Most Americans have an image of Mexico as a nation convulsed by violent drug wars and sending hundreds of thousands of desperate immigrants across our southern border.
That image is out of date. The drug war has largely quieted down and scarcely affects most of the country while, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, net migration from Mexico to the United States since 2007 has fallen to zero.
What has been happening in Mexico recently is far more encouraging: the culmination of reforms that have been in train, but have been frustratingly delayed, for the last 25 years.
Some historical background is in order. For 71 years, Mexican politics and government was totally dominated by the paradoxically named Party of the Institutional Revolution, which held the presidency and virtually all governorships from 1929 to 2000.
Under the PRI system, presidents served one six-year term, and in their last years – usually a time of catastrophes — chose their successors, who paraded around the country and were elected without difficulty.
Once in office, the new president blamed all his problems on his predecessor, who often left the country. This system suited the sensibility of a nation whose culture is still at least partly Aztec: It combined elements of calendrical regularity, elaborate ceremony, and human sacrifice.
This system worked tolerably well for 30-some years. But as time went on, it produced widespread corruption, periodic currency devaluations, and massive outmigration. Mexico seemed to be falling further behind the U.S.
Reform began when the Machiavellian President Carlos Salinas, elected in 1988, started opening up its political process and was joined by Texans George H. W. Bush and Lloyd Bentsen in pushing successfully for the North American Free Trade Agreement. With support from Bill Clinton, Congress approved NAFTA in 1993.
Mexico reformed its electoral process in the 1990s, with key verification from exit-poll pioneer Warren Mitofsky. PRI lost its congressional majorities in 1997, and in 2000, Vicente Fox of the center-right PAN party was elected president over the candidates of the PRI and the leftist PRD. In 2006, Fox was succeeded by the PAN’s Felipe Calderon.
But Fox and Calderon were unable to reform Mexico’s government-owned oil company, Pemex, or its dysfunctional union-dominated education system because of united congressional opposition by the PRI and PRD.
And they got sidetracked on other issues — Fox in responding to Zapatista protests, Calderon in waging war (with the army) on the drug lords.
In July 2012, Mexicans returned PRI to power with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto. He looked like a conventional politician: governor of the state that includes most Mexico City suburbs, movie-star handsome, a widower who was wooing a telenovela star.