A secret report commissioned by the Mexican government on Mexicos dirty war under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the 1970s has caused a major scandal after being leaked to the press. It accuses the military of carrying out a genocidal policy against suspected subversives in the south between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s.
Even taking into account a number of mitigating factors, especially the fact that President Vicente Fox, who commissioned the study, thinks the report does not give enough weight to the many abuses committed by the guerrillas during the 1970s, the information is potent enough to unmask (once again) the unmitigated fraud that was the PRI.
The exercise is not academic, of course: many killers remain at large, five hundred people are still missing, scores of families will probably never see justice done, and the PRI is still a major force in Mexican society. During my visit to Mexico last week, I had a chance to talk to some of the presidential candidates as well as a broad spectrum of intellectuals, business representatives, and journalists. The overall consensus is that the PRI will continue to wield colossal power through the state and local government structure as well as Congress, where it will command a solid bloc of votes. Even though Roberto Madrazo, the candidate of the party that ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century, is running third, he cannot be written off.
The most important truth contained in that report is one that it does not formulate directly: that most political power thrives on fraud. Of course, in more advanced democracies checks and balances limit the scope of the fraud and therefore its practical consequences. But even in countries with a measure of economic prosperity and a democratic tradition those checks are not nearly enough, so the lessons of the PRI era have universal relevance.
For decades, the PRI maintained the so-called Estrada Doctrine, a foreign policy named after a foreign minister from the 1920s and based on the principle of non-intervention. In theory, this meant: we dont care what you do in your own countries, so let us do as we please in ours. In practice, it meant: we will wink and nod at any subversive current or government that espouses Third World ideology, and even at domestic revolutionaries, whatever their crimes, as long as they do not actually promote revolution against us in Mexico. This translated into a connivance with all types of revolutionaries, giving many of them safe haven, supporting their causes at international forums, and providing huge subsidies to an intellectual class which was allowed to criticize the PRI mildly from time to time in return for the promise not to question the premise of one-party rule. This policy helped spread and legitimize the ideas that translated into violence and poverty throughout the Latin American region.
We knew, of course, that this policy did not, as the PRI hoped, inoculate Mexico against armed revolution. Several groups were active in the south in the 1960s and 1970s. And just as the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in the 1990s, the Chiapas rebellion broke out under the leadership of Marcos, that emblem of post-modern political chic. We also knew there had been some ugly episodes of government repression of student demonstrations. What we did not know until this report came out, was that the revolutionary fervor actually masked whatby the PRIs own standardscan only be called a fascist or extreme right-wing policy of genocide, obliterating entire villages and killing scores of innocent victims.
The PRI obviously understood the times. So long as it maintained a corrupt aid to revolutionaries inside and outside Mexico and an inflamed anti-imperialist rhetoric, it had carte blanche from all sorts of intellectuals, civil society movements and human-rights groups to practice a systematic negation of everything the PRI, a supposed progressive animal, stood for. It is difficult to remember this nowadays, of course, because the left broke with the PRI in the 1990s, when, in one of its many opportunistic turns, that party espoused globalization and began to (somewhat) open up the economy. But the story of the PRI up to that point is the story of ideological and political fraud on a colossal scale in the interest of power.
Mexicans would do well to remember this when they go to the polls in July and non-Mexicans should take notice of this new reminder that, even in the hands of governments we might feel inclined to support, the state can sometimes be, in Nietzsches words, the coldest of all cold monsters.