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Jorge G. Castaneda Perpetuating Power: How Mexican Presidents Were Chosen.

Jorge G. Castaneda Perpetuating Power: How Mexican Presidents Were Chosen New York: The New Press, 2000. xxiv + 248 pp.

Mexico's post-revolutionary authoritarian system has apparently come to an end with the democratic election of Vicente Fox in July 2000. Key to this system, which endured longer than any other authoritarian regime of the twentieth century, was the peaceful transfer of presidential power that occurred every six years. Castaneda has written an insightful and controversial book about the workings of this unique process during the last thirty years. The book was made possible by the fact that four recent ex-presidents (Echeverria, Lopez Portillo, de la Madrid, and Salinas) were willing to grant the author on-the-record interviews, transcriptions of which make up the second half of the book. Castaneda also draws from thirty-odd off-the-record interviews with viable but ultimately unsuccessful contenders for the presidency and others close to the process.

The views of the unsuccessful contenders are extremely important because an obvious key to the success of this system was that the losers were willing to go along with the decision rather than being inclined and able to create credible anti-system threats. Even the infamous case of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas who, in 1988, "lost" the presidential race (although it would seem that a plurality of Mexicans voted for him), is posed by Castaneda as a cause lost before the contest was begun. Why? Because the opposition candidates "were simply overwhelmed by the machinery, before, during, and after the elections themselves. They stood absolutely no chance of winning, because they were not running against another candidate, or even against the party, but against the president and the state, an unbeatable combination in an ancestrally presidential and dirigiste country" (p. xix). This is not to say that all power transfers were without incident, controversy, or setback. Quite the contrary, especially in the sunset years of the regime.

Castaneda's analytical astuteness and his remarkable access to the key players makes for a fascinating read. Castaneda has provided the first authoritative assessment of Mexico's unique--and, as it turns out, not infrequently macabre--process of transferring power. Virtually all studies of the Mexican post-revolutionary political regime--and there have been many classics--address the question but none have previously made presidential successions over time the focus of study. Castaneda details the palace intrigues and then interprets their relevance to the maintenance of the system and to the broad contours of Mexican history.

Herein lies the book's most controversial position. Most previous analyses of the presidential selection emphasized the role of the dominant party's sectoral hierarchy: labour, peasants, and the more heterogeneous grouping referred to as the "popular sectors" (including a large number of public sector employees) in combination with other important non-governmental actors, most notably business and the Catholic Church. While these considerations are referred to, they play a minor role at best. What is presented here is a picture of the process dominated by the subjective--and not infrequently neurotic--preoccupations and calculations of the sitting president and the presidential contenders. Castaneda describes how, on a number of occasions, these subjective considerations of personal power, ambition, and prestige were disastrous for the country. Anyone who has seriously followed contemporary Mexican politics will be familiar with the legendary surge of public spending that precedes presidential election years. What will surprise many knowledgeable readers is the extent to which machinations surrounding the succession process altered macroeconomic policy. Castaneda details several examples of this, with the most notable case being that of candidate Carlos Salinas. In order to protect Salinas from his rivals, President de la Madrid was willing for the Mexican people to pay a high price: "debt to stabilize the economy, devaluation at the end of the road, and a subsequent economic relapse in 1988" (p. 69). Does this sound like a perverse basis for public policy? Castaneda takes the position that in this and other notable cases (including Echeverria's willingness to protect Lopez Portillo in a similar fashion), it most certainly was.

The disastrous influence of backroom manoeuverings is by no means limited to economic policy. For example, most analysts would readily agree that the 1968 student movement influenced succession politics. However, the details provided here allow Castaneda to substantiate his claim that the behaviour and decisions of key actors were even more significantly influenced by succession calculations than most previous analyses of this watershed event have suggested. Did this extend to people dying? Castaneda suggests that this is entirely possible, not only in this case, but in others as well, perhaps most notoriously in the assassination of the presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, in 1994.

Castaneda argues that the complexity of the succession resulted from a complex mix of discernable patterns adhered to over time and the unexpected nuances of events and elite personalities. One of the most enduring patterns that provided a certain logic to the process is to be found in the distinction that Castaneda draws between candidates by choice and candidates by elimination. "Successions by elimination spawn and nourish tensions between the incumbent and the chosen successor" (p. 96). "[S]uccessions by choice maximize the deceit practiced by the outgoing president on the losing prospects and stretch resentments between the competitors to the limit" (p. 5).

For some readers, one potential defect of the book is that Castaneda's fascination with the details of palace intrigue might be less interesting, and even tedious, to those unfamiliar with the actors involved. There are a lot of players here, and I suspect that many general readers will find it confusing and arduous to keep them straight. While this degree of detail of course will engage and often entertain those readers more familiar with the players and the intricacies of inter-personal relationships at the highest levels of Mexican politics, important events are often mentioned without adequate explanation for the uninitiated.

A more serious problem is that the book is marred by frequent lapses into poor syntax. "There are strong reasons to suppose that Mario Moya was disqualified at some point during the first or second year of his term--Fausto Zapata, Echeverria's press person, gives the date as early as 1973--in Echeverria's mind and, by Moya's own account, in his own as well" (p. 27). This is not an isolated example of what should have been caught in the editing process.

In summary, Castaneda has contributed an important book that highlights the importance of a uniquely Mexican answer to a fundamental question endemic to all political systems: the transfer of power at the highest levels. He emphasizes the influence of personalities over social forces, which will delight some readers while provoking others to critique the work for its inattention to structural factors. Castaneda's perspective also emphasizes how this elite sub-culture managed a system in such a way as to contribute in important ways to the longevity of the system but at immense cost to the Mexican people, especially in the latter years of the regime.

Paul Lawrence Haber, University of Montana
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Author:Haber, Paul Lawrence
Publication:Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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