By RICARDO CASTILLO
Ninety years ago today, on March 4, 1929, Mexican history took a turn to become the nation it is today. Modern Mexican history began with the foundation of the National Revolutionary Party (PNR), a political organization that would change name in 1940 to the Party of the Mexican Revolution and in 1945 to what it is today at age 90, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
The foundation of the PNR was not fortuitous; it came out of sheer political necessity. Presidential elections had been held in 1928 with candidate – and Revolution leader – Álvaro Obregón winning the election in July. Obregón, however, was gunned down in August by a cartoonist who pretended he was going to draw a funny caricature of the president-elect at a luncheon in southern Mexico City. Instead of a pencil, the cartoonist, a Catholic zealot named José de León Toral, pulled out a .38 and unloaded it on Obregón.
Obregón had run under the banner of the Labor Party (Partido Laborista), and in reality he was irreplaceable. Then-President Plutarco Elías Calles knew that because the Labor Party was more a front than an institution. President Elías Calles then appointed Interior Secretary Emilio Portes Gil as ad interim president until new elections could be held. Portes Gil was inaugurated on Dec. 1, 1928, but it was clear that former President Elías Calles was in full command of the government, earning him the moniker of “Maximum Chief” of the Revolution.
With Porter Gil running the presidency more or less independently, Elías Calles devoted his time to integrating a new party under the aegis of Portes Gil, who had already been ambassador to Germany and could foresee the rise of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party. Portes Gil had also closely observed how Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin had implemented a one-party system in Russia.
From the moment that Portes Gil was appointed substitute president, he also, at the advice of then-U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow, to do everything possible to bring to end the War of the Christians, known as the Guerra Cristera. It had been raging since 1926, with the Cristeros by then almost abandoned by the Vatican. Portes Gil managed to end the carnage, which left – depending on which version you read – anywhere from 70,000 to 250,000 killed or maimed.
In his inauguration address, Portes Gil made it clear that Mexico now had a Freemason government and that it was going to stay that way. The Catholics hated Freemasons, but had to swallow the bitter pill of defeat. They also got invited to participate in government in a democratic way through a political party.
Elías Calles and Portes Gil worked feverishly to pull the new party together by bringing into the fold all of the different factions that had participated in the Mexican Revolution from 1910 through 1929. One historian said that the PRN became “the tree of good and evil.”
Portes Gil had the idea of a democratic, participative and competitive party. He said at the inauguration of the PNR in Querétaro on March 4 that it was imminent for Mexico to become a nation of different political parties “which are solid owners of a program and a fixed opinion sector that will serve to shelter severe politics from the administrations and impede, once and forever, that the state become the elector.”
Of course, Portes Gil couldn’t deliver on this promise, even in the very first election. The PNR candidate was handpicked by the Maximum Chief (Elías Calles) in the person of Pascual Ortíz Rubio, who won the election held on Nov. 17, 1929, netting 2,082,106 votes against zero of opposition candidate José Vasconcelos, one of Mexico’s great intellectuals, back then and today revered as such.
Did Elías Calles and Portes Gil rig the election in favor of Ortiz Rubio? Without the shadow of a doubt. The election marked the beginning of Mexico’s one-party system, with rigged elections that prevailed since that day. Ortíz Rubio was sworn in on Feb. 5, 1930 and what has often been called “the perfect dictatorship” was born because each of the governing groups that fought during the Revolution got to rule by turns.
A little known fact of what was slated to be the 1928-1934 six-year term is that it is known as “the lost six-year term” (“el sexenio perdido,” in Spanish) because Ortíz Rubio would only govern for a little over a year, having to be deposed by Calles on Sept. 2, 1932. Ortíz Rubio was replaced by General Abelardo Rodríguez, the king of Mexican gambling casinos, who is remembered today for his close ties to the U.S. mafia. He had casinos in Cuernavaca and Tijuana.
For the 1934 election, the PNR launched the candidacy of yet another general, Lázaro Cárdenas, who ran on a left-wing populist platform. The Maximum Chief Elías Calles admired General Cárdenas for his service under the armed forces, but was in disagreement with him over ideology. After Cárdenas took office on Dec. 1, 1934, there were a series of encounters between Elías Calles and the new president. Cárdenas, beleaguered by the The Maximum Chief, was publicly criticized by Elías Calles in 1934, and Cárdenas ordered Elías Calles to take a leave of absence from the nation. In short, Elías Calles was sent into exile to Los Angeles, California.
Cárdenas finished his six-year term well, but in 1939, trying to erase the name of Plutarco Elías Calles and make a difference with the old PNR. created the Party of the Mexican Revolution to carry out the campaign of yet another general, Manuel Avila Camacho, who governed without much problem until 1946.
The Party of the Mexican Revolution was replaced by the Institutional Revolutionary Party not so much due to political differences, but because of a change of course in the modernization of Mexico in order to create “a nation of institutions,” such as Social Security for medical services, and a myriad of others. many of which have disappeared over the years.
But as of 1940, the “party of the government” became unified and remained unassailable in elections for 60 years until year 2000, when it lost the presidency for the first time in 71 years. It lost it again in the 2006 elections, only to regain it in 2012 with the advent of President Enrique Peña Nieto in a contested election against the then-candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
With Peña Nieto in the presidency, the PRI began crumbling at the seams due to the fact that the president put in command of the party many friends of his who had no tradition in the very traditional PRI. He even named José Antonio Meade, a well-known carpetbagger, candidate for president in 2018. History has it that Meade got whipped by current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
At 90, PRI is in a state of political oblivion as it begins its quest for a new leader. Today, five candidates will officially launch their candidacies to compete “democratically” for the post of party leader.
But this comes at a time when the PRI is in shambles, although it still manages some representation in 14 state governments and a minimal number of deputies and senators in Congress. Some of the competitors are enthusiastic about “the future of the PRI,” but in most political circles, nobody gives a penny for the future of the PRI.
Surely there is nostalgia among its current members and the memory of 70 straight years at the helm of the national government can be neither denied nor forgotten.
But under Peña Nieto a funny thing happened to the PRI: It became a party of old men and women, literally nicknamed “the dinosaurs,” who are now not in a quest for a victorious future but for survival.
Political forecasters predict that in the next midterm election in 2021, the PRI will only get half of the 16 percent vote it garnered in 2018 and that its clearest path is the same one the real dinosaurs once had: extinction, starting today at age 90.