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  January 2, 2018

Just How Democratic Is Mexico?

As neoliberalism caused greater inequality and more poverty in Mexico ever since the 1990's, the country's leaders stifled press freedom and democratic rights in order to maintain power. Now Mexico has one of the world's highest murder rates of journalists explains CEPR's Mark Weisbrot
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G. WILPERT: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. 12 journalists have been murdered in Mexico in 2017. Over 100 journalists have been murdered in the past 10 years. This is according to a report from the press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders. They add that this statistic makes Mexico and Syria the two world's most dangerous places to practice journalism. This grim statistic, which has to do with freedom of the press, also raises the question of: Just how democratic is Mexico, anyway?

Until the year 2000, it was generally assumed that Mexico was a limited democracy, where the institutional revolutionary party, or PRI, governed Mexico uninterruptedly for 70 years. Then, in 2000, the PRI lost power for the first time, electing Vicente Fox as president of the conservative national action party. Did Mexico actually become more democratic after 2000? Joining me to take a closer look at this question is Mark Weisbrot. Mark is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and is author of the book, 'Failed: What the Experts Got Wrong About the Global Economy.' He joins us from Washington, DC. Thanks for being here again, Mark.

M. WEISBROT: Thanks, Gregory.

G. WILPERT: Earlier this year, another press freedom group, Article 19, also published a report in which they calculated that the murders of journalists in Mexico are unpunished 99.7% of the time. This implies a tremendous amount of Mexican government complicity in the murders of journalists. Why would the Mexican government be so complicit in the assassination of journalists? What do you see as being the underlying cause of this phenomena?

M. WEISBROT: Yes, well, I think it's partly because they don't really have a democratic system, and so this is one way in which they remain in power. It's not like a dictatorship where you're really arrested automatically if you criticize the government or something, but you have such a violence breakdown of the rule of law. You have, of course, the drug cartels, but the overlap between them in the government is quite a bit. So for example the New York Times reported that in most of those hundred journalist killings that you mentioned, the government was implicated even if the actual people who pulled the trigger might have been members of organized crime.

This is the situation you have, and it isn't just the violence. The main way, I think, in which they control the media was just reported on a few days ago. Again, the New York Times did an article where they showed that the government has spent over $2 billion bribing journalists, essentially, and news organizations by buying advertising, and making a condition of that advertising that they provide favorable coverage of the government, so this is not really free or independent media. Then, they also have a massive spying program on the journalists as well that was revealed. That's just one part of it. Again, there are other parts ... There are other forms of repression. There is the 43 students that were disappeared and murdered with a lot of state involvement in 2014 in Iguala in the state of Guerrero, and that of course, put the spotlight briefly on Mexico internationally, but most of the time it is treated, especially by the United States, as though it were a democracy.

G. WILPERT: I'm wondering why would ... If we establish that there is a lack of democracy, why did it look like Mexico would become more democratic back in 2000, and then it didn't? What is the underlying reason for this lack of democracy, would you say?

M. WEISBROT: Well, I think a lot of it has to do with the long-term economic failure of the country. From 1960 to '80, and you could include the '50s in there too, Mexico, even under the ... It was under the PRI, the economy grew. Basically the income of the average person doubled in those 20 years, and then it went into a long decline. The '80s was the lost decade as in most of Latin America, but very bad negative income growth per person, and then you have NAFTA in 1994, which consolidate these neoliberal economic reforms that were made in the '80s that were part of this terrible decline.

If you look at the economy since NAFTA, it's done pretty badly. In the last 23 years, Mexico came in about 15 out of 20 Latin American countries in terms of just economic growth per person, and poverty ... The national poverty rate is the same or a little bit worse today than it was 23 years ago. Real wages have barely risen. A lot of people have gotten very rich at the top, and so you have a real economic failure that people can feel after a really long time, and five million farmers, small farmers were driven off their land after NAFTA, and that provoked a flood of ... a surge of emigration to the U.S. from 1994 to 2000, and so these are the kind of things that would lead to ... In other countries, it did lead ... In fact, in a whole number of countries, in Bolivia and Ecuador and Argentina and Brazil, in the 21st century, it did really lead to a sharp change in government, and a sharp improvement in living standards and reduction in poverty in most of those countries.

It didn't happen in Mexico because they couldn't really win an election. The election was stolen when the left won in 1988. That's pretty much recognized even by the media here, and then in 2006, you had that very dubious election where Andrés Manuel López Obrador was defeated by a very small margin, about 0.6 percent of the vote, and there were a lot of doubts about that.

G. WILPERT: That's something I wanted to get into, because in 2000 was when Vicente Fox got elected, and he contributed to this neoliberal program, and then in 2006, as you mentioned, was the next big opening for anti-neoliberal program ... let's call it that for now ... with Manuel López Obrador to get elected. It looked like he was going to, and you said that he lost by a narrow margin. What happened there exactly? Just give us a quick summary of what happened.

M. WEISBROT: Well, the problem is we don't really know what happened, because the vote count was so unreliable. For example, at the time we looked at it in 2006, and if you look at all the polling stations, they start out with a certain number of blank ballots, and then people vote, and at the end of the vote, they count the votes that were actually cast, and they count the blank ballots that are left over, and those are supposed to add up to the ones they started out with, and for almost half the polling places in the country, it didn't add up. You can imagine, you really don't know who won that election, and hundreds of thousands of people took to the street, and the government actually did a partial recount, about 9 percent of the votes, but they never released the results of that. We went back and looked at that later and found that did ... That was significantly different from the overall count. Again, we really don't know who won, but a lot of people don't believe it.

Of course, if you look at the media advantage that the government had in that election, that was very clearly decisive, and there was even an academic paper that analyzed that and showed that.

G. WILPERT: Actually, that brings me to the next topic. We're coming up now ... 2018 is another presidential election year. It looks like Manuel López Obrador right now is one of the ... He's running again, and is one of the most popular candidates at the moment, and we were talking earlier about the murder of journalists. What can you say about the media coverage this time around? Is there any reason to expect that Manuel López Obrador will have better chances this time around?

M. WEISBROT: Well, I think he has a better chance. First of all, he has a big lead, and of course, if the election were held today, he's way out front. But I think also there's other reasons, I think he has a better chance is the social media, which is interesting, because the social media in most all the countries that I'm familiar with in Latin America, the right has a very large advantage, but in Mexico, he actually has some advantage in social media because he has a pretty strong base in the middle classes as well. I think that will help, but there's going to have to be an awful lot of vigilance and attention paid to it. You can see what just happened in Honduras, which we've talked about quite a bit where it's pretty clear that that government stole the election. Much clearer than even Mexico in 2006, and you see what happens. The OAS says that you have a new election, and the U.S. and using Mexico as an ally says, "No, we'll just accept it."

It's going to take a lot of pressure, both internally and externally to get a clean enough election where people will have a choice, a real choice.

G. WILPERT: Now, President Trump keeps talking about how Mexico is ripping the U.S. off with NAFTA, and it's sending its immigrants across the border, etc., etc. This makes it sound like there's a lot of hostility between Mexico and the U.S. Do you think that this is true, and if so, wouldn't this be reflected in calls for greater democracy in Mexico? What is the Trump administration doing with regard to Mexico?

M. WEISBROT: Yeah, well, it's interesting, because obviously there has been a lot of hostility provoked by the things that Trump has said, and the overall population doesn't like him very much, as you can imagine, but if you look at the cooperation between the two governments, for example, in this Honduran election, Mexico was the first one out of the box to say, "Yeah, we recognize this. Congratulations to Juan Orlando Hernández who was claiming victory in the election, and probably, as I said, almost certainly stole it.

When I say almost certainly, I want to emphasize too, you can look at this statistically. The probability of what happened in that election, the shift in the vote count that happened after they stopped reporting the results, and then started again, is really statistically ... It's one in trillions, trillions of trillions, actually, of that happening if it was just randomly reporting the order of those tally sheets. In any case, this is the kind of thing that the ... It's going to be very hard to avoid in the future, and here's Mexico saying that we congratulate the winner of this election, and then the Trump administration then says, "Oh, and since Mexico recognized this election and congratulated the winner, then we should too." They actually used that even though, according to Reuters, they coordinated the Mexican statement to begin with.

There you have it. They have this cooperation, which is the most important thing, of course, to the United States in terms of Mexico, more than the neoliberal reforms even, is this collaboration in the U.S. foreign policy in the region, which is mainly to get governments that they can control. That's going to be their strategy, I'm sure, in ... Washington's strategy in 2018, in July.

G. WILPERT: Just to make a quick comparison, the other country that's been in the news a lot besides Honduras is Venezuela, which is governed by a leftist government. It's constantly being accused of being a dictatorship. I'm just wondering how do you think Mexico and the issues around democracy compare between Mexico and Venezuela?

M. WEISBROT: Well, it's a fair comparison. I think there are ... There's been a deterioration of the rule of law in both countries, but I think in Mexico, for example, it's vastly more dangerous to be a journalist. There's been no reports of government in Venezuela in the last 18 years being implicated in the assassination of a journalist. That's a huge difference. The same is true, it's much more dangerous to be a human rights defender in Mexico, and even a political opponent of the government. Again, there are violations of the rule of law in both countries, but they're different, and I would say the Mexican violations are vastly more violent.

G. WILPERT: Okay. We'll leave it there for now. I was speaking to Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Thanks again, Mark, for having joined us today.

M. WEISBROT: Thank you.

G. WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network. If you like our news and analysis, please don't forget to donate to The Real News this holiday season.


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