Published November 19, 2010
MEXICO CITY – As Mexico prepares to mark 100 years since a revolution fought to install democracy and improve the lot of the country's landless peasants, many are focusing on how short it fell from its mark.
Mexico's democracy is anemic and the plight of the poor remains largely unchanged, critics say.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at Mexico City's independence monument Friday, blocking one of the city's main boulevards, to denounce what organizers called the failures of the bloody, seven-year conflict that began Nov. 20, 1910, and saw peasant armies led by mustachioed heroes Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa topple the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.
Rather than democracy, it set the stage for 71 years of paternalistic political domination by the Revolutionary Institutional Party that only ended a decade ago.
"The legacy of the revolution is a really mixed bag," said Jose Antonio Ibanez, coordinator of the human rights program at the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City. "It undoubtedly changed the face of Mexican society, but it fell far short of its objectives. ... The poor people, the farmers who fought in the revolution, those whose blood built this country, they're still completely marginalized."
Despite the emergence of a middle class — made possible, academics say, by the revolution — poverty continues to haunt the country. Nearly half of Mexicans still live under the poverty line, according to government statistics. A UNICEF study released Thursday said the number of people suffering from "extreme food insecurity" more than doubled between 2008 and 2009 to 17 percent of the population.
Gilberto Peralta, a 45-year-old janitor who turned up for Friday's protest in the capital, dismissed the revolution as "ancient history."
"We can't be thinking about 100 years ago, we have to focus on what's happening now," said Peralta, a father of four who started working at age 10. "Everything just keeps getting worse every day and I wouldn't be surprised if we weren't as bad off as they were during the revolution."
Today, another bloody war against drug traffickers, which has cost at least 28,000 lives over the past four years and transformed some areas of Mexico into battlegrounds, also casts a pall on Saturday's anniversary celebration.
The violence is so bad that dozens of towns in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas have scrapped parades planned for Saturday. In parts of the same state, drug gangs have kidnapped ranchers or run them off land they've held since the time of the revolution.
Tania, a high school teacher recently evacuated from Ciudad Mier because of violence, says her 65-year-old father was kidnapped from his land by armed men Nov. 11 and hasn't been heard from since.
"It's a ranch that came from my great-grandparents," said Tania, who like many people fleeing to nearby Ciudad Miguel Aleman for refuge didn't want to give her last name.
"They took everyone," including the ranch hands, she added.
Pundits compared the revolution's worst excesses to the cartel executions that dominate contemporary news broadcasts.
"Were the pitiless revolutionaries of yesteryear the ancestors of the current killers?" a column in Thursday's El Universal newspaper asked. "Or is it simply that ... the history of Mexico is a history of treason and violence that are as Mexican as the tortilla?"
A hundred years on, critics insist the political goals of the revolution, too, remain elusive.
"Political parties here are not democratic," said Victor Rosa Amanda, who heads Iberoamericana University's law school. "They have a 'machine' attitude toward politics and when they're in power they divide up the spoils between their cronies, which we can't really call democratic behavior."
Reforma, one of Mexico's main newspapers, celebrated with an online graphic describing what revolutionary hero Zapata would see if he were alive today: few interested in working the land and violence the order of the day at his old headquarters near Cuernavaca south of Mexico City, where factions of the broken Beltran Levya cartel fight for control of territory.
"While a million people died between 1910 and 1920, the time of the revolution, 10,000 have died from drug violence in 2010 alone — a time of 'peace' — 231 in Morelos," Zapata's home state, the newspaper said.
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson in Cuidad Miguel Aleman contributed to this report.