1994: the year Mexico survived

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They say bad things happen in threes. Or that’s maybe what you blurt out when someone tells you about their poor friend Jerry: his wife is leaving him, her new boyfriend gave him a black eye and his goldfish just died. So you say something silly and superstitious as a sort of vicarious comfort to the unlucky victim: since you’ve gone through three awful things, Jerry, the Fates won’t go over your quota and hit you with a fourth disaster. Unless they do – even Destiny makes miscalculations sometimes.

 

Exhibit A: Mexico, 1994. This was the tough year, the one that made neighbors shake their heads and worry about the country’s well-being. So, what happened in 1994? A friend of mine asked me this as we were leaving a performance of Salón Danzombie in La Fábrica Querétaro, a play that imagines a zombie apocalypse striking Mexico in that auspicious year. The playwright and director told me it was logical to pick ’94 as the setting for his comedy – so much else happened, why not the arrival of the walking dead? Let’s take a little tour of recent history and walk – no, run – through the year that Mexico (barely) survived.

Everyone might have been too hungover to notice, but NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) came into effect on January 1. Terrible for farmers, good for manufacturers, in a nice, sweeping generalization (who wants to fall into the quicksand of detailed economic analysis?) Also on January 1 – to protest NAFTA – the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) began an uprising in Chiapas, the first major armed civil unrest since the Cristeros War of the 1930s. Mexico had definitely woken up on the wrong side of the bed this New Year’s Day.

The uprising only lasted twelve days, but it did introduce Mexico and the world to a memorable character, the mysterious masked guerrilla leader, Subcomandante Marcos. His real name is Rafael Guillén Vicente and he is not an indigenous Maya like the rebels he led. In fact, members of his family were prominent in the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which he made his political nemesis. His florid, romantic and sometimes crude rhetoric has been color commentary to political games in Mexico for almost a decade. He’s written manifestos and essays, as well as a detective novel and a romance that he called “pure pornography.” Disdain for politicians of any stripe is one of his favorite topics; a January letter to the Peña Nieto administration referred to the president and his advisors as “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves”, adding a cartoonish hand flipping them the bird.

The rebels retreated into the steamy – or should it be torrid, Subcomandante? – mountain jungles, but Mexico’s poorest state would continue to fester. The country had little time to recover from the fright of upheaval; on March 23, presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated at a campaign rally in Tijuana. No prominent political figures had been murdered in Mexico since 1929 (before that, it was their expected cause of death). Police arrested Mario Aburto Martinez, who confessed and said he had acted alone. Well, we all know how convincing those words are – particularly in a place where conspiracy theories seem about as hypothetical as Newton’s Laws of Gravity.

Colosio was expected to become the next president since sitting president Carlos Salinas had indicated him as successor. But competing for the national spotlight was Manuel Camacho Solis, the Foreign Secretary who was dispatched to Chiapas to broker peace negotiations with the Zapatistas. Camacho had openly discussed his aspirations to the presidency and many observers thought he was trying to win media favor and distract from Colosio’s campaign. Salinas clarified that Colosio was “the candidate”, in other words, to be bestowed with the presidency of Mexico. But as the campaigning continued, Colosio’s speeches and interviews drifted further and further from the PRI party line; he kept talking about the “change” Mexico wanted and needed, even a “democratic transformation.” He wasn’t quite dismissive or damning enough when he talked about Subcomandante Marcos and his rebellion. Some think his ambiguity about the PRI’s “perfect dictatorship” got him killed. Ironically, his replacement – former Colosio campaign manager Ernesto Zedillo – would be the PRI’s last man in Los Pinos for twelve years.

Attempting to summarize theories about Colosio’s murder is as hopeless as doing the same with all the controversy and conspiracies surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. And Colosio was actually not the only newsworthy assassination in 1994. The PRI party secretary and brother-in-law of Carlos Salinas, Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, was killed on September 28, shot to death in Mexico City. This tangled, internecine story involves a lot of brothers: Salinas’s brother, Raúl, was arrested in 1995 and convicted of masterminding the assassination, but his conviction was overturned in 2005. Ruiz Massieu’s brother, Mario, was also arrested on money laundering charges and accused of obstructing the murder investigation. Mario committed suicide in 1999.

The economic situation in 1994 was fragile; the deficit was growing fast and with all the turmoil, foreign investment kept a safe distance. In December, the strain on the country’s finances became acute: the peso crashed, losing one-third of its value and delivering a huge blow to the country’s nascent middle class. According to a Stanford University report: “Following the forced devaluation of the peso on December 20, 1994, Mexico faced its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Real GNP per capita fell 9.2 percent in 1995 and mean manufacturing wages fell by 21 percent over the 1994-96 period.” Mexico would end up receiving around $50 billion dollars in loans from the US, the IMF, the Bank for International Settlements and the Bank of Canada.

Mexico also suffered a sports trauma in 1994: their national soccer team was eliminated from the World Cup after losing to Bulgaria. And then there was the horrible drought in Chihuahua, Hurricane Rosa on the Pacific coast. Not to mention, the most rumbling and spewing from Popocatépetl that had been recorded since the Spanish conquest. 50,000 people were evacuated from the foot of the volcano as it rained apocalyptic ash on the metropolis. Oh, and zombies began prowling the streets and feeding on the living. Kind of fits right in, doesn’t it?

 

Sources:

University of Iowa Center for International Finance and Development, Has NAFTA contributed to economic development in Mexico?

The Guardian, Man in the mask returns to change world with new coalition and his own sexy novel (May 11 2007)

New York Times, A Year to Forget: 1994 leaves Mexico reeling (December 29 1994)

Sin Embargo, 10 claves para recordar el asesinato de Luis Donaldo Colosio (March 23 2012)

Proceso, Caso Colosio: sin desandar lo andado (February 13 2004)

Stanford University, The Household Response to the Mexican Peso Crisis