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Democracy field notes

Mexico: The Cactus Democracy

Austin/WallpaperMade, CC BY-NC

This research note on Mexican politics and society was inspired by a recent visit to Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca, as a guest of the country’s Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE).

Visitors to Mexico are almost always struck by its dramatic contrasts. Here is a vast and varied, rugged and beautiful land so sparkling yet so spoiled by contradictions that it seems to be less a country and more a word for bewilderment, a place where reality is undone by the unreal. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda famously described Mexico as a land of deserts and hurricanes, colourful creations and violent destruction, a spellbinding place “covered in flowers and thorns”. He saw Mexico as the land of the cactus plant. So does the official symbol: a golden eagle devouring a snake perched atop a prickly pear cactus.

Found almost everywhere throughout the country, from Sonora in the north to inland Oaxaca in the south, the cactus has become an enduring symbol of the country’s reputation abroad and an ingredient of the staple diet of its people at home. The cactus comes in many hundreds of varieties, but common to all are their resilience to melting sun and torrential rain, their gorgeous orange, red, fuchsia and yellow blooms, their mildly savoury nopal flesh and sweet tuna fruit, all of this manifested in daunting columns and paddles shielded by razor-sharp thorns that warn away would-be predators.

Cactus magic

We could say that Mexico is marked by cactus magic. Its beauty is everywhere, from the old-world civility to the youthful hipster entrepreneurs hungry for angel investors and high-tech innovation. It is more than volcanoes, blue skies, vivid colours and breathtaking landscapes dotted with green cactus of many shapes and sizes. Green is the well-chosen local colour of hope, a symbol of the cheerful optimism of people. Their enthusiasm for things is plentiful.

Mexico unsurprisingly ranks second (after Costa Rica) on the 140-country Happy Planet Index, designed by the UK’s New Economics Foundation to measure human wellbeing and environmental impact. Millions of Mexican citizens live well and believe in tomorrow. They seem remarkably unafraid of death, even enjoying an annual public holiday (Día de Muertos) when in old Aztec style they eat and drink to its health.

John Keane

On the ground, people radiate warmth. Folklore has it that Mexican citizens unfailingly mistrust their neighbours. Opinion polls, for what they are worth, suggest that around 70% don’t trust other people, which is unsurprising when it is considered that most of those same people are worried about crime and general insecurity.

What is surprising for outsiders is the way Mexicans seem to be specialists in disarming smiles. Their children are taught its arts from an early age. Among the gringos to the north, toothy disembodied smiles can be unnerving; greetings are often robotic, or uncaringly insouciant. South of the border, by contrast, people are typically polite, courteous and helpful. People seem always to mean well. Their sensibility is serious and caring, a secular gift perhaps from past times when people of religion found God in all things.

In the land of the beautiful cactus, birth rates are unusually high, and many people radiate a native youthfulness. More than half its citizens are younger than 30. The median age is 27. Children are valued. And Mexicans are pretty people, living proof that mixing peoples makes for good looks. Indigenous peoples (21.5% of the population) have a visible presence. Having survived the mass murders that swept the whole subcontinent following European colonisation - the largest-ever recorded genocide in human history - they are today still undervalued and forced to suffer the discriminations of prejudice and poverty. They suffer marginality, yet nothing like the horrid apartheid imposed upon the indigenous peoples of Australia and Canada exists in Mexico.

John Keane

The charming southern city of Oaxaca stands as a striking symbol of this side of life in the land of the cactus. The first-ever indigenous president of the republic, the Zapotec shepherd Benito Juárez (1806–1872), grew up there. Today, the city is a beacon of mestizos diversity, a reminder to the rest of the country of its roots in the pre-conquest indigenous past. Millions of Mexican citizens know by heart the advice that greets visitors at the entrance of the remarkable National Anthropology Museum, among the great wonders of the country: the appreciation of past civilisations is the secret of a successful people and the guarantee of their future.

Here is country where crude nationalism is difficult for the simple reason that Toltec, Mayan, Teotihuacan and Aztec influences meld and merge with the culture of the Spanish conquistadores and the globalising influences of the 21st century. Almost everybody realises there is no such thing as a “pure” Mexican. Whatever caudillo leaders have said in the past, or might in future say, Mexican people think that talk of a Mexican People is a fiction.

The hybridity shows up in the wide regional differences, in the way people dress, in their wonderfully diverse cuisine, their dialects and architectural styles. Mexico is certainly not tortillas y salsa. People are proud of their escamoles (desert ant eggs) and chalupas (dried grasshoppers) and chocolate sauce mole and their surprisingly good red wine from areas in Baja California.

John Keane

The Mexican media scene is just as lively. Though television, still the dominant medium, is the province of media oligarchs like Carlos Slim, possibly the world’s richest man, diversity in the domain of radio and newspapers is flourishing, while new social media platforms, as elsewhere, are now turning out to be the great disruptor of things. There are plenty of brave journalists willing to take on the pharaohs of power. Thanks to them, the church, long ago disestablished, now suffers a permanent crisis of identity, charges of paedophilia and hypocrisy, with declining attendance, especially among the younger generation.

The secularity breeds levity. People’s sense of humour is palpable, especially when it comes to people’s favourite subject, their great northern neighbour. In the land of the cactus, everyone seems capable of reciting the old remark (attributed to seven-term President Porfirio Díaz) that Mexico’s misfortune is that it is so far from God and so near to the United States. Mexicans are generally fond of their northern neighbours. Many have worked in the United States for short periods, and everyone seems to have a relative or friend now living there. But mere mention of Donald Trump triggers instant laughter. More than a few joke that his Big Wall plans have already been scuppered by the huge Mexican diaspora, which long ago moved the border north, to include Los Angeles, now the second-largest Mexican city.

John Keane


All these fruits and flowers are impressive. So are the textbook appearances of what can be called the local cactus democracy, which appears to be in blooming good health. Measured by global standards, Mexico has been freed from the curse of dictatorship. The country enjoys regular free and fair elections among competing political parties held in check by such vibrant media publications as La Jornada, El Universal and Reforma.

In 2014, Mexico’s Congress approved sweeping political reforms that included stronger checks on the powers of the president, expanded voting rights for Mexican citizens living outside the country and special provisions for achieving gender parity in the parliament. A clear majority of Mexican citizens say they prefer democracy to any other system of government.

John Keane

Yet lurking beneath these democratic appearances are the prickly, dangerous sides of Mexico. Tourists understandably moan about unreliable public transport, traffic jams, street robberies and the capital city’s rotten air. But the challenges facing the cactus democracy are more serious, and run much deeper. They are structural: less immediately visible and more to do with dysfunctional institutions in need of serious reform.

The most obvious perilous dynamic is structural poverty. Everywhere visitors travel they encounter the begging mother with child, men wrapped in blankets sleeping rough near the church, villagers and barrio slum dwellers cursing the lack of electricity and running water. A distinct underclass of precariously living poor people is part of Mexican reality.

World Bank data shows that 61% of the country’s adult citizens don’t have a bank account, half of them because their yearly income is “insufficient or variable”. The Mexican economy has been dubbed the Aztec Tiger, or spoken of in terms of “move over Brazil” (nowadays that’s an easy comparison) and even, improbably, “the new China”. The fact is Mexico is a two-tiered economy, with no major government or opposition plans for a new taxation system or the redistribution of wealth and income, especially towards indigenous citizens, whose poverty rates are highest.

Oaxaca. John Keane

Overall, in defiance of the democratic principle of equality, at least a third of adult citizens live in severe or extreme poverty. Since 2000, when the shift to multi-party democracy began, the number of people officially living beneath the poverty line has increased by 11 million, to 52.3% of the population. In the land of the cactus, the top 20% of the population earns more than 13 times the bottom 20% of the population. The wealthiest 1% rakes in more than a fifth of total annual income.

Wealth imbalances, poverty and low wages on this scale are bound up with top-to-bottom corruption. In many settings, gifts and hospitality, unregulated by law, are the normal way of getting things done. Mexico’s impressive Federal Penal Code (Código Penal Federal) does specify stiff penalties for such criminal acts as bribery, abuse of office, extortion and facilitation, but these anti-corruption laws are almost never enforced.

Lawlessness is rampant. Many businesses have to deal daily with organised criminals. Public officials are rarely held liable for illegal acts. Bribery and collusion (clientelismo) between the police, judges and criminal groups is hard to measure, but rumours say it’s rampant. Embezzlement of funds, theft, impunity and weak law enforcement are inevitably the result.

The worst form of corruption comes tipped with fear and blood. Fed by a criminal reserve army of the poor, the cactus democracy is engaged in a war against itself. In recent years, the scale of mafia violence and disappearances has grown by alarming proportions. During the past decade, more than 50 elected city mayors have been assassinated. In the past year alone, under the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto, the country saw an official 22% increase in homicides, from 17,034 in 2015 to 20,789. The actual figures may be higher. According to Mexico’s Interior Department, there were nearly 10,000 killings nationwide during the first five months of this year - a spike of about 30% compared with the same period last year.

No democracy can survive such figures indefinitely. Both state institutions and the rather weak fledgling civil society of Mexico are already suffering the effects of dis-organised crime and the privatisation of death and disappearance. Evidence is growing that the major part of the murderous violence is no longer linked to the drug trade. The violence has rather become an end in itself, big business that endangers the precious legitimacy and efficacy of many public institutions. During the past two decades, for instance, freedom of communication has been badly damaged by violent attacks on media buildings, widespread intimidation, the murder of over 100 journalists and the disappearance of at least 25 others. The judiciary is floundering under the pressure of large-scale terrorist violence: during the years of the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006–2012) alone, Human Rights Watch reports that at least 35,000 citizens were murdered, yet the effective conviction rate of the gangsters responsible was a miserable 0.06%.

Elections free and fair are being poisoned by violent threats and assaults on voters and party candidates. The local deployment of soldiers against the criminal oligarchs and networks meanwhile threatens to undermine public respect for the armed forces. And, in recent months, accused of spying on its lawyer and journalist critics using Israeli software technology, the presidency itself has become engulfed in a potentially major public scandal.


All of this is bad for democracy, if by that word is meant the self-government of people, through their elected representatives, aided by institutions designed to protect citizens in all walks of life from predators. It so happens that in just under a year from now the prickly subjects of poverty, corruption and violence will be the focus of elections scheduled for the lower and upper chambers of the congress and the presidency. This will be the largest-ever election in the history of the country. Officials at the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) are already in full swing making arrangements, and doing so with energy, professional dedication and purpose.

Measured by global standards, INE is a special independent organisation actively committed to the protection and flourishing of electoral democracy in Mexico. Its stated brief is to “create conditions for citizens to responsibly exercise their political rights, without ignoring the issues of injustice, inequality, marginalisation or poverty”.

INE stands for the public ownership of voting. It stands against vote buying, campaign overspending and predatory violence. Its job, one could say, is to pluck the spines from the flesh and fruit of the Mexican cactus. Independent of the presidency, and the parliament, it is beholden to neither governments nor markets. It is the BBC of Mexican elections, which means that its role is much more than ensuring that elections are free and fair. Operating within the fields of tension generated by the slow-but-sure breakdown of one-party PRI rule, INE sees itself as having the mission of reminding all Mexicans that they are the owners of elections, that democracy is not for sale, and that therefore the privatisation of elections, for instance by dark money, party bribery, criminal violence and foreign intervention, is the enemy of citizens and the common good.

Two million supporters of López Obrador fill the Zócalo in Mexico City on July 20 2006. Daniel Aguilar/Reuters

The caudillo

Most impressive, and unusual by world standards, is INE’s employment of citizens, randomly selected on a rotational basis, as trained election monitors and counters of votes. Equally impressive is its Civic Culture (ENCCÍVICA) program. Its aim is to strengthen a civic culture of citizen participation, accountability of power and respect for human rights.

The overall aim of INE is to win public trust in elections, to overcome the disenchantment with democracy in a country where 70% of the population say that they have no influence on government and that politicians never listen to them. Under these conditions, INE functions inevitably as a political lightning rod, attracting more than its fair share of public abuse, much of it ignorant or undeserved, often in the form of sublimated pent-up grievances and frustrations linked to political party rivalries. INE’s work is daily assaulted by media shit storms and Twitter wars. And just over the horizon is the biggest coming challenge to its mission: the possible election to the presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

A controversial public figure who was formerly mayor of Mexico City, and who came within a whisker of winning the presidency in 2006, Obrador is the local populist outsider on the rise. Leader of the party known as the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) and currently front-runner in the polls, he specialises in lashing out against corruption and violence, which is curable, he once said, through “hugs not bullets” (“abrazos, no balazos”). He vows to reverse by means of a referendum the privatisation of Mexico’s oil resources, and says he wants a much tougher, “sovereign” Mexican foreign policy.

Manuel López Obrador (centre) marches with MORENA supporters in June 2016. Ginnette Riquelme/Reuters

For outsiders, López Obrador is a strange political animal: an economic nationalist, a supporter of low taxes, market competition and a welfare state, an opportunist, a man of the people, a caudillo who fancies himself as a great saviour and redeemer (Enrique Krauze) of the Mexican nation. On Twitter he rails against “the mafia of power”, which helps explain his habit of calling elections he loses “a farce”, as he did big time in 2006, when his supporters disputed the results for many months and went on to proclaim López Obrador as the “legitimate president”, crowning him head of a parallel government in a dramatic public ceremony, staged in the capital city’s main square, the Zócalo.

Whatever is thought of López Obrador, his track record and proposed policies, there’s no doubt his electoral magnetism stems in part from his frontal attacks on the establishment (la casta) and his political knack of stirring up a sense among citizens of the possibility that things can be different, that the ruling PRI-dominated regime can be felled. His victory next year would be highly significant, not just for Mexico, but for the whole region. It would signal an end to a presidency mired in corruption and a surveillance scandal.

López Obrador’s victory would be a victory for a new politics of apostolic zeal. It would be the final death knell of one-party dominance, at the highest level of state. It certainly would fuel deep tensions with the embattled Trump administration. But it may also turn out that López Obrador will not win, or that he will refuse to admit defeat, as he did in the recent governorship election in Estado de México. Whether he can attract voters to the polls and win sufficient support, or whether he will honestly and humbly acknowledge defeat, are among the life-and-death questions now facing the democracy of this beautiful land of cactus flowers and thorns.

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