MEXICO: BIOGRAPHY OF POWER: A History of Modern Mexico, 1810- 1996

MEXICO: BIOGRAPHY OF POWER: A History of Modern Mexico, 1810- 1996

T. R. Fehrenbach

By Enrique Krauze. Hank Heifetz, trans. HarperCollins. 704 pp. $35

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MEXICO: BIOGRAPHY OF POWER: A History of Modern Mexico, 1810-1996. By Enrique Krauze. Hank Heifetz, trans. HarperCollins. 704 pp. $35

Born in Mexico City in 1946, Krauze is a child of Tlatelolco—Mexico’s 1968 version of Tiananmen Square, in which hundreds of protesting students were gunned down by the regime. As editor of the prestigious journal Vuelta, Krauze represents the new breed of Mexican journalist: well educated (history and industrial engineering), with an incisive style and a loyal following among Mexico’s small intellectual readership, an audience increasingly restive over the nation’s painfully hesitant advance toward open government and democracy.

Despite its subtitle, this massive history (published in three volumes in Mexico) delves frequently into the Spanish conquest and the colonial era. Krauze’s approach is traditional in the sense of envisioning Mexican history as a struggle between liberals who would expunge a tyrannical past and continuistas who would restore it. That history is sacred scripture for Mexico’s intellectuals (with different versions sacralized at different times), as well as a drama continually being restaged: Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas reprises the role of Bartolomé de las Casas, protector of the Indians, and the insurgent leader in Chiapas, Subcommandante Marcos, assumes the mantle of the 1810 revolutionaries José María Morelos and Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.

Krauze’s Mexico is not one nation but a mosaic of societies, in which social and economic misery persists despite modernization, and which erupt periodically in fire and blood. The revolutions of Mexico are fraught with tragedy yet eventually come to signify nothing beyond the rise to power of a new strong man, or caudillo. The caudillos, or "men on horseback," dominate entire eras, from that of Santa Anna and Porfirio Díaz in the 19th century to that of the technocrats of today. Before 1940, Mexico’s strong men shot their way to power; they have since employed the modern methods of electoral fraud and patronage.

Mexico has long had constitutions, parties, councils, and congresses. Yet Krauze’s application of the term tlatoani (Nahuatl for "emperor") to the modern presidents rings dismayingly true. The Mexican president does not preside over a federal republic; he rules a centralized empire. He controls the budget, appoints judges, and makes all important state and municipal decisions. Each sexenio (six-year term) takes its character not from the nation’s political institutions but from the biases, quirks, even the psychopathologies, of the man in the high palace. And that man is elevated by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), not by the legislature or the people. The latter have no more say in the matter than the Roman Senate had in the choosing of its Caesars.

The value of this work, at least for American readers, lies in its incisive biographies of modern presidents since Miguel Alemán (1946–52). This history, both factual and gossipy, is little known north of the Río Bravo. Vividly alive even in translation, Krauze’s narrative may contain more detail than many readers can digest, but there is no understanding modern Mexico without a feeling for its past.

Captured by none of the ideological abstractions that typically hijack academic historians, Krauze illuminates both the glories and the follies of his nation’s past. Thus, he is believable when he states that since 1940 Mexico has been established "as a business and the business is power." When he discusses the prospects for reform within the PRI, there is something of Tacitus’s gloomy warning of the danger of concentrating power in the hands of one leader, whether it be a Caligula or a Trajan. Or even a Marcus Aurelius. The author sums up by saying the "country needs democracy" and all that goes with it, such as honest police and incorruptible courts, without which the economic reform that justifies much of the modern authoritarianism will be "fragile and endangered." Amen.

—T. R. Fehrenbach