How Juárez Came to be Mistaken for a Leftist

Mexican History: Readings From The Left

By Rodrigo Saldaña Guerrero
Guest Columnist from Mexico

Benito Juárez García was born in 1806. He became president in the midst of a civil war. What were his politics?

This champion of Mexican nationalism was in favor of U. S. intervention in Mexico. He confiscated Catholic Church estates that sustained many welfare activities, and sold them cheaply (he did not use them to strengthen the state, as his myth maintains). He terminated Indian communal property.

These interventions in Church and Indian affairs fostered the formation of the latifundies that made infamous the Porfirio Díaz regime and against which Emiliano Zapata fought in the next century.

He was a capitalist who believed that progress laid in making every Mexican a liberal Western person. He clung to power until his death, violating the law and using electoral fraud.

In other words, his politics were precisely the same of the much criticized Díaz. Díaz started a revolution with a No Reelection slogan, became president for four years, left the presidency in charge of a friend, and later reelected himself over and over until a revolution toppled him.

The revolution aborted and gave way to a civil war. The winner of this was Alvaro Obregón. He became president for four years, left the presidency in charge of a friend, then started reelecting himself. Then he was assassinated. In many ways, his career paralleled that of dictator Díaz. But he elected to build his power on a progressive rhetoric that, without being precisely socialistic, repudiated the laissez faire capitalism Juárez had sponsored.

Here the complications begin, because Obregón did not repudiate Juárez himself. Juárez became one of the civic saints of the patriotic myths on which Obregón and his successors built their regime. The capitalistic Juárez was presented as a leftist.

The system Obregón founded, perfected by Plutarco Elías Calles and, above all, by Lázaro Cárdenas Del Río, built on a large measure on the oppression of poor people, and which kept the people poor, was publicized as a center left party.

A political landscape was painted in which this system (which in time was known as PRI) was the only sensible choice between communist left and rightist PAN (this party was not rightist at the time, by the way, but official propaganda helped making it so).

The PRI system was deeply corrupt, and many of his people got richer at the expense of the poor, who suffered fierce repression whenever they tried to resist. It tried to cover up this situation with subsidies, debt and inflation, that future generations would have to pay for. Many intellectuals were generously paid for their part in this make up work, a part that included writing Mexican history in such a way that it would conform to the official rhetoric.

All this made a mess of the historical consciousness of the Mexican people. Juárez capitalism and PRI-ist corruption and oppression were successfully presented as left.

All this is only part of the story, of course. We have, for instance, the fascinating joining of men who were mortal enemies in one pantheon of heroes. But the point I want to emphasize is the mess the PRI version of Mexican history, mainly of the Juárez period and of the nature of the system itself, has caused in the ideological debates of the present. The insistence of many intellectuals in the validity of that version is like a virus that makes it very difficult to examine objectively a series of issues.

The enormous complexity of history is too often simplified for party purposes, sometimes causing a very serious distortion. The cure for this cultural illness is cultural health: making people aware of the true nature of historiography, and of the true history of the society they are interested in.

Mexican historiography has developed enormously in the last half century or so. For some strange reason, political debate has remained far behind it in its understanding of Mexican history. Intellectuals that should know better keep using old myths in their approach to present day issues.

The natural solution for this problem would be to dialogue about the history that lies at the bottom of that approach. There is, however, a vicious circle: the present day approach contaminates the understanding of history and prevents an objective look at it. I suggest showing these two trends in their interrelationship and inviting comments on this point.

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