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Mexico - Introduction
CULTURALLY, POLITICALLY, AND ECONOMICALLY, Mexico is a nation undergoing rapid change. A study of past characterizations of Mexico would portray the country as rural, undemocratic, and protectionist. A study of modern Mexico would present a country that is urban, opening to democracy, and market-oriented. Mexico has undergone rapid urbanization; Mexico City is now one of the world's largest cities. Throughout most of its history, Mexico has been ruled by strongmen or a one-party system but pressures for an open democracy are now greater than ever. Under the presidencies of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94) and Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León (1994- ), the economy dramatically embraced open-market policies and free-trade links with the United States, Canada and countries throughout the Americas.
Mexico's history is long. Although the timing of the arrival of the first inhabitants to the Spanish Americas has been a point of major controversy among archaeologists, recent archaeological findings indicate that tribes from northeast Asia walked across what is now the Bering Straits perhaps as early as 35,000 years ago. These peoples gradually moved south, populating the entire Americas over the next several thousand years.
In the area of present-day Mexico, the earliest settlers found a rugged and varied topography with only limited areas suited for human habitation. Viewed from space, modern Mexico roughly resembles a cornucopia, wide at the top but narrowing and curving to the east as it stretches southward. At the southern tip of the "cornucopia," the rectangular Yucatan Peninsula, described by some as a thumb, extends northward into the Caribbean Sea. Another discongruous piece of land, the Baja California Peninsula, is a long sliver of land offshore and paralleling the northwest coast.
The land itself is characterized by a roughly Y-shaped series of mountain ranges. The two forks of the Y are rugged ranges that parallel the northern parts of the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts. The base of the Y is a spine of mountains, with occasional breaks, that extends from central Mexico into Guatemala on the south. The center of the Y is a knot of active volcanoes in the center of the country, just south of Mexico City. Between the two northern ranges lies a high arid plateau, and the small coastal plains outside these mountain ranges are tropical rain forests. The Yucatan Peninsula is a flat humid jungle, and the Baja California Peninsula is a desert with yet another low mountain range running down its center.
Although most of the land has warm temperatures year round, lack of rainfall and rugged terrain were obstacles for the early inhabitants. Only the narrow coastal plains, the Yucatan Peninsula, and a few valleys in the southern area of the central plateau or in the volcanic central regions receive reliable rainfall for crops. Despite these constrictions, evidence indicates that between 7000 B.C. and 2000 B.C., corn had been domesticated, and agricultural villages had sprung up. By 1500 B.C., the Olmec, the first of a string of civilizations in Middle America, flourished.
The next three millennia would see a series of civilizations, each built on some of the advancements and traditions of its predecessors. After the Olmec in what is now called the Classic Period (0-A.D. 700), the Teotihuacán, Veracruz, and Monte Albán cultures built large ceremonial cities in south-central and eastern Mexico. From A.D. 700 to A.D. 900 in the Yucatan, the classic phase of the Maya civilization, considered by most archaeologists to be the most advanced pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas, was at its zenith. After A.D. 900, the center of power and culture shifted to the Valley of Mexico, site of present-day Mexico City, with the development of the Toltec and finally the Aztec empires.
The destruction of the Aztec Empire by the Spanish conquistadors in 1519 was one of the most decisive events in Mexican history. Aided by superior firepower and technology, and carrying deadly diseases for which the native inhabitants had no immunity, a band of several hundred European soldiers of fortune overran an empire of millions of inhabitants. In one of history's greatest epic stories, one which still reverberates in the Mexican psyche of today, a great civilization was virtually wiped out and replaced by an alien culture and political system. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán was leveled, and atop the ruins the Spanish built Mexico City, capital of half of their vast colonial empire in the New World.
Fueled by its rich silver mines, a new colonial society emerged stratified by race and wealth. The upper echelon was European, in the middle were people of mixed European-indigenous heritage, and at the bottom were the descendants of the native peoples who had survived the European onslaught of the 1500s. The Roman Catholic Church was omnipresent in all aspects of society, religion, and education. The colony was ruled by a viceroy appointed by the king of Spain.
Troubled by turmoil in Europe and influenced by the liberal ideas of French and American philosophers and the French and American revolutions, voices in Mexico began agitating for independence in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The formal break began with a proclamation by Father Miguel Hidalgo on September 16, 1810. The struggle for independence was long and fitful, however, and freedom from Spain was not finally realized until 1821.
Despite hopes that independence would bring political and economic change for the nation's masses, in reality the only change was in the country's ruler. For the next several decades, various strongmen held power. A disastrous war in 1848 resulted in the country ceding more than half its territory to the United States. A civil war in the late 1850s set the stage for a brief democratic interlude under President Benito Juárez, a French occupation and the establishment of an empire under Maximilian I, and finally the beginning of a dictatorship in 1871 under Porfirio Díaz that would last four decades.
Historians' view of the Porfiriato, as the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz is called, is a schizophrenic one. On the one hand, the dictator opened the country to development, building a modern system of railroads, roads, factories, and schools. On the other hand (and this is the view stressed in Mexico's version of its history), the wealth generated by this period of political stability and increased trade was concentrated in a small upper class while the condition of the lower classes degenerated. Indigenous traditions or associations were totally rejected while European fashion and mores were slavishly imitated.
In 1910 the pent-up resentment of the lower classes coincided with the political disaffection of middle-class intellectuals, producing the series of violent political convulsions known as the Mexican Revolution. Rebel groups sprang up across the nation, and Díaz resigned. Instead of uniting, however, the rebel groups soon turned on each other. Various men, supported by one of the rebel factions or remnants of the former central government, held the presidency in rapid succession as fighting swept back and forth over the country. Although they disagreed over who should run the country, the leaders of the Revolution were united in their calls for social justice, land reform, and a new sense of nationalism based on Mexico's indigenous heritage. When the fighting finally ended in 1920, the ideals that they evoked defined the new Mexican nation that emerged.
The constitution of 1917, still in effect, established the present-day framework of Mexican politics. A strong president with a six-year term, a relatively weak legislature dominated by the party of the Revolution, and a nominally independent judiciary were all established. The Roman Catholic Church was stripped of most of its properties and formal power. Much of the land was taken from large landowners and organized into ejidos (see Glossary), or communes, for peasants to work. Heavily influenced by foreign liberal and leftist ideas and born of a popular revolution against oppression, the constitution had a decided revolutionary cast. The National Revolutionary Party (Partido Nacional Revolucionario--PNR) was formed in 1929 to successfully carry out the constitution's goals (the party later added the adjective "institutional" to indicate the consolidation of the redistribution phase of the revolutionary program--Partido Revolucionario Institucional--PRI).
The extent to which post-revolutionary administrations have implemented revolutionary ideals has been a benchmark by which Mexican historians have generally judged these administrations. Administrations in the 1920s and 1930s adhered to these goals more faithfully, the most significant act during these years being the nationalization of the petroleum industry. Post-1940 governments, however, seemed more concerned with political stability and economic growth than with land reform or new social programs.
The Revolution also had a profound effect
on the role of the military. Formerly one of the largest and most influential
players in Mexican politics, the armed forces were reduced in size after
1920 and their role redefined as one of guaranteeing domestic political
stability. Quelling social unrest and eliminating guerrilla activity became
their primary duties. As "servants of the people," units were
more likely to be involved in development-oriented civic action than in
training to defend the country from foreign intervention.
Economic growth was probably the most significant
legacy of the PRI in the mid-twentieth century. From 1940 to 1980, growth
was rapid and sustained. The nation's vast mineral wealth was exploited.
Petroleum reserves, estimated to be among the largest in the world, were
used by the government to develop new petrochemical industries. Agriculture
diversified and expanded, and government planners gave particular emphasis
to the development of new crops for export. The industrial sector accounted
for an ever larger share of the economy, and maquiladoras
( see Glossary), or assembly plants along the
United States border, grew exponentially. By 1980 Mexico was the world's
fifteenth largest industrial nation.
Perhaps the single most important catalyst for the transformation of recent Mexican economic policy was the Salinas administration's ambitious goal of participating as a full partner in the emerging North American free-trade zone begun by Canada and the United States in the early 1990s. President Salinas and his advisers viewed Mexico's integration into the world trading system as the only viable basis for their country's future long-term growth. Bowing to geographic reality, Salinas discarded decades of protectionist and nationalistic practices by past Mexican governments to forge a close and lasting economic and political partnership with the United States. The objective was nothing less than Mexico's full incorporation into the emerging North American financial and trading bloc. In 1991 Mexico began negotiations with Canada and the United States on the terms of a trilateral free-trade treaty, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
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