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BOOK REVIEW

Moving portrait of a new Mexico

Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy, By Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon,

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 594 pp., illustrated, $30

When opposition candidate Vicente Fox captured the Mexican presidency in 2000, it was a shocking defeat for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the political clique that had held the country in its clutches for decades. Yet what Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon argue persuasively in their remarkable new book, ``Opening Mexico,'' is that Fox's victory was hardly a shock all: It had been in the making for years.

Preston and Dillon, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters for The New York Times and the paper's Mexico City bureau chiefs from 1995 to 2000, paint a moving portrait of a people fighting great odds to force democracy on a country that had long been democratic in name only. Fox's stunning triumph was a watershed moment in Mexican history, one the authors show belongs wholly to the Mexican citizenry.

Since the modern PRI's founding in 1946, citizens came to call the party ``el sistema'' - not a system, Preston and Dillon point out, the system. Its leaders deliberately blurred the line between party and state, convincing the public - and reinforcing the myth through unprecedented coercion - that to oppose the party was to oppose the country itself.

With no viable political opposition and no balance of power, a Mexican president enjoyed despotic powers during his sexenio, as the six-year term is called. ``The system, at its apex,'' Preston and Dillon write, ``was an electoral democracy with no fair elections; a federation in which all power was centralized in the presidency; and a revolutionary state where the workers were dominated and demobilized.''

PRI tactics for winning and retaining power, ``Opening Mexico'' illustrates in chilling fashion, were as unbelievable as they were successful. Some highlights: turning off the lights at polling places so operatives could swap fistfuls of ballots; buying rural votes with free washers; and requiring workers to vote in state elections by stating preferences out loud before PRI-backed bosses.

The PRI also used positive reinforcement masterfully. Party officials wooed skeptics by bringing the country jobs, economic growth, social welfare programs, and a measure of stability. And when it had power, of course, the PRI proved to have no equal in graft, fraud, and extortion. ``A politician who is poor is a poor politician'' was an oft-stated rule of one PRI "dinosaur.''

But gradually the excesses began to test Mexicans' tolerance. As disgraces mounted - a student massacre in 1968, the peso crash of the 1990s, the ``dirty war'' against leftists (for which former top officials are now being held accountable) - embitterment blossomed into rage.

Drawing inspiration from heroes of the past - including key populist figures such as former president Benito Ju arez - citizens showed an incredible resilience, deriving power from an innate belief in civil rights. Preston and Dillon write that it was this gathering juggernaut, more than anything else, that ultimately toppled what many considered the Mexican monarchy.

``There was no Nelson Mandela, no single leader to personify and guide the struggle,'' they write. ``Nor was there a single democratic movement, but rather a multitude of initiatives from individuals and groups across the society and the country, which gradually converged as more and more Mexicans became convinced of the need to end the PRI's despotic rule.''

Preston and Dillon deserve an immense amount of credit for their achievement here, the payoff of their tireless reporting. At their best, the authors, using exhaustive research, personal testimony, and interviews at every stratum of Mexican society, provide blow-by-blow accounts of seminal moments in modern Mexican history. Their narrative of the first meeting of the opposition-controlled Congress in 1997, for example, is simply stirring.

Fox himself realized that in many ways he was not a candidate so much as el cambio, or change. His campaign smartly adopted the slogan ``Ya!'' - ``Enough already!'' Enough indeed, Mexicans decided. ``Today is the culmination of many years of struggle,'' Fox said after hoisting his champagne glass on election night.

Since 2000, Fox has learned how difficult it is to fulfill sweeping campaign promises like resolving the dispute in Chiapas and creating jobs. But Preston and Dillon show how these struggles, in a new pluralistic government, are signs of Mexico's political progress. In place of the swift, corrupt efficiency of the PRI is debate and tussling over ideas. In short, democracy.

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