Navigating Mexico: Article 33
By JUAN DE JESÚS BREENE
Mexicans and foreigners in Mexico alike love to make reference to the country’s Article 33, a clause in the constitution that prohibits non-Mexicans from being involved in internal national affairs.
The frequent reference to Article 33 in Mexico’s current Constitution is often thrown around almost as if any government official or even ordinary citizen could have a foreigner expelled from Mexico for daring to comment about national political issues.
The text in English actually states: “The president of the republic will have the power to expel from national territory any foreigner, according to the law and after a hearing. Foreigners may not in any way participate in the political affairs of the country.”
Mexico’s current constitution — the first version written in 1857 and the current in 1917 — is chock-full of protective measures against two specific groups, both considered dangerous in Mexico, the Roman Catholic Church and, in the case of Article 33, foreigners.
In the historical context of the time, these measures against the two groups made perfect sense.
Even further protective measures were put into place against the potential shenanigans of foreigners.
Only those who are Mexicans by birth, not even naturalized Mexicans citizens, can hold the position of a soldier, police officer, street sweeper, airline crew or even bartender.
Those jobs, at least in the days before Internet, were considered the hotbeds for fomenting or combating a potential revolution.
The law is still on the books today.
In the case of Catholic clergy, after the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, nuns and bishops were basically stripped of their citizenship and could not vote or wear religious habits or veils in public until 1984.
The fear of both of these groups’ power in reversing the constitutional protections that were won with significant Mexican bloodshed meant that clergy, nuns and foreigners needed to be put in their place in everyday life, and they were.
For example, over time, the prohibition of nuns wearing a veil in public, when most people could still tell they were nuns by their modest dress and demeanor, was considered silly and religious figures were given back their rights as citizens to be able to vote and dress as they liked.
But this did not really happen with foreigners.
While foreign investment in Mexico is welcomed and is even courted today, foreign ownership of a Mexican corporation can only be 49 percent. All companies operating in Mexico must employ 90 percent of the workforce as Mexican. And foreigners still cannot own land outright within 50 kilometers of shorelines or 100 kilometers from the international northern or southern Mexican borders.
The political implications of Article 33 are now stronger than ever. Foreigners, even today, are often told, “You are a guest here. You cannot have an opinion that could be considered political.”
That makes everyday life a challenge for foreigners.
Almost any opinion on the economy, human rights, innovation, even religion, is a political statement in the minds of many.
This can easily work for vacationers in Cancun for a week who likely are not interested in politics,
But what about someone who is transferred by their company to work in Mexico for a year or two?
Most Mexican constitutional scholars who have commented specifically on Article 33 point out that the reference is to partisan politics, with the operative word being participation.
The example could be a foreigner, obviously without the right to vote, who works actively in campaigns for a candidate or a party. If proven, this would be worthy of a consequence, up to and including expulsion from Mexico.
Since Mexicans living outside of Mexico can now vote, this begs a huge constitutional question: Can the United States, for example, have a vested interest in which candidate Mexicans living in the United States vote for, actively supporting that candidate, now that the U.S. bloc of Mexican voters is quite large?
However, on the other end of the spectrum, if you insult the president’s hairstyle and someone tells you that you can be “33-ed” for your comment, you can still put on your ultra-petrified face, but know nothing can legally be done about your comment.
Having an opinion and participating in politics are two different things.
In many other sections of the Mexican Constitution, there are clear protections, not just for citizens, but for anyone physically in Mexican territory, as well as its air and maritime spaces.
Mexico is one of the most generous countries, at least on paper, for respect for the rights of civil liberties, for not only its citizens, but also for its refugees, tourists and temporary or permanent residents.
That practice, however, is now up in the air.
On the one hand, the current administration is rapidly limiting individual rights of freedom of expression for everyone, including its citizens, particularly journalists, human rights workers and opposition politicians.
On the other hand, that same administration has been reviewing the idea of potentially eliminating Article 33 from its books.
With the exception of voting, active participation in partisan politics and outright ownership of land or real estate close to a border or the coast, a foreigner enjoys all the guarantees granted by the Constitution, which cannot be restricted or suspended.
But as a word of caution, be careful what you say about Mexico as a foreigner because, after all, you are a guest in this country, and it is never good manners to insult your host.