The two volumes under review here are the last, chronologically, in the twenty-three–volume collection, covering 1952 through 1960.
Stylistically, the volumes reviewed here make Mexican history a pleasure to read. Each book is profusely illustrated with photographs, cartoons, political posters, and propaganda, which bring added realism to the events narrated. Furthermore, the clarity and continuity, despite the number of different authors, is commendable. Methodologically, these volumes rely heavily on newspaper and magazine sources, and have also made good use of personal interviews, although few have been cited. Neither of these volumes claims to be an exhaustive, scholarly analysis; rather, their purpose is to provide a cohesive, broad overview of Mexico during the years 1952-60, a period in many respects neglected in North American scholarship.
The authors make an excellent case for examining the years covering the Adolfo Ruiz Cortines administration. In the larger context of Mexico’s evolution, the 1950s mark the beginning of what has popularly become known as the period of stable development. The first volume is devoted to internal political affairs, covering four broad topics: means of political stability, negotiations with labor, fissures in political stability, and the strike of 1958-59. To the twentieth-century specialist, there is nothing new covered here, and the most notable political events analyzed are the Henriquista movement, the conflicts among the Ruiz Cortines and Alemán elites (using Yucatán as a case study), the creation of CROC, the teacher’s strike, and, of course, the railroad workers’ movement.
The authors demonstrate that after some hesitation during the presidential transition from 1958 to 1959, the political leadership came down severely on the labor movement and its members, including teachers and railroad employees. This policy implied an inability to deal flexibly with mass movements, and in fact, it could be said that in spite of the severity of the 1958-59 strike, labor did not change the means of Mexico’s political control. On the other hand, the authors suggest that the political leadership realized, in part, that improved salaries could produce social peace. They argue that Adolfo López Mateos’s decision to give out large amounts of land to the peasants reflected this understanding. Although the political elite showed no inclination to revise its techniques of control, it was frightened by the implications of the railroad strike for political stability. In 1959, the president promoted an unusually high number of officers to general rank, a decision that has occurred only twice since. In conclusion, the authors believe that the key to understanding political stability from 1960 forward is the government’s policy toward the masses or with the military, a policy they describe as one of negotiation or repression, but never of tolerance (p. 218).
The second volume analyzes Mexican foreign relations and economic policy during the same eight-year period. Among the conclusions the authors reach about the Ruiz Cortines administration are: that his economic policy decisions were basically pragmatic; that little consideration was given to raising the standard of living among peasants or increasing the economic power of the state as compared to that of the domestic or foreign private sector; that the state sought, and was willing to make sacrifices for, an understanding with the private sector; that a failure to plan for the future led to a confused policy concerning the expansion of state-owned companies; that Mexico’s economic conditions were tied closely to those in the United States; and that his administration bequeathed his successor few conditions helpful to growth.
Some of these things, in the authors’ opinion, led to a decision by the López Mateos government to adopt new economic policy, especially an increase in the role of the public sector. In turn, Mexico benefited from a favorable international credit market made possible by the United States’ fear of more Cubas in Latin America. Thus, an increased stimulus took place in industrial growth and in government-sponsored social welfare policies.
What is most important about the authors’ analysis of this period, other than understanding it as a benchmark era for what was to follow in the 1960s and 1970s, is that much can be learned about the present. In fact, both works are valuable in putting into more realistic context the behavior of the Mexican government under José López Portillo and Miguel de La Madrid. Contemporary analysts tend to lose their sense of history when viewing recent events, including the devaluations, the political crises, the presidential transition, and the disagreements between the private and public sectors. Each has taken place before, in a different historical context. I have few strong disagreements with the interpretations provided in the two books in their analysis of economic policy developments; I would, however, have preferred to see more emphasis on differences within the political leadership and more attention to the attitude of the private sector and to intellectuals. One has little sense of the strength of the private sector and its unity or lack thereof. With the exception of incipient political movements, there is little feel for the status of the intellectual community during these years.