For more than seven decades (1929–2000) Mexico was governed by a single ruling party that dominated Mexican politics in a so-called one-party democracy. Dubbed the “perfect dictatorship” in 1990 by the conservative Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, the ruling party went through several name changes and transformed in important ways as the century progressed, but it also retained a high degree of institutional continuity.
Following the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), the constitution of 1917, and the turmoil of the Cristero Rebellion (1926–29), the party was founded in 1929 by Supreme Chief (Jefe Máximo) and President Plutarco Elías Calles (1929–34).
It was called the Revolutionary National Party (Partido Nacional Revolucionario, or PNR). In 1938, soon after nationalizing the properties of foreign oil companies, President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40) changed its name to the Mexican Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Mexicana, or PRM).
Its final name change came under President Miguel Alemán Valdés (1946–52), when in 1946 it became the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institutional, or PRI), as it has remained into the 21st century.
The PRI and its forebears (hereafter referred to as the PRI) won every national election from 1934 to 2000, when it was defeated at the polls by Vicente Fox, candidate of the opposition party Partido de Acción Nacional (National Action Party, or PAN).
While the PRI did not outlaw opposition parties—in fact, encouraging their existence to lend greater legitimacy to its rule—its grip on the reins of state power remained unassailable by virtue of its domination of the machinery of state, the major media, and the electoral process, and by its capacity to repress or coopt opposition and to garner popular support by its selective dispensation of government patronage.
Its strategies of rule and modes of domination were similar to the political machines that dominated major U.S. urban centers, such as Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political machine in Chicago (1955–76).
Despite its origins in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and its ostensibly “revolutionary” orientation, the PRI grew increasingly conservative, authoritarian, and corrupt after the major reforms of the Cárdenas years.
Cárdenas in effect forged an authoritarian corporatist state, in which all major social sectors were represented in the state and party’s bureaucratic and administrative structures: the military, labor unions, the agrarian sector, and the popular sector. Unlike the situation in many Latin American countries, the Mexican army and police remained firmly subordinated to civilian authority.
Organized labor was represented by the Mexican Workers’ Federation (Confederación de Trabajadores de México, or CTM), an increasingly bureaucratized union founded under Cárdenas and firmly integrated into state structures.
Independent or insurgent labor unions were either repressed or coopted. The agrarian sector was represented by the National Peasant Confederation (Confederación Nacional Campesino, or CNC) and other state-controlled organizations.
In the six decades from 1940 to 2000, the PRI was characterized by its conservatism at home and, from the 1950s, its rhetorical support for leftist and revolutionary movements abroad, such as the Cuban revolution.
Under President Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940–46), the PRI supported the Allies in World War II and in 1942 agreed to the Bracero Program with the United States, permitting a specified number of temporary Mexican laborers into that country annually to work in mining, commercial agriculture, and related industries. Conceived as a wartime measure, under pressure from the U.S. government and commercial interests, the program was extended until 1965.
Dispensing with much of the socialist rhetoric and orientation of the Cárdenas years, the Camacho administration slowed the pace of agrarian reform; installed the moderate Fidel Velásquez as head of the CTM (which he dominated until his death in 1997); established a state-run national bank (Nacional Financiera); loosened restrictions on foreign ownership of Mexican resources; expanded public works programs; and embarked on an export-led model of national development.
These trends continued under Camacho’s successors Miguel Alemán Valdés (1946–52), Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952–58), Adolfo López Mateos (1958–64), and Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964–70). These were the years of the so-called Mexican Miracle, when relative social peace prevailed, state-led industrialization made major strides, and economic growth rates were the highest in the nation’s history.
The government’s principal source of foreign exchange derived from state control of the Mexican oil industry through PEMEX (Petróleos Mexicanos), established in 1938. In the 1960s many Mexicans grew increasingly disenchanted with the ruling party’s authoritarianism and corruption.
A major crack in the PRI’s ideological edifice came in the October 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, on the eve of the country’s hosting of the Olympics, when the police and state security forces violently repressed popular demonstrations calling for greater democracy.
The PRI’s corruption, graft, nepotism, and violent repression of opposition mounted in the 1970s under presidents Luis Echeverría Alvarez (1970–76) and José López Portillo (1976–82). Oil revenues were at an alltime high, though much of the income was squandered in bribes, kickbacks, inflated salaries, and wasteful projects.
Numerous protest movements by workers, students, farmers, and others were violently suppressed, including a guerrilla movement in the state of Guerrero led by former schoolteacher Lucio Cabañas.
Government debt rose dramatically, with world financial markets flush with petrodollars and transnational financial institutions like the World Bank eager to extend low-interest loans to “developing” economies like Mexico’s.
In 1982, under President Miguel de la Madrid (1982–88), a combination of a global recession, low world oil prices, record-high debt ($80 billion in 1982), galloping inflation, and massive government expenditures led to the effective bankruptcy of the Mexican state.
Devaluation of the peso and a restructuring of the international debt followed, though in December 1988, when de la Madrid left office, foreign debt had risen to a record $105 billion, second only to Brazil’s.
As a consequence of these and related crises, the administrations of presidents Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–94) and Ernesto Zedillo (1994–2000) embarked on a major effort to rein in inflation and slash the size of the federal government through privatization of state-owned industries and pursuit of fiscal austerity measures recommended by the International Monetary Fund.
The combination of prolonged economic crises and erosion of the PRI’s ideological legitimacy led to the party’s defeat in the 2000 elections, though it continued to play a major role in the National Assembly and in state and local governments throughout Fox’s tenure, as it promised to play in the administration of PAN-affiliated President Felipe Calderón, elected in 2006.