The Politics of Reconciliation in Mexico

Ya, ya, ya…hoy, hoy, hoy!” the delirious Mexico City crowd chanted while it filled Reforma Boulevard, partying into the night. “Now, now, now…today, today, today!”

Mexico just elected a new president. But not the same old “new” president. For the first time since 1929, the ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), went down in defeat. Most observers thought that—by fraud or, if necessary, force—it could pull one more win out of its hat. Not this time.

The creation of the triumphant chieftains of the Mexican revolution (1910-1920), the PRI existed to manage, not compete in, elections to keep the “revolutionary family” firmly in power. Along with the all-powerful Mexican president, the party exercised a Leviathan-like control over Mexican society in a sort of liberal dictatorship. Most things were permitted—as any visitor to Tijuana could tell you—except real challenges to political authority. The party exulted in myths, such as the nobility of the revolution, the perfidy of the United States, and the glory of the pre-Christian, Aztec empire. But seven decades of power left the PRI worn down by scandal, cynicism, and mismanagement. By the July 2 vote, even its extensive political machine could no longer salvage victory.

After President Ernesto Zedillo announced his victory, Vicente Fox, the tall, mustachioed business executive from Guanajuato State, addressed the admiring throngs, reveling in the triumph that had been in his sights for almost a decade. Few Mexicans, including those of his own National Action Party (PAN), had given him much of a chance. Still, he had convinced nearly 43 percent that he could oust the PRI. Now Mexican politics would be changed forever.

The defeat of Mexico’s “revolutionary” government by Fox and the PAN means more than just the displacement of one ruling clique for another. More profoundly, Fox’s stunning victory closes the book on a persistent religious conflict that had dogged Mexico since its independence in 1821. This election represents the end of a long conversion process, a reconciliation between Mexico’s Catholic and revolutionary political traditions. It heralds the return of Catholics to the Mexican public square.

Toppling Throne and Altar

The tragedy of Mexican politics after independence is that the authority of throne and altar was overturned with no adequate political formula to fill the void. The man who secured the country’s independence, Agustin de Iturbide, aimed to guarantee the privileges of the Catholic Church in Mexico and even to establish a new royal dynasty and aristocracy, the Order of Guadalupe. Under republican pressure, his monarchical project fell apart quickly, and, after returning from exile, he faced a firing squad. Thus, the man who gave Mexico its independence, and its tricolor national flag, died a traitor’s death in his nation’s official history. Only one statue remains for him today—in Catholic Guanajuato.

By contrast, the outstanding politician of the mid-19th century, the black-clad Benito Juarez, tried to establish a liberal, constitutional order without religious influence. The constitution that he and his fellow liberals passed in 1857 scaled back dramatically the Church’s wealth and privilege in society. Pius IX condemned it, leading to a severing of diplomatic relations between Mexico City and the Holy See. Civil war between liberals and conservatives quickly erupted.

Napoleon III, with dreams of regaining a new world empire, intervened militarily and imposed Maximilian of Hapsburg as the new ruler of Mexico. Seeing an opportunity to restore her lost position, the Church allied herself with Maximilian and the French, and the liberals fled into the hinterlands. When the geopolitical situation turned and the French Army withdrew, Juarez and the liberal forces triumphed. Maximilian was shot. Catholic conservatives were scattered and the Church discredited.

Meanwhile, Pius IX fled Rome before Garibaldi’s forces and issued a decree that Italian Catholics should abstain from participation in the nationalist Italian government. According to the historian Jaime Adame Goddard, Mexican Catholics also took this message to heart and withdrew from politics. Statues to Juarez sprung up everywhere. And so, one of the world’s most Catholic countries became dominated for decades by one of the world’s most radically secularist political elites.

Revolution and Reaction

Mexican Catholics regrouped after 1891, when Leo XIII issued the great encyclical Rerum Novarum. This was the intellectual guide they craved. With the guidance of Bernardo Bergoend, S.J., a talented organizer, they started study circles to grapple with the labor and social problems under the liberal government—by now, a dictatorship—of Porfirio Diaz. Unions likewise formed with a Catholic inspiration. Meanwhile, the Church was slowly recouping her past losses of schools and property. Catholics began asserting themselves in ways disturbing to liberal ideologues.

By 1910, a new crop of liberals, led by Francisco Madero, successfully revolted to restore lost political liberties. A National Catholic Party organized hastily and elected governors and federal deputies. This new party defended Catholic values but dropped the old conservative goal of uniting church and state. But when Madero’s government collapsed under pressure from General Huerta, the Catholic Party divided: Some joined Huerta’s cabinet, others stood in stout opposition. A wave of revolutionaries, descendents of the 19th-century liberals but more anticlerical by far, deposed Huerta and vented their anger against the party and the Church. Churches were sacked, priests set on the run.

The revolutionaries drafted their own constitution in 1917—the first “socialist” constitution of the 20th century, they boasted—and imposed a series of anticlerical strictures. The Church essentially lost her legal standing and property, with even church buildings owned by the government. Priests had to register; foreign priests had to leave. Parochial education, outdoor religious displays, religious garb in public—all forbidden. In short, the entire existence of the Catholic Church remained at the whim of the state. Talk about your “naked public square.”

Initially, the first revolutionary governments ignored enforcement. They had their own problems with putsch attempts by disgruntled revolutionary veterans. But in 1924, a new president, bent on upholding the letter of the law, took over: Plutarco Calles. A series of challenges and counterchallenges ensued, as Catholics held public ceremonies to consecrate Mexico to Christ the King, and the government expelled priests and used loyal unions to attack churches and demonstrators.

By 1926, Catholic peasants, offended by Mexico City’s suppression of their traditions, took up arms. These rebels, derisively known as cristeros from their battle cry “Viva Cristo Rey,” held government troops at bay for three years. According to historian Jean Meyer, the leading authority on the revolt, the war resulted in more than 100,000 casualties and threatened to topple the shaky revolutionary government.

Extensive Catholic networks kept the cristeros in the field. In Jalisco, the Vendee of the Mexican Revolution, one such group was the Popular Union, a secret society run by Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, who was shot by Calles’s police shortly after hostilities began. Another organization, the National League in Defense of Religious Liberty, reached out to Catholics abroad for help, even soliciting funds from Catholic oilman William F. Buckley. However, these groups failed to enlist support in the cities and develop a clear objective for the fighting.

Both sides committed atrocities. The most famous Catholic victim was the Jesuit priest Miguel Pro, shot without trial after being accused of an assassination attempt on the one-armed General Alvaro Obregon. Shortly thereafter, Obregon became the most famous revolutionary victim, gunned down before assuming the presidency by a cristero fanatic. Ironically, many believed that Obregon, a pragmatist, sought peace. Quite a few revolutionaries and Catholics thought Calles himself had arranged the hit.

Despite the participation of many priests—one earned the moniker “Pancho Villa in a Cassock”—few top churchmen supported the revolt. In 1929 Bishop Pascual Diaz, with the blessing of the pope, conducted negotiations with Calles and U.S. ambassador Dwight Morrow to end the hostilities. The churches, closed down since 1926, opened up again. Although no cristero participated in the discussions, they obediently put down their arms. Soon thereafter, the scattered fighters were hunted down and killed by government troops.

In part, the cristero revolt and Obregon’s death convinced Calles that without an extensive political organization, effective rule was impossible. He announced the formation of the National Revolutionary Party in 1928 to ensure orderly presidential succession and the just distribution of governmental spoils. The new party ran its first presidential candidate in 1929 and, after abundant cheating and some judicious killing, took office. Thus began the political dynasty later known as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The Catholic Underground

As archbishop of Mexico City, Pascual Diaz decided that, after 20 years of devastation, the Mexican Church needed to rebuild herself. He instituted Catholic Action to restart the reevangelization process. Meanwhile, for some Catholics, the battle against the revolutionaries went underground.

Enterprising cristero veterans in the early 1930s organized a secret society known as the Legion, which soon operated cells throughout the country. Its avowed purpose was to launch a coup against the government—in the fullness of time. After learning of this plot, Archbishop Diaz successfully maneuvered it under the control of Jesuits in Mexico City. The new organization, now called the Base, would organize Catholics by class and profession as counterweights to the official, revolutionary sectors of the state party. Members of the Base achieved moderate success thwarting the worst abuses of the revolutionary government’s radical left. Notably, in Tabasco—the totalitarian-run state of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory—a Base leader named Salvador Abascal and his followers successfully defended the Church against the persecutions of Tomas Garrido Canabal and his Communist-inspired Red Shirts.

The sinarquistas, the most noteworthy organization of the Base, burst out of Guanajuato in 1937. Directed by a secret high command, this tradition-minded Catholic peasant organization protested the socialist and land-distribution policies of the next great revolutionary president, Lazaro Cardenas. Operating like a 1930s mass movement, the sinarquistas marched in ranks and held torchlight rallies. But they scorned political parties and democracy on principle and offered no realistic plan of government. By the 1940s, internal bickering, a disastrous plan to colonize the desert, and the growing moderation of revolutionary governments sapped the movement’s strength.

Stirring Souls

The PAN, a sister movement of the sinarquistas, was founded in 1939 to bring Catholics and moderate liberals back into the public square. Its prime mover was Manuel Gomez Morin, a lawyer and banker who served in the revolutionary governments during the 1920s but who grew disgusted by the revolutionaries’ thuggish ways and betrayed ideals. He learned a valuable lesson from the opposition’s defeat in 1929: A permanent party was needed to engage in civic education, compete in elections, and build for the future. Gomez Morin used to borrow a phrase from Charles Pegúy—”Hay que mover las almas,” that is, “Souls must be stirred”—to explain that organization was not enough. To achieve democracy, Mexico needed a genuine conversion experience.

A Catholic but no religious militant, Gomez Morín tapped into Catholic organizations to man his party’s battlements. Catholic student leaders from his days as National University rector answered his call. He also recruited Efráin González Luna of Jalisco, a follower of Anacleto González Flores but one who rejected the cristero way. With his intellectual abilities—he developed a friendship with Jacques Maritain—Gonzalez Luna helped craft the new party’s ideology as a reflection of Catholic social doctrine. Based on its respect for subsidiarity, the party defended federalism, private property, the free market, religious education, and, most important, political democracy. González Luna became the PAN’s first presidential candidate in 1952, gaining 7 percent of the official vote.

Significantly, the PAN was the only major Catholic organization founded strictly by lay people. Thereby, it defended itself against the charge that it was under Church control. Unlike the cristeros, sinarquistas, and Catholic secret societies, the PAN defended the 1917 constitution and many of the revolution’s social principles and focused its attack on abuses of the system and human rights violations of some of the laws. The PAN demonstrated Catholic accommodation to Mexico’s political realities.

Progress for the PAN was very slow. One problem that impeded its growth was the changing PRI. When, in the 1940s, President Avila Camacho declared, “I’m a believer,” it was taken as a sign that the party would keep the peace. Besides, under Archbishop Luis Maria Martinez, the battle-weary Church was eager to accommodate. And a more friendly business environment limited the PAN’s appeal. With few electoral victories to show for its efforts—the PRI only permitted an occasional win of a municipality or federal deputy seat—the panistas had little more than ideology to sustain themselves during their wilderness years.

Crossing the Threshold

The PAN’s fortunes began to change by the 1970s. The radical rhetoric of President Luis Echeverria convinced many in the business community that the PAN might represent a good outlet for protest. An influx of neopanistas, many associated with COPARMEX, a business-owners association that reflected Catholic social concerns, helped enliven interest in the party. The neopanistas clashed with the party’s traditional-minded old guard, who, over the years, had grown distrustful of the free market and comfortable with la brega de eternidad—”the eternal struggle” against the PRI. As one businessman and PAN veteran told me, “We no longer wanted an ‘eternal struggle.’ We wanted to take power.”

John Paul II’s first trip to Mexico in 1979 drew hundreds of thousands. President Lopez Portillo met him at the airport—officially speaking, he arrived on other business— and later paid the fine the pontiff accrued for wearing clerical garb in public. But the visit’s overwhelming response demonstrated convincingly that the Mexican public, after decades of anticlerical propaganda, hadn’t been swayed in the least. It foreshadowed things to come.

The debt crisis of 1982 forced President de la Madrid to recognize opposition victories as an escape valve, and the PAN surprised everyone by winning several important northern cities. Off came the kid gloves. A series of state elections during the 1980s ended with blatant electoral fraud. The most egregious occurred in Chihuahua, where a Catholic charismatic named Francisco Barrio contended for the governorship. Interior Secretary Manuel Bartlett identified the PAN with the revolution’s traditional enemies, “business, the Church, and the United States,” and justified stealing the election as “patriotic fraud.” The state’s bishops ordered churches closed for a time, reminiscent of the 1920s.

Meanwhile, Manuel J. Clouthier rose to prominence in the PAN. A businessman and leader of the Christian Family Movment, Clouthier overcame the opposition of party traditionalists and seemed poised to make a serious challenge to the PRI in the 1988 election. Brash, corpulent, and bearded—the trademark of his fellow panista “northern barbarians”—Clouthier popularized within the party civil disobedience tactics borrowed from the protests against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. As some young panistas related to me, Clouthier succeeded in drawing many of Mexico’s “Catholic tribes” to the PAN’s banner, such as sinarquistas, many of whom had grown to prefer the PRI over the PAN “eggheads” and “city slickers.”

When it looked like the sitting president would select reformer Carlos Salinas as the PRI’s presidential candidate in 1988, part of the ruling party’s left wing broke away and ran its own candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. As son of the ex-president, Cardenas had instant appeal. Many panistas saw this rupture as a clever PRI ruse to divide the opposition. Clouthier accounted for himself well and drew enormous crowds to his rallies but managed only about 18 percent of the fraud-infested vote.

Clouthier died in an auto wreck in October 1989 on the way to a PAN rally. In a less-conflicted country, it probably would be accepted as a simple highway fatality. But in Mexico, “nine out of ten panistas,” as one party leader reckoned, still believe he was assassinated by the regime.

Because of the fraud, Salinas entered office with no legitimacy but with big plans. Immediately after taking office, he struck a compromise with the PAN: He would eliminate the anticlerical articles to the constitution and recognize their electoral wins in exchange for their vital support in Congress on issues like NAFTA. The PAN seized the opportunity. Salinas sealed the deal by recognizing the PAN’s gubernatorial victory in Baja California, the first governorship for an opposition party since the revolution.

Few believed that Salinas could remove the politically sensitive anticlerical articles. Tellingly, the interior secretary promised the party faithful that they were not betraying the principles of Juarez. But under Salinas’s leadership, the PRI went along. By 1991, Mexico sent its first ambassador to the Holy See since 1857. By 1992, the Church had legal recognition again. The changes passed overwhelmingly, with only a few leftist deputies shouting, “Viva Benito Juárez!”

Salinas would also use the Church to his own advantage. The visit by Pope John Paul in 1990 provided a great backdrop for the announcement of his own Solidaridad public works campaign. As one Catholic labor activist told me, Salinas was trying to capitalize on the international fame of the Polish Catholic trade union movement, Solidarity. Now even the PRI was acknowledging the signs of the times.

Death Comes to the Cardinal

Violence punctuated the last year of Salinas’s six-year term. In 1993, Juan Jesus Cardinal Posada, Salinas’s crucial ally in crafting the anticlerical constitutional reforms, died in a hail of gunfire in Guadalajara, supposedly the unintended victim of a narcotics hit squad. The official explanation aroused nothing but contempt; the cardinal’s killers fired from a few feet away. The Mexican Church and many panistas still insist that the case of the killing should remain open. Was the murder revenge by ruling-party hard-liners for the reforms?

Ten months later, Salinas’s handpicked successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, perished from two bullet wounds while on the campaign trail in Tijuana. Officially, it was the work of a lone gunman, but few Mexicans believe it. Colosio headed the PRI when it recognized the PAN’s wins in northern Mexico, and he ran the Solidaridad program, which many in the PRI feared was becoming a parallel party. Moreover, Colosio made public reference to his Catholic faith and declared that he and his devout wife, Diana Laura, were raising their children “in the Christian way.” Was Colosio a traitor to the PRI?

For both of these shocking deaths, the simplest explanations may be the best. Yet enough contradictory evidence exists to keep the conspiracy theories alive in Mexican Catholic circles. These two cases, along with the death of Clouthier, could be interpreted as an attempt to thwart the Catholic advance. After years of official deceit, only a non-PRI government will be able to put these cases to rest.

The Year of the Fox

Vincente Fox, a rancher and Coca-Cola executive, joined the PAN at the behest of Clouthier in the late 1980s. He won a federal deputy seat in 1988 and soon became a thorn in Salinas’s side. Everyone in the party knew that Vicente had presidential ambitions. The PAN lobbied successfully to adjust the Mexican constitution so that citizens whose parents were immigrants—Fox’s mother is Spanish—could hold the presidency. Fox may be from the pro-business wing and have some leftist friends, but he clearly had star quality. His smashing 1995 victory to take Guanjuato’s governorship confirmed it.

After the 1997 midterm election, the PRI lost its control over the lower house of Congress for the first time. Electoral reforms backed by the PAN had begun to have their intended effect. The day of the stunning PRI defeat, Fox took a bold step: He officially announced his presidential candidacy. This sort of open ambition was never displayed by even PRI politicians, let alone by the power-wary PAN.

The PAN’s old guard remained suspicious of Fox. After decades of being in the opposition, many panistas distrusted outsiders, even those who held its few governorships. And he had created his own political action committee, the Friends of Fox, whose numbers outstripped the membership of the PAN itself. By last September, none of this mattered. For the first time in party history, the PAN held its national convention with only one presidential aspirant—Fox. The anticipated old guard reaction never came.

Launching his official campaign in Guanajuato, Fox delighted his audience—but shocked the press—by seizing a replica standard of the Virgin of Guadalupe. His opponents attacked this as a violation of electoral laws that prohibited the use of religious imagery—which it was. Even the PAN leadership cringed. But Fox was doing more than making a religious statement; he was linking his campaign with Fr. Miguel Hidalgo’s independence movement of 1810, whose army marched with the Virgin as its battle flag. Fox implicitly demonstrated that the Virgin’s image was not just a Catholic but a national symbol.

Throughout the campaign, hostile articles described Fox as a cristero or a sinarquista. Some have suggested that Fox is a member of Opus Dei or that the order is running his campaign. On the day of the election, the New York Times Magazine published an article that profiled many leftists who see Fox, because of his conservative views on abortion, as the herald of the next Inquisition.

None of these descriptions fits the man. Fox never comes across as a mocho—Mexican slang for an overly devout person. Certainly no prude, Fox lacerated his opponent, Francisco Labastida, with every name in the book, even rudely insinuating that he is a homosexual. On the campaign trail, he would joke to parents in the audience to cover their children’s ears.

Fox also boasts about his Jesuit education and how it instilled in him a drive for public service. Although divorced, he has custody of his four adopted children. In short, Fox appears comfortable in his Catholic skin. Many religious panistas fervently back him but not for his religious credentials. They backed him because he could beat the PRI.

The Church Speaks

Meanwhile, with Norberto Cardinal Rivera of Mexico City as her combative spokesman, the Church made clear during the campaign her support of the democratic process and defense of the vote. In March 2000, the Bishops Conference issued a pastoral letter—the first of its kind since the 1970s—urging lay members to promote human rights and social justice. It also suggested that real democracy meant alternation in power, a clear rebuttal to the PRI argument that its 71-year hold on power demonstrates popular sovereignty. The Fox campaign enthusiastically distributed the episcopal letter and promised to correct the lingering constitutional restrictions on the Church.

Signaling the Church’s new assertiveness, Cardinal Rivera presided over a huge open-air Mass of 50,000 in Mexico City’s main square. According to some press reports, this was the first outdoor Mass since a ban in 1873; others likened it to the Christ the King ceremony in Guanajuato that helped provoke the cristero conflict.

The government’s response to the Church sounded like an echo from the past. “We don’t want praying politicians or governing priests,” the subsecretary of religious affairs announced. The tone of the response suggested a government that saw itself as increasingly under fire. Then last June, the Vatican announced the canonization of 25 martyrs of the cristero revolt, mostly priests and religious killed by Calles’s forces. Some PRI members saw this as the pope trying to kick the legs out from under the ruling party, as he did to the Soviet Union.


Fox will be inaugurated as the next Mexican president on December 1. According to the official vote tally, crossover voters from leftist opposition parties accounted for much of his margin of victory. So far, he has stressed reconciliation and “no witch hunts” against the PRI. Fox realizes that the times demand a spirit of Christian charity and generosity. In an unusual gesture for any politician, Fox apologized publicly to his opponents and the electoral authorities for his harsh statements during the campaign. He has called for an inclusive cabinet, with even former Communists participating in the transition. The PAN doesn’t seem to mind.

Certainly the ancient animosities will not end overnight. The new government under Fox will suffer many attacks from the disgruntled revolutionary family, unaccustomed to being cut off from power. A hard line politician from Tabasco, where Garrido Canabal still casts a shadow, may take over the PRI-perhaps an ominous sign. In the turbulent days ahead, Fox and his supporters might recall a saying of Don Quixote, whose figure adorns many a panista desk or wall: “The dogs are barking, Sancho, a sign that we are galloping.”

  • Michael J. Ard

    Michael J. Ard is the author of "An Eternal Struggle: How the National Action Party Transformed Mexican Politics" (Praeger 2003).

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