duplicity, cut off contact with the Government. By this time, the Zedillo administration had other matters on its mind. Although the economy was performing reasonably well under Zedillo after a major currency crisis early in his term, political discontent with PRI continued to grow throughout the country. Indeed, the popular candidate of the centre-right Partido Acción Nacional (PAN, National Action Party), Vincente Fox Quesada, won the July 2000 presidential poll by a seven-point margin. As PAN also won the simultaneous legislative elections, the rule of the PRI, which had overtaken the Soviet Communist Party longevity record for a ruling political party, was finally at an end after 71 years. After taking office in November, Fox sought a new initiative on the Zapatista conflict and an overhaul of the sclerotic political system inherited from the PRI. While Fox has taken a more conciliatory line towards the Zapatistas (a group of its commanders addressed the Mexican parliament in March 2001) and made initial efforts to put the San Andreas deal into effect, he has been thwarted by PRI and conservative elements in the national assembly.
Government: Mexico is a federal republic with 31 states and one federal district. The bicameral National Congress is elected by universal adult suffrage. The 64 members of the Senate (two per state plus two for the federal district) serve for a term of six years. The 500-seat Chamber of Deputies consists of members elected for three years, 300 from single-member constituencies with the remaining 200 allocated to minority parties on the basis of proportional representation. The President, who appoints a cabinet, has executive power and serves a term congruent with that of the Senate. Each state has its own governor and elected Chamber of Deputies.
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