Mexico’s 1917 Constitution and its lasting impacts today


“Today, the situation is complicated by the impact of 36 years of neoliberal rule (1982-2018), which saw a raft of constitutional amendments imposed, gutting the progressive clauses of the original document.”

By David Raby

After several years of armed conflict, Mexican revolutionary delegates met in a Convention in the provincial city of Querétaro to draft a new Constitution in December 1916. Despite the relatively conservative leanings of the acting president, radical delegates of popular origin dominated the Convention, and the Constitution promulgated on 5th February 1917 contained remarkably advanced clauses proclaiming secular public education (Article 3), the eminent domain of the federal government over all land and waters which could be granted in concession and redistributed, and inalienable national ownership of subsoil (mineral) rights which could also be granted in revocable concessions (Article 27), and the most advanced labour code in the world (Article 123).

All of this just before the Russian revolution.

Certainly implementation of these clauses – secular education, agrarian reform for peasants, nationalisation of oil, and effective rights for workers – was a slow process taking many years. But the Constitution (with many amendments) remains the law of the land to this day and is a key political reference in Mexican public life.

Today, as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) never tires of pointing out, the situation is complicated by the impact of 36 years of neoliberal rule (1982-2018), which saw a raft of constitutional amendments imposed, gutting the progressive clauses of the original document.

The original clauses were not removed, but were qualified and modified to such an extent as to become meaningless. National and public ownership and control were replaced by privatisation of land, water, minerals, education, labour contracts and almost everything.

Hence AMLO’s drive to pass new amendments to reverse all of this (or, if constitutional change is blocked since it requires a two-thirds majority, then extensive changes to secondary legislation to limit the effects of privatising amendments).

AMLO’s Morena party and its allies have clear majorities in both houses, but not two-thirds super-majorities. Before the mid-term elections of June 2021 a group of opposition representatives had crossed the floor and AMLO did succeed in passing some constitutional amendments, for example to establish the right of recall for his own presidential office, and to include the right of universal access to health care in Article 4 of the Constitution.

But after the mid-terms, although Morena still has clear majorities in both chambers, it does not have super-majorities. The government has still been able to pass all kinds of progressive legislation but not constitutional amendments, so the opposition has come to rely on judicial appeals to declare the legislation unconstitutional.

Commemoration or appropriation?

This year’s commemoration of the Constitution, held in the same historic chamber in Querétaro where the original document was approved, was far from being a mere formality. The formal proceedings could not conceal profound differences of interpretation reflecting the current political conflict.

One of the first orators was Norma Piña, recently nominated by her peers as Chief Justice (the first woman to preside over the Supreme Court). She rightly stressed the significance of her appointment for Mexican women, but the main emphasis of her speech was to insist on judicial independence from other governmental institutions.

Liberal observers might regard this as entirely correct and positive; but better informed observers would realise immediately that this was a pointed attack on the President’s attempts to reform the entrenched and biased National Electoral Institute (INE) and the widespread corruption of the judiciary which constantly hinders AMLO’s Transformation policy. As so often, superficial feminism is being used to impede really substantial change.

A similar conservative approach was voiced by the next orator, the Speaker of the Lower House of the Mexican Congress, who under rules of political rotation happens to come from the right-wing PAN (Partido de Acción Nacional). In the words of the excellent independent newspaper La Jornada, this gentleman, “forgetting that he was there to represent the legislative body [as a whole] and not his own party affiliation”, called for the opposition to have greater influence on policy.

The next address was by the Speaker of the Senate, Alejandro Armenta of Morena. As was to be expected, he immediately began to set the record straight, referring to the  right to public education, to land, to labour rights, and so on, declaring that while respecting judicial autonomy, Mexico was undergoing its Fourth Transformation, a peaceful revolution to bring further advances in popular rights. They had approved the Law of Civic Austerity to prevent wasteful expenditure, the democratic right of recall, the universal right to public pensions and to free health care, and many other reforms.

The final speech was that of the President himself, who declared that the most original features of the Constitution reflected the longing for justice of the common people who rose up against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in 1910. Hence fundamental elements like the right to land, the defence of rural and urban workers, free secular education, national ownership of subsoil rights, and so on.

The neoliberals had imposed a sham democracy, reversing all of these gains in the interests of a national and foreign minority. Now, said AMLO, there was an urgent need to make major changes to the Constitution on matters such as control of power generation, the electoral system and the judicial system, where obscurantism, corruption and bureaucracy still predominate.

His government had made important gains, such as the law making corruption a serious crime; the civic austerity law; the prohibition of tax exemptions; the right of recall; the right of popular consultations and referendums; the right to health and education.

What was at stake was the future direction of the country, a struggle which would only intensify as the 2024 elections approach.

“Lawfare” Mexican-style

The opposition’s tactics amount to “lawfare”, Mexican-style. So far they have been remarkably ineffective in the legislative and electoral spheres, and everything suggests that they will continue to lose ground in this respect.

The next electoral battle is for State Governors, assemblies and municipal councils in the State of Mexico and Coahuila, to be held on 6th June 2023. The State of Mexico (Edomex) includes the outer suburbs of greater Mexico City, and with 17 million inhabitants has the greatest population in the country.

Both Edomex and the northern state of Coahuila are currently governed by the PRI (the former dominant party), and if it loses them it will virtually disappear as a national force, holding only one other state (Durango).

The fact is that the PRI – which under different names ruled Mexico for 70 years when the dust settled after the great 1910 revolution – long since became a corrupt establishment machine allied with the conservative Catholic PAN. Along with one or two minor parties they now constitute a single opposition bloc, which AMLO mocks as the “PRIAN”.

The opposition tries constantly to slander AMLO and his team as corrupt and authoritarian, but their propaganda is rapidly exposed as false: corruption was and is their modus operandi, and it is they, not AMLO, who constantly oppose greater democracy and display authoritarian tendencies.

Hence the importance of AMLO’s extraordinary daily press conferences or Mañaneras, two to three hours of exposition and dialogue explaining his policies and answering questions and objections.

Other Latin American popular leaders such as Hugo Chávez have done much to promote direct public communication, but AMLO’s approach is unparalleled. He openly quotes the lies and insults of the opposition media and debunks them immediately, but applies no censorship or restrictions of any kind.

The result is constant frustration and indignation among opposition politicians and media, which naturally undermines their credibility among all but their diehard supporters. They defend the indefensible: corrupt officials who insist on paying themselves inflated salaries, greater than that of the President, at public expense; and judges who resort to minor legal technicalities to release suspects indicted for serious crimes.

What has also reduced the opposition to a state of disorientation and frustration is the remarkable efficiency (with rare exceptions) of AMLO’s government. By greatly reducing waste and corruption and recruiting Mexico’s most competent professionals in engineering, architecture, health, education and management, he has been able to implement both social welfare and infrastructure programmes on time and within budget.

His determination and success were dramatically reaffirmed in the last few days, on a visit  to the northwestern state of Sonora. On February 17th he inaugurated the first phase of a huge photovoltaic solar energy plant, the largest in Latin America, which will generate electricity for 1.6 million people and is public property owned by the CFE (Federal Electricity Commission). Then in a formal ceremony on February 18th he confirmed (as already established by legislation) the nationalisation of lithium (Sonora has large deposits of the strategic mineral).

The very next day, February 19th, the Morena-PT (Workers’ Party) candidate won a Senate by-election in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas with 71% of the vote; this in a state where Morena won the Governorship for the first time ever a few months ago. The signs are not good for the opposition, which relies more and more on its dwindling one-third blocking minority in Congress.

The García Luna affair: narco-corruption exposed

But the greatest blow to the opposition – also just announced on February 21st – was the verdict in a US Federal Court in Brooklyn condemning Genaro García Luna for drug smuggling, money laundering, conspiracy and falsification of documents. García Luna was the Security Chief of PAN President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and was directly responsible for implementing Calderón’s “War on Drugs” which sent the military on to the streets of Mexico with all guns blazing, and unconstitutionally allowed armed US officers into the country in “Operation Fast and Furious”.

Calderón’s decision led to a massive increase in violence and the deaths of many thousands of innocent people, and worst of all, it later became known that García Luna had made a deal with the Sinaloa Cartel to give them a free hand in return for cooperation in suppressing other criminal gangs.

García Luna was finally charged and arrested in the US three years ago, and Mexicans have been waiting anxiously for the dirty tricks to be made public. Now that he has been found guilty, there is enormous indignation in Mexico, with many saying he should serve the sentence in his own country.

There is also a widespread demand for Calderón himself to be held to account: how could he possibly be unaware of the acts of his immediate and most important subordinate? Everything suggests that the ex-president and many leading members of his PAN party must have been directly implicated in this vast criminal conspiracy.

That the PAN is well aware of the catastrophic implications for its own political prospects was confirmed by the immediate reaction of its representatives in both houses of the Mexican Congress: they abandoned the plenary session en bloc.

Finally, Mexicans also believe that US institutions – the DEA, FBI and the Federal Government itself – must have been responsible for tolerating, encouraging and even directing the actions of García Luna and his partners in crime as part of their disastrous and brutal War on Drugs.

The importance of the Constitution, of the restoration of its original essence, for the honour and sovereignty of Mexico, could not be clearer.

Featured image: Mexican Flag. Photo credit: Leonardo Jiménez under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

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