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Cardenas Compromised: The Failure of Reform in Postrevolutionary Yucatan. .

Cardenas Compromised: The Failure of Reform in Postrevolutionary Yucatan. By Ben Fallaw (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. x plus 222 pp. $54.95/cloth $18.95/paper).

As president of Mexico (1934-1940) Lazaro Cardenas attempted radical agrarian, labor and educational reforms, nationalized Mexico's petroleum industry, and mobilized vast sectors of the population in mass political organizations. Interpretations of this period and its legacies have varied, ranging from celebrations of Cardenas's populism and the transformative effect of his reforms, to revisionist denunciations of boss rule, corruption, and authoritarianism. Most recently, "neopopulist" or "postrevisionist" historians credit Cardenas with fostering the emergence of a new national political culture in which the stare's legitimacy came to depend on the incorporation and realization of popular demands. In Cardenas Compromised, Ben Fallaw tests the theses of populists, revisionists and postrevisionists through a richly detailed political history of the Cardenas years in the southeastern state of Yucatan, a region dominated by henequen haciendas and populated largely by indigenous Maya speakers. In the years betwe en Cardenas's 1934 presidential campaign and the election of his hand-picked successor in 1940, Yucatan became the setting for a series of events of national significance, including major social, political and cultural reforms (a redemptive program entitled the "Crusade of the Mayab"), gubernatorial and national elections, and a series of general strikes and broad political mobilizations. The centerpiece of Cardenas's plan for Yucatan was a federally administered land reform project, in which the haciendas, which produced fiber for use in the manufacture of rope and twine, were to be collectivized, as "ejidos."

Fallaw argues that two informal political institutions were critical to defining the interactions among diverse national, state and local actors in the Cardenas years--"caciques" (local bosses or strongmen who controlled communities, political organizations, or unions) and "camarillas" (networks of elites linked by family, friendship or interest). While cardenismo was committed to the end of boss rule and machine politics in Yucatan, Fallaw demonstrates that the reforms in Yucatan had the opposite effect. Existing strongmen were invaluable to the cardernistas as political intermediaries between local communities and political leaders at the regional and national levels. Moreover, new caciques emerged in the wake of agrarian reform, as officials of the agrarian bank and ejidal bosses entrenched themselves locally. Their corruption and despotism, and the tendency of reform measures to deepen rather than ameliorate the poverty of some sectors of the working population, engendered popular resentment towards the c ardenistas. Yucatecan hacendados were quick to exploit this by financing and co-opting anarchosyndicalist unions, local leaders, and electoral candidates who opposed the agrarian reform.

Similarly, the Yucatecan camarillas--composed of surprising coalitions of conservatives and anarchosyndicalists, hacendados and communists--continued to be critical mediators between the state government and national institutions. Despite cardenista attempts at remaking the state government and electoral politics, Yucatecan politicos maintained and consolidated their power by playing upon local social and political divisions, manipulating regionalist sentiment (notably through the hero cult of the "proletarian martyr" Felipe Carrillo Puerto), and exploiting the weakness and equivocation of the federal government. Hence, within a year after the high point of federal involvement in Yucatan during the 1937 "Crusade of the Mayab", an "official camarilla" was able to ensconce itself in the state government, where it would remain for decades to follow. Fallaw demonstrates how that official camarilla subverted the "Open Door" program through which federal cardenistas aimed to reform electoral politics, and successfu lly assumed control over the ejidos and undercut federal reform efforts through the "Great Ejido" program in 1938. Based on a thorough and compelling regional examination of the caciques and camarillas of the Cardenas years, Fallaw rejects the prevailing characterization of the period, whether by populists, revisionists or postrevisionists, as one in which state power was centralized or consolidated in the federal government. "From the point of view of the provinces," Fallaw argues, "regional elites tended to co-opt national institutions, rather than the reverse" (157).

Just as critical to Fallaw's diagnosis of the aspirations and failures of cardenismo in Yucatan is his exploration of the ways Cardenas and his supporters progressively compromised their own ideals and programs. From the outset, in what Fallaw calls a "strategic triage," Cardenas subordinated most of a wide set of social, labor and political reforms to his overriding interest in realizing a sweeping agrarian reform in the henequen zone. As a result, several potential cardenista constituencies, like urban workers and their unions, were sidelined by Cardenas, and eventually denied him their support. Moreover, since the president did not commit adequate resources to agrarian reform the program foundered, leaving the cardenista coalition fragmented even among the rural populations that were its presumed beneficiaries. Faced by the economic and political costs of realizing his projects elsewhere in Mexico, most notably those of the nationalization of the oil industry, Cardenas eventually compromised even his most cherished program, ceding control over the ejidos to the Yucatecan state government and the official camarilla. Finally, in order to ensure the stability of his regime and of the presidential succession, by 1940 Cardenas reached an understanding with the official camarilla that controlled Yucatecan machine politics. In return for its political support, Cardenas reduced federal involvement in the state, and effectively abandoned a coalition of cardenista workers, peasants, and political activists that was struggling to regain control over the ejidos. Far from mobilizing a broad popular front and realizing popular demands in Yucatan, by the end of his presidency Cardenas, had compromised and undermined his much-vaunted populism through a series of decisions that were politically expedient, but tragically short-sighted.

Ben Fallaw concludes Cardenas Compromised on an optimistic note, declaring that in Yucatan the "legacy of popular empowerment and the memory of the democratic opening that Cardenas briefly created has not yet been erased" (167). This deeply researched and powerfully argued study suggests, however, that the interests and desires of the working populations of Yucatan were even more profoundly compromised, and more consistently flouted, than those of Cardenas From their perspective, the enduring legacy of carderiismo in Yucatan may be less one of empowerment and democracy, than one of hopes misplaced and ideals betrayed.
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Author:Eiss, Paul K.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
Words:1018
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