Mexico, Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico, 1810-1996. – Review – book review
Mexico, Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico, 1810-1996. By Enrique Krauze. (New York: Harper Collins, 1997. Pp. 872. $35.00.)
The author of this survey is Mexico’s leading popular, non-fiction author. Enrique Krauze’s books aim for a wide audience both in Mexico and the United States. He tells wonderful stories with well-crafted prose. Mexico: Biography of Power relates modern Mexican history through the lives of its leaders from the “Insurgent Priests,” Fathers Hidalgo and Morelos, who led Mexicans in the first stages of their independence wars, to Carlos Salinas de Gortari, “The Man Who Would Be King,” who as president headed the most corrupt regime in the nation’s history.
We learn about the foibles of all the “great” men. Lazaro Cardenas, the most beloved of the “revolutionary” presidents, was loathe to accept criticism because of a “swollen sense of pride” (447). Adolfo Lopez Mateos, president from 1958 to 1964, was a great orator with little care for the details of his office, who spent much of his life in great misery from migraine headaches. The extreme ugliness of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, president from 1964 to 1970, shaped his entire character. Pancho Villa and Alvaro Obregon (president, 1920-1924) had very odd relationships with death. We learn about their strengths, too. Plutarco Elias Calles, president from 1924 to 1928, had the special gifts of “severity, reflection, consistency” (426).
The vignettes are at times mythical (and magical). The young Lazaro Cardenas, finding himself in a hopeless skirmish with one bullet left, puts his gun to his head ready to shoot himself rather than be captured, but is rescued by fate.
Krauze has his villains and his favorites. He describes Pancho Villa, one of the most prominent revolutionary generals, as a “wild animal” (328). Luis Echevarria (president, 1970-1976) was an obsequious, faceless bureaucrat who, when elected president, turned into a wild-eyed public radical and secret tyrant. He drastically expanded government involvement in the economy, while at the same time conducting a “dirty war” against dissidents. Krauze devotes an amazing number of pages, nearly 10 percent of the book, to a relatively obscure figure, President Miguel Aleman Valdes (1946-1952), for whom the author seems to have a grudging admiration, although he holds Aleman responsible for both the moral and political corruption of the Revolution.
The book features plenty of gossip, strong opinions, and well-turned phrases. “Pop” psychology, Mexican-style, permeates the pages. Perhaps, because he tries to understand these prominent men (with not a woman to be found), Krauze seems to exhibit a moral ambivalence about them. His attitude toward labor leader Fidel Velasquez mirrors his respect for the corrupt Aleman. According to the author, Velasquez, who ruthlessly destroyed any semblance of union autonomy in Mexico during a half-century of iron rule, was an impressive leader. No amount of thievery or brutality elicits indignation.
The overwhelming preponderance of the evidence about Mexico’s powerful men is dismaying. Not a kind heart do we find. Not one honest man appears. No one had Mexico’s best interest in mind. The nation’s greatest national heroes are debunked; its faceless bureaucrats are revealed as monsters. Krauze’s tales reveal the banality of evil.
Mark Wasserman Rutgers University
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