Watching 1994 as a Political Scientist

Some history to help make better sense of it

I watched the Netflix series 1994 after hearing about it from Scott Sumner who wrote the following review (after giving it one of his highest ratings):

A 4-hour Netflix documentary (5 episodes) covering 1994 in Mexico. I already knew the outline of what happened, but the film made the events come alive. Reminded me a lot of 1968 in America, with Colosio being the Bobby Kennedy of the story. You really need to use your critical thinking skills when watching this, as the filmmaker’s interpretation is not always the most plausible one. Nonetheless, the facts are presented in a fair enough fashion that viewers can make up their own minds. Zedillo might have been treated a bit unfairly—I wonder if that’s because he declined to be interviewed (while almost all the other key players were interviewed.)

The “outline of what happened” is that three major events took place in Mexico in 1994: the signing of Nafta, the rebellion in Chiapas, and the assassination of Colosio who was the ruling party’s candidate for president (and more or less a sure thing to win). As Sumner intimates, the film makes a martyr of Colosio who was undoubtedly a charismatic figure (I say this just from the evidence in the film rather than any deeper knowledge). The film also gives substantial rope to conspiracy theorists who believe that the assassination was committed by some shadowy forces threatened by Colosio rather than just the lone gunman who was ultimately convicted of the murder.

Though my knowledge of Mexican politics is spotty, I think a number of relevant facts might not be clear to most viewers in the US and elsewhere. The key ones are that Mexico in 1994 was not a democracy (despite all the electioneering) and that the PRI, the party of the major figures in the film including Colosio, had ruled the country continuously from 1928. 

Yes, by 1994 elections were increasingly open, but they were not free and fair, especially at the presidential level. As Fairvote’s executive summary points out:

The 1994 Mexican elections were widely hailed by foreign observers as a great advance in democracy. Millions of dollars were spent on improvements in the electoral process, and there was far less election day fraud than in the 1988 presidential race. Despite improvements, however, the elections were neither fully free nor fair. The elections preserved a virtual monopoly on power for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has governed Mexico for two-thirds of a century.

The two principal problems remain the persistence of constitutional structures and electoral principles specifically designed to sustain one-party rule and the PRI's overwhelming advantage in campaign financing, media exposure and patronage.

While they note that the PRI’s candidate Zedillo did get the most votes in the election, his vote total was surely inflated by fraud to give him the 50.1%, ensuring his election. They similarly note that his predecessor Salinas (featured prominently in the film) was not elected fairly in the previous elections in 1988. The film hints at the sort of patronage that the PRI doled out to win voters, however, they tend to portray it as good welfare rather than vote buying which is what it was. Again, here is how Fairvote puts it:

The PRI also took advantage of the government-funded National Solidarity Program (Programa Nacional de Solidaridad, Pronasol) of grants to the poor. The Pronasol symbol was a variation of the PRI symbol (itself based on the Mexican flag). Since these grants are made to communities, and it is easy to determine how communities vote, recipients and would-be recipients were informally warned that future allocations would depend on their response on election day.

I think that most non-Mexican viewers will watch the documentary and see free and fair elections when the playing field was anything but level. I’m not saying the PRI were monsters, but they were far from being democrats at this point in time.

Similarly, Colosio is portrayed as a heroic (Sumner says Bobby Kennedyesque) figure who was going to right economic and political injustices in Mexico after he won election. Maybe so. I don’t know enough to say. But it is worth pointing out that he was a life-long member of an authoritarian party that used clientelism and fraud to win elections. It seems hard to believe that he had kept his hands clean in his rise to the top of that party, but again I’m happy to be proved wrong. And as the film points out, he was hand-picked as the PRI’s candidate by the sitting president, not the most democratic route to power. (What I wanted to hear in the film was an honest account by Salinas of why he chose Colosio, but that might be expecting too much.) Perhaps Colosio was going to be the president who cleaned up and democratized Mexico, but that seems like a lot to expect from a politician with his kind of background.

I have less to say about the filmmakers’ engagement with conspiracy theories over Colosio’s death. They don’t totally dismiss them. I think this is what Sumner is referring to when he says that their “interpretation is not always the most plausible one.” I would agree that there is enough material in the documentary to heavily discount conspiracy theories.

Things do end up better for Mexico. After Zedillo’s six-year term, the presidential elections in 2000 were the first in three-quarters of a century to be won by the opposition in the person of Vicente Fox. Zedillo did ultimately democratize the country despite (or because of?) his more technocratic resume. Maybe Colosio would have done more (or less?) given his charisma and political skills. That is a question that would make for a good counterfactual history.

In any case, I’d second Sumner’s recommendation. This was a fun and quick watch, though I think it helps to know something about Mexican politics to make better sense of it.