Mexico's Move Toward Democracy

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  • 0:01 Mexico
  • 1:08 Independence to Revolution
  • 3:48 Mexico Since the Revolution
  • 6:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

As a nation, Mexico has striven for an effective democratic process since it was formed, but the reality is not always so simple. Explore the quest for democracy across Mexican history and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


North America is full of 'united states.' There's us, the United States of America, and then just south of us is Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Of course, most of us just call it 'Mexico.' Mexico, much like the United States, was once a colony of a European empire and had to fight for its independence. And much like us, it has a federal government and is a constitutional republic. Unlike us, Mexicans speak Spanish. Well, many of us do, too, but down there, it's official.

Besides that, Mexico has similar concerns and issues as us, and one of those concerns is the rights of the people. Democracy has been a major priority to Mexico since it became a nation, but unfortunately, it has not always been a reality. A legacy of debt and militaristic culture often meant that Mexico had to choose between a stable government or a democratic one. Both options were not always available. So what has this meant for Mexico, and what does it mean for Mexico today? Well, vamos, let's head south and check it out.

Independence to Revolution

To understand Mexico's struggle with democracy, we're going to have to go way back to the beginning. Okay, not that far back. There we go. The year is 1821, and Mexico is formally being recognized as an independent nation after a ten-year-long war with Spain. Mexico is independent but also politically fractured, bankrupt, and isolated.

So what did Mexico do? It became an empire! That's right, Mexico's first government as an independent state was a dictatorship under Agustín de Iturbide. That didn't last long, though. Iturbide was overthrown in 1823, and in 1824, Mexico was turned into a republic, with its own bonafide constitution and everything. Politicians and intellectuals created the government to democratically represent the people by dividing power between a president and a legislature with elected representatives. While this was great, Mexico was still bankrupt and politically unstable, and for the next several decades, military dictators rose up again and again to overthrow the government. At the worst points, around the 1830s, the average length of a presidential term was 7 months.

Finally, in the 1850s, a group of liberal reformers overthrew one of the military dictators and in 1857, a new constitution was created, which gave more rights to the people and was meant to improve the democratic process. In this era, a man named Benito Juárez was elected as president. Juárez was genuinely interested in protecting the rights of the people and has often been called the 'George Washington of Mexico.' Juárez was elected president three times, but after half a century of dictatorships, it made many people uncomfortable to allow one person to be president so long.

Juárez died in office, but his successor was overthrown by a young general named Porfirio Díaz. Although Díaz justified his rebellion under the idea that Mexican presidents should only serve one term in office, he rigged elections and for the next 35 years was one of the most successful dictators in Mexican history. Under Díaz, Mexico became debt-free for the first time ever. Technology and industry grew at an incredible rate, and Mexico was more stable than it had ever been. But, the democratic process was also at its lowest. Elections were rigged, critics of Díaz tended to disappear, and riots were violently suppressed. By 1910, the people had enough, and after yet another rigged election resulted in Díaz being re-elected, the Mexican Revolution began.

Mexico Since the Revolution

The Mexican Revolution lasted a full ten years, and at the end of it, Mexico was once again politically fractured and completely broke. But, it did have a new constitution. The Constitution of 1917 was the most liberal one yet, giving even more rights to the people and officially limiting the president to a single term in office - with no consecutive reelections. So, that's it, right? Mexico was fully democratic? Well, not quite. Remember how I said that Mexico could either be stable or democratic?

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