At a time when popular opinion is inundated by instant experts, political spin doctors, and media sound bites, we grow all too easily accustomed to hearing how unique the current political state of affairs is in Mexico. As Mónica Blanco’s closely argued, concise study of the turbulent political landscape in the state of Guanajuato during Francisco Madero’s short-lived administration makes clear, Mexico has had previous, ill-fated flirtations with democracy. The lessons Blanco has learned about why Maderismo failed in Guanajuato may be particularly relevant to contemporary discussions about the obstacles that stand in the path of democratization.
As the author is careful to point out in this revised version of her doctoral thesis, Guanajuato’s role during the early years of the revolution, in comparison to more rebellious regions like the northern frontera or Morelos, was not particularly distinguished. While a few secondary figures such as Toribio Esquivel Obregón and Alfredo Robles Domínguez hailed from the region, and it was also the site of key Villista defeats, Guanajuato was never a notable player during the armed phase of the revolution. Not surprisingly, the region has been overlooked by revolutionary historians. Blanco seeks to fill this lacunae, implicitly arguing that there were many more Guanajuatos in Mexico than there were Sonoras, and that an understanding of Madero’s failure to accommodate political interests in these quieter regions may tell us more about the pitfalls of institution building in the Mexican body politic than its more celebrated violent rebellions.
Blanco’s rigorous, empirically-rich case study of local, subregional, and state politics dwells on the themes of political factionalism and the significant role that jefes políticos and grassroots political networks played under Maderismo. Although the emphasis is invariably on local and subregional variations and their idiosyncrasies, Blanco does an effective job of reminding the reader of how national events impinged on the ebb and flow of political maneuvering throughout the period.
Blanco’s work on Guanajuato’s jefes is particularly revealing. During the Porfiriato, these political bosses, who were appointed by the governor, became formidable power brokers between local communities and the state government. Under state law, jefes were not only given the authority to rule municipalities (eclipsing the power and autonomy previously held by municipal presidents), but they governed unincorporated rural communities as well. In short, they were perfectly placed to work the clientelistic pyramid to their and the Porfirian state’s advantage. After Díaz’s ouster, however, jefes were elected, not appointed, in Guanajuato and the political symbolism of this change led many to expect a more open, participatory system.
It was the opening of this new political space and the popular classes’ willingness to contest this space (Blanco identifies 16 uprisings during the period); their frustration with Maderista politicians who too often resembled their predecessors in word, deed, and fraudulent electoral practices; the heavy-handed tactics employed by Maderista authorities against political opponents; and the difficulties that local authorities—jefes and notables alike—had in controlling and managing these popular expressions of political will, that help explain why Madero’s tenure was so chaotic. If Blanco points out Maderismo’s shortcomings, she also celebrates its openness and good intentions. Emphasizing (some might conclude, overemphasizing) the importance of legalism and elections throughout the narrative, she concludes that “under Maderismo a political opening, unprecedented in Mexico, occurred” (p. 108).
Maderismo’s failure in Guanajuato was political, not military. Although this monograph rarely makes comparisons with other regions of Mexico, its findings are not inconsistent with what others scholars have surmised. Despite Madero’s plea for a return to the principles of the 1857 Constitution, Mexicans (and Guanajuato’s Maderistas themselves, apparently) were too wedded to a political culture that disdained democratic principles. Moreover, Porfirian notables continued to wield too much political power throughout the state after May 1911. Blanco’s observations about the political culture that Maderismo inherited should be food for thought for contemporary writers who wax poetic about the opening of new political space and the democratization of the PRI.