Democracy and social movements in Mexico

Mexico has a proud tradition of mobilization, yet it has largely failed to ensure that demands are properly met or that the country’s politics, institutions and legal system are transformed.

René Torres-Ruiz
1 December 2016
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.


APPO demonstration in Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City,2006. Wkikicommons/Maurice Marcellin. Some rights reserved.Mexico has a long uninterrupted history of social protest and mobilization. These mobilizations have however failed to overlap and join forces with other forms of struggle and protest; they have also failed to build up a large social and political movement capable of initiating a veritable transformation of general awareness, let alone of the legal and institutional framework that regulates — in an authoritarian, uneven and inequitable way— the coexistence of the Mexican people.

From 2000 to 2015, in Mexico’s so-called ‘post-transitional’ period, after the National Action Party (pan) defeated the formerly hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri) that had ruled the country for over 70 years, robust social movements emerged, showing skill and inventiveness in their strategies for mobilizing support in their fight for social causes. Despite the groundswell of popular unrest and dissent, these movements locked in a struggle with the de facto powers have failed to move a State apparatus resistant to any deepening in the country’s democratization towards the acknowledgement and exercise of citizens’ political, social, economic, cultural, sexual rights. On more than one occasion this has triggered social protests.

Why does social mobilization in Mexico happen?

Mexico’s social mobilizations and protests over this period are attributable to various causes: recognition for the cultural identity of the country’s indigenous population and for their rights and autonomy; political-electoral problems; demonstrations against the system; protests against violence or else to demand respect for the rights of sexual diversity; the demands of dissatisfied students.

Social movements in Mexico as around the world are increasingly showing themselves adept at mobilizing resources and implementing various measures and types of mobilization to openly question the powers that be, within a neoliberal economic context where the divide between the haves and have-nots is growing ever wider. This is creating highly unequal societies scarred by poverty and extreme poverty affecting millions of human beings. Infant malnutrition, for example, is blocking any prospect of a brighter future for societies suffering from this terrible problem. Unemployment is spiralling due to the implementation of inhumane neoliberal policies, and often-curable diseases are allowed to kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of children, women, indigenous people and the elderly.

At the same time, the social movements born in Mexico at the dawn of the new millennium question the establishment and operation of a political model based on a liberal representative democracy that is revealing a growing failure and lack of interest in resolving today’s social problems and demands (employment, education, protection of human rights, diverse identities, the autonomy of social groups within state contexts, environment, transparency, legality, the fight against corruption and violence on several levels, including that of the emotions, etc.). They are up against a representative democracy intricately linked to neoliberal interests, a political model seeking to rule in a void, without a broad base of popular support and generating a profound indifference toward politics and democracy. The democracy put in place not so long ago throughout most of Latin America is now facing a major crisis.

The democracy put in place not so long ago throughout most of Latin America is now facing a major crisis. Just as its arrival was once heralded with great fanfare, wrapped up in promises that created outsized expectations among large sectors of the region’s populations, it is now greeted with skepticism at best, and more often with open mistrust and a rejection of politicians, institutions and governments.

This has created a sense of detachment, disenchantment and crippling indifference. Politicians defending liberal democracies, self-styled representatives, are increasingly disengaged from the challenges facing citizens while continuing their political activities amid corruption, lies and deceit. This has led to the frustration of citizens and an erosion of institutional and social trust.

The solution is not to discard representative democracy, even though an increasing sector of society is in favor of abandoning the field by refusing to participate in institutional forums built around this democratic model. This ignores the fact that such a move would be to squander the very significant and hard-fought accomplishments of social struggle. The true problem lies elsewhere, and relates to the deep crisis of representation in recent times within contemporary societies. Therefore, we should consider the benefit of citizens resuming a participative and deliberative role in the political realm, of involving social actors in the public space, in citizens’ normative appropriation of institutions, as Jürgen Habermas says, whereby they may actively exercise their democratic rights, specifically in regard to participation and communication. Charles Taylor, for his part, proposes not always having to act as subjects but also as rulers, not always being below but also on top; in other words, that at least for a period it is “us” who might be in charge, instead of it always being “them.”

These ideas do not run counter to representative democracy, but instead call for an enriching improvement of it through participation. They avoid the false dichotomy of representation versus participation.

However, another important and particularly vexing aspect of representative democracies’ poor state of health relates to the distance between political parties and their social basis. This is compounded by the disregard, not to say total abandonment, of political parties’ traditional role as institutions able to articulate social demands and interests and act as a bridge between civil society and government; to serve as channels of communication or promoters of social action, political formation and party political activism built on a particular ideology and practice, on the construction and proposal of a political project that differentiates them and that seeks to boost social and political transformations.

Today’s political parties, including those on the left – in Mexico’s case, the Movement of National Regeneration (Morena) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (prd) – are electoralist and pragmatic, with blurred ideological positions and flimsy discourses in terms of their proposed programs. They are often part of the problem rather than the solution, with links to drug trafficking, organized crime… absolutely corrupt and all-corrupting.

They are catch-all or cartel political parties that act under the aegis of state institutions and wish to stake out their position simply in order to safeguard their precious interests and multiple privileges. They are often part of the problem rather than the solution, with links to drug trafficking, organized crime; riddled with anti-democratic practices, they are absolutely corrupt and all-corrupting. This combines to demobilize, whereas a political party should in fact have the opposite effect of mobilising citizens as a political and social force and raising their awareness.

Collective action in modern societies today is the demand of social actors who feel displaced by the deficient decision-making of remote ‘professional politicians’. Nowadays many social mobilizations around the world (the Indignados or the 15-M anti-austerity movement in Spain, Occupy Wall Street, and #YoSoy132 in Mexico, to name just a few) are the result of citizens eager to participate within the political sphere, to monitor, rate and denounce the performance of decision-makers, becoming directly involved in taking decisions if only to break from the vicious circle that has long stifled the activities of the common citizen in terms of representation. This is a democracy in which citizens must take the driving seat. This is a democracy in which citizens must take the driving seat.

Citizen participation in public matters must be accepted as essential, not to replace representative democracy, but to complement it, improve it, and help find solutions for the enormous and complex problems afflicting societies around the world today. Mexico needs a robust and participative citizenship, one capable of influencing the development of the political community and society, for the construction of the public good. Participation and representation are mutually necessary to make our nascent democracy viable and to give it meaning.

What effects have social movements had?

We should recall that in Mexico, despite important mobilizations in recent years (ezln, appo, mpjd, #YoSoy132, Ayotzinapa), most of the population does not mobilize and organize itself: movements are in fact confined to relatively limited and minority sectors. These have lacked the strength to enable the confluence of a wider range of social and political organizations in order to assemble broad alliances between diverse social sectors. Furthermore, for various reasons, none of these activist sectors has lasted long, or at least long enough to make a defining impact on the issues in question and in the transformation of society.

However, some of these movements have succeeded in making a forceful and influential presence felt. They have not resigned themselves to simply questioning the status quo. On the contrary they have sought to translate their work, resources, experience and imagination into concrete proposals for the construction of alternative solutions to the various vicissitudes and issues affecting Mexican society – despite the relative lack of ultimate success in achieving their aims.

They have opened up vital debates around the processes of solidarity both within Mexico and abroad, attracting considerable sympathy and creating great expectations. Nevertheless, they have also suffered major setbacks and made serious slip-ups, disheartening activists and the population at large. The repression and criminalization of protest in Mexico has grown at an alarming rate in recent years.

Sometimes these problems have been caused by internal mistakes within the movements.  In most cases they have resulted from an authoritarian and abusive intervention by Mexico’s federal, state and local government authorities. The repression and criminalization of protest in Mexico has grown at an alarming rate in recent years.

The democratic and egalitarian hopes underpinning these struggles have left in their wake political failures, broken dreams and unfulfilled promises. Examples include the emergence in 1994 of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (ezln), and in later years  – particularly in 2001 – when this largely indigenous collective mobilized itself to demand recognition for indigenous rights and culture; in 2005, the broad-based popular protest when the head of the Federal District government was threatened with impeachment. In 2006, the movement headed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador during the post-electoral dispute over the recounting of votes from every voting booth amid accusations of electoral fraud; also in 2006, the major uprising of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (appo); the extensive and innovative presence from 2011 to 2013 of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (mpjd); in 2012, the #Yosoy132 movement mainly comprised of students from both public and private universities; and from 2014 to today the protests, marches, demonstrations and numerous popular mobilizations led by the family members of the 43 missing students from the teachers’ school “Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos”, in Ayotzinapa.

All of these are clear examples of social unrest and mobilizations that nevertheless did not accomplish their aims (with the exception of the mobilization to prevent López Obrador’s impeachment). Mexico has a proud tradition of mobilization, yet it has largely failed to ensure that demands are properly met or that the country’s political, institutional and legal situations have been improved.

These popular mobilizations have not led to a destabilization of the neoliberal economic system that has held sway in Mexico since the 1980s, a system that has wreaked so much damage by aggravating poverty and increasing inequality. Neither have they constituted an inflection point to alter the hegemony of the seemingly dysfunctional representative political model. These mobilizations have not introduced changes of government and public policies, or had an impact on improving laws and the proper running of institutions; furthermore, they have not made a substantive impact on the construction of a fairer, more prosperous, equitable society with lower levels of poverty, and where violence is no longer a major part of people’s daily lives in almost every part of the country, a situation with a negative impact on the social stability, peace of mind, and security of the population and one which creates conflicts, fragmentations and social chaos. In other words, they have not prevented deep and enormous damage being done to the social fabric.

Questioning modernity

Many participants in these movements have come from new generations of social activists, and the presence of these new participants has been made possible thanks to the permanence and perseverance of Mexico’s social movement. In addition, we are currently at a watershed when many sectors of society are openly questioning the traditional values of modernity, and the political and economic structures that it has engendered or which have been updated and become more deeply rooted in the past forty years.

Similarly, in recent years, collective action has risen again, as the collective awakening of one or more social groups (fragmented in Mexico) that have dared to question the current regime and economic model, as well as the dominant political culture. These activists have had the guts and imagination to demand rights, freedoms and democracy, better conditions in which citizens can demand respect for their increasing number and range of rights, the end to violence, poverty and inequality. As students, laborers, nurses, doctors and women did previously, today’s activists in Mexico seek to contribute to the transformation of the Mexican political system.

As students, laborers, nurses, doctors and women did previously, today’s activists in Mexico seek to contribute to the transformation of the Mexican political system. They seek to open it up and bring about a “true democratization”, not only in terms of representation but also in regard to citizen participation, deliberation and involvement in major decision making processes. These historic mobilizations, have sought to bring an end to authoritarianism, questioning as never before the legitimacy of the political regime, fighting to democratize it and establish citizens’ freedoms and rights that are absent and often merely simulated or limited.

These movements represent the first steps in the struggle to found a properly democratic political system; they are the result of social groups, the young, indigenous people, students, peasants, education workers, professionals, and women who have all attempted to imagine a non-simulated Mexico, and who have tried to reveal the authoritarian system hiding beneath the veil of democracy. These mobilizations seek to construct a non-authoritarian system where there is no repression or violence. At the same time, they are attempting to open up democratic and far more horizontal channels of communication and dialogue between rulers and those who are governed, and to broaden the spectrum of citizen participation and deliberation that has so far been circumscribed. These are movements that constitute an about-turn in political culture.

But it is also true that most recent social movements in Mexico have been notably reactive and defensive in relation to certain state actions or omissions. They have started out vigorously and then lost steam quite rapidly. They grow, attracting a wide range of followers, producing large mobilizations, gaining visibility with regard to certain negative circumstances and situations, prompted either by a public policy or program that the government wishes to impose without any public consultation, an act of repression, authoritarianism or following a disproportionate and abusive reaction from the police and army against a sector of society. This may be triggered by the murder of one or more people, a change in legislation, etc. But this is then followed by a counter flow, a significant loss of momentum; the movements dissipate, most of the time without achieving the objectives that motivated them in the first place. 

Concluding remarks

Some social movements in Mexico (such as the Zapatista movement or MPJD) have attempted to change or improve not only the country’s laws and institutions, but also the moral rules on which human relationships are grounded. These mobilizations maintain that it is worth fighting for new values and that movements can produce social and cultural shifts, to be reflected in new social and political institutions.

Some of these movements have made small steps forward, but they have not achieved this aim so far. Overall the Mexican state and its institutions have managed to prevent structural change together with the transformations needed to deepen and improve Mexico’s nascent democracy and its population’s quality of life.

Thanks go to the Research Department of the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City for providing the funds to translate this article from Spanish into English for its publication in Open Movements.

How to cite:
Torres-Ruiz, R. (2016) Democracy and social movements in Mexico, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 1 December. https://opendemocracy.net/ren-torres-ruiz/democracy-and-social-movements-in-mexico


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData