Revolutionary Mexico Tried to Transform the World Economy

Christy Thornton

In the twentieth century, the post-revolutionary Mexican government drew up ambitious plans to transform the world economic system for the benefit of the Global South. Their failure helped turn Mexico itself into a laboratory for neoliberalism.

Former president of Mexico Luis Echeverria. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

Ever since the Spanish invasion of the sixteenth century, Mexico has been preyed upon by the world’s most powerful states. But the country and its people have also played their part in shaping world history.

The Mexican Revolution created a system whose leaders tried to reshape the world economy in line with their own vision. The failure of those efforts turned Mexico into a laboratory for the neoliberal economic model that has spread all over the world. The following is a conversation between Jacobin’s Daniel Finn and professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University Christy Thornton, from an episode of Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

Daniel Finn

Mexico might not have the same reputation as a revolutionary power in world politics when compared with Russia or China or even Cuba, yet it was the location of one of the twentieth century’s first great revolutions. What was the nature of the system that was created by that revolution?

Christy Thornton

It’s a complicated answer, particularly depending on the time frame that you use to answer it. The revolution itself was a kind of multisided, internecine battle to overthrow the previously existing dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, who had been in power for decades, leading up to the beginning of the revolution in 1910.

There were factions that were interested largely in questions of liberal democracy and ensuring that a dictator could not just be reelected over and over again. There were factions that were interested in questions of land reform and breaking the power of large landholders — not only large Mexican private landholders, but also foreign companies and the Catholic Church. Then there were worker struggles coming out of factories and mines, particularly in the cities and the northern mining regions.

Those factions all came together over the course of a nearly decade-long struggle. The resulting regime was one that drew a lot of its legitimacy from the 1917 constitution, which was the first real social-democratic charter in the world. The constitution codified important labor rights and detailed plans for land redistribution.

It also did a very important thing with regard to property rights, which was to say that property was no longer vested in individuals but in the nation. It devolved responsibility to the state to make sure that property was distributed equitably and for the good of the nation. Those were the broad strokes of what the Mexican Revolution put in place over the decades that followed.

The constitution happened in 1917, but from about 1920 onward, the struggle was about how to put into practice those ideas that had been codified in that document. Particularly with Mexico being in a dependent economic position with regard to the United States, and being in a fragile position politically, economically, and socially in the aftermath of ten years of sustained fighting, it took a long time to implement some of the most important reforms that were called for in that constitution.

For example, by 1938, the Mexican government under President Lázaro Cárdenas eventually came to nationalize the oil sector and create the state-run oil company that we know today as Pemex. The legacy of the revolution was one very much based on the idea of social and economic rights as codified in the constitution. But there remained a kind of social struggle for decades afterward to put those ideas into effect.

The political system that emerged from that would eventually solidify into a single party known as the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI. That party came to have a political stranglehold over the Mexican state through much of the twentieth century, in a way that really began to undermine some of the democratic ideas that were put forward during the revolution.

Daniel Finn

What did the revolution mean for Mexico’s relationship with global capitalism?

Christy Thornton

The revolution itself, that decade of fighting, had very serious implications for Mexico’s insertion into the international financial system and the Mexican state’s relationship with global capitalism. There were landholdings that were destroyed — foreign companies that had mining and railroad concessions and large landed estates.

Widespread destruction during the revolution meant that many foreign investments were destroyed in the course of the fighting itself. The public debt that had been taken on, first by the Porfirio Díaz regime before the revolution started, and then during the revolutionary period, were repudiated by the Mexican post-revolutionary state.

The rejection of that outstanding foreign debt — the inability of the Mexican state to pay bondholders and loans — in addition to the destruction of foreign property, really put Mexico in the crosshairs of the international capitalist class, which organized broadly into cartels of creditors. We had institutions like the International Committee of Bankers on Mexico and the National Association for the Protection of American Rights in Mexico.

These were organizations where US, British, and some French capitalists got together to organize their interests vis-à-vis the Mexican state. Not only did they lobby the national governments in the United States and Great Britain — they also, for instance, showed up at the 1919 Paris peace conference at the close of WWI to argue that the League of Nations should do something about the intransigence of the Mexican state toward international capital.

There was a real fear after the revolution that the new constitution and the intransigence of the Mexican government would mean that the rights and privileges foreign capital had enjoyed previously in the country would be foreclosed upon. What actually happened was that the state found ways to be conciliatory toward the interests of foreign capitalists over and over again, but Mexico continued to be excluded in the post-revolutionary period from the international financial system.

There were negotiations with particular oil companies and landholders, and many foreign investors actually made more money in Mexico after the revolution than they had been making previously. However, Mexico remained shut out of the growing global financial markets from that period into the 1940s. There were three decades in which Mexico was completely excluded from systems of international credit and finance.

They engaged in bilateral and multilateral negotiations through this international bankers’ committee over that period to try to resolve this, but those negotiations repeatedly faltered. The Mexican state and the bankers would reach an agreement and then they would try to make a payment. But it would quickly become clear that the Mexican state couldn’t actually continue to pay, so they reneged on the agreement. That happened over and over again, especially in the 1920s.

Mexico’s exclusion from those international financial markets was important because it shaped how Mexico thought about the reform of international economic governance and international institutions like the Pan-American Union and the League of Nations, before eventually going forward into the United Nations system. That exclusion meant that Mexico was very different from some other places in Latin America, which experienced during the 1920s what was known as the dance of the millions — a speculative inflow of capital from banks in London and New York.

Once the 1929 stock market crash happened and the Great Depression began, that capital was immediately sucked back out of the region just as quickly as it had come in. The cycle of boom and bust in the international financial system that happened elsewhere in the region didn’t happen in Mexico because the country remained shut out. The way that Mexico was completely excluded from that system of private finance really shaped Mexican state ideas about how to create new financial and economic institutions that might tackle some of the inequities they saw arising from that situation.

Daniel Finn

How did the leaders of Mexico develop the plan that you’ve alluded to for reform of international economic governance, and how did they set about trying to implement that plan?

Christy Thornton

It happened in fits and starts over the course of the 1930s and ’40s. The earliest interest came in the 1920s in a body called the Inter-American High Commission, which was a group of economic experts based in the Pan-American Union in Washington, DC. The Pan-American Union was founded to foster commercial relations in the Americas. It was explicitly thought of as a way to bring commercial relations into closer collaboration between the various countries of the Americas.

Within this body, the High Commission began to study questions about finance, trade, etc. Latin Americans really were arguing for a new international bank that would serve the needs of industrialization and agricultural development from the earliest part of the twentieth century. The Mexicans began to take up this idea in the 1920s and pursued it very strongly from the 1930s.

A key flashpoint was the 1933 world economic conference in London. This was the moment at which the Roosevelt administration reneged on its promises for international cooperation and decided that the needs of national recovery would take precedent. The Mexican representative who went to London came very much prepared to say, “Okay, we’re willing to make sacrifices for the resetting of the global economy, if it can be done in such a way as to make it fairer to the poor countries of the world” — in a way, to save capitalism from itself in that moment.

When the Roosevelt administration came and poured cold water on that idea, the Latin Americans — the Mexicans in particular — realized that they were going to have to work harder to make sure that international economic cooperation happened, first of all, and secondly that it would redound to their interest. They immediately went from London to the Inter-American conference at Montevideo in 1933. The Mexican foreign minister came with a proposal for the radical restructuring of international debt and credit, calling for “a new legal and philosophical conception of credit.”

He argued that the bankers in the Global North would have to realize that if they wanted to make a profit from international banking, they were going to need markets for their surplus capital. From his perspective, the service that borrowers provided to lenders was just as important as vice versa. He said that this was “an equation of at least two terms,” arguing for the interdependent nature of international finance. He argued very strongly against the idea that international affairs should be structured by these questions of your international credit rating or whether you were a debtor or a creditor.

He said that creditors shouldn’t have all of the decision-making power: there had to be multilateral institutions that would give voice to the poorer countries, because their role in this process was just as important to the success of global capitalism as that of the lenders. One of the results of that was to argue for the creation of an institution that came to be known as the Inter-American Bank. Mexican officials got together with their counterparts from the rest of the region and began to argue that there should be a new public and multilateral lending institution.

They convinced US officials, the most important of whom was Harry Dexter White of the Treasury Department, to embrace the logic of this idea. US officials came to see that if there was a multilateral lending institution, it would have good implications for the United States. White said that it would mean Latin Americans could no longer complain about dollar diplomacy. They could no longer argue that the United States was using its stranglehold over finance to push the Latin Americans to do what it wanted.

The US planners took up this proposal. By 1940, it had come to have a charter and bylaws that had been consulted on with all the countries of the Americas. The thing that’s crucial to note about this idea is that it came from the demands made by Latin Americans — by these Mexican officials and their allies elsewhere in the region.

It was novel to have this multilateral development institution. The private bankers themselves — the Wall Street interests — thought that this bank was probably going to compete with them when it came to their overseas branch banking and lending. They saw it as unfair state competition for private banking, so they organized to block this effort by lobbying senators within the Senate banking committee. They made sure that the ratification of the charter and bylaws never happened within the US Congress.

In the meantime, those same US officials had begun planning for the institutions that would come to govern the global economy. They took up many of the lessons from the Inter-American Bank in the planning for what became the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Mexico was instrumental in that moment — for example, putting language in the articles of agreement for the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development stating that it would focus just as much on development as on reconstruction. They made the case that since the majority of countries in the world were industrializing, not-yet-developed countries, these institutions would have to pay close attention to the needs and wants of the developing world. The Mexicans got the development mandate of the Bretton Woods institutions put into their founding charters.

In many ways, those institutions and that long struggle were an attempt to address the way that Mexico had been, in their eyes, unfairly shut out of the international financial system, and to create new multilateral institutions that would focus not only on representation of the world’s poor countries, allowing them to have votes and leadership, but also on the redistribution of productive capital from north to south. One of the arguments that I make in my book is that this is where the system of international development as we know it today really emerges — the idea that there should be a kind of multilateral structure for planning how to distribute capital for industrialization and development efforts.

Daniel Finn

How did Mexican governments relate to the wave of decolonization that began after the Second World War? Did they see the new postcolonial states as natural allies for their project?

Christy Thornton

I think it was different at different moments. By the postwar period, the Mexican state had very much consolidated the single-party system run on a kind of tight, corporate structure. There was an understanding that social conflict should be mediated through corporatist institutions between capital, labor, and the state.

There was an important mode of central planning going on within the Mexican state that was nationalist and protectionist. They began to pursue import-substitution industrialization, led through this single-party, soft-authoritarian political system that didn’t allow for much dissent outside of those channels.

If we go all the way back to the end of WWI, the Mexican official who showed up in Paris for the peace negotiations met with a US official. He ended the conversation by saying, “One thing that we in Mexico know is that every colony today means a future war of independence.” Mexico really prided itself on its support for anti-imperialism. But once we got to the second half of the twentieth century and these decolonization movements were happening, the relationship became a little more complicated.

The Mexican state at various points, particularly in the 1940s, took on a very important anti-communist bent. Mexico very much aligned itself with a global anti-communist idea. However, it also wanted to maintain a kind of plausible distance from the United States, so that governments in Mexico wouldn’t be seen as lapdogs of the empire in the north, which of course in the 1840s had taken half of Mexico’s territory.

That complicated question of maintaining an anti-communist stance while also keeping some distance from the United States really came to a head in the 1960s and ’70s. It allowed Mexico to integrate its economy more deeply with that of the United States. Yet particular administrations — first Adolfo López Mateos, who was president from 1958 until 1964, and then Luis Echeverría from 1970 to 1976 — tried to make a strong case that Mexico was part of the Third World and had a leadership role to play.

Mexico would, for instance, flirt with the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) as it began to take off. The question was, if Cuba was a part of the NAM, was it really non-aligned? Mexico refused to make a diplomatic break with states like revolutionary Cuba.

From the 1930s, there was a foreign policy doctrine in Mexico, known as the Estrada Doctrine, which said that diplomatic recognition should not be used as a cudgel over domestic politics. The Mexican state had a policy that they would recognize the people in power, no matter whether they were seen as legitimate or non-legitimate.

They didn’t want to use diplomatic recognition as a political tool, so Mexico never broke with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, much to the chagrin of the United States. But as historians like Renata Keller have shown, even as they continued to maintain diplomatic relations with Castro, they were also helping the CIA surveil Cuban agents in Mexico, and any Mexicans who were considered too sympathetic to the Cuban revolution.

There’s a kind of “outward-facing/inward-facing” question when it comes to the Non-Aligned Movement. The question is, should Mexico join up with this movement? In some ways it makes sense, but they made the decision to say: “We’re not non-aligned, we’re independent.” They had a foreign policy that was independent, not only of the United States and the Soviet Union, but of the NAM itself, although they threatened to lean toward the latter in a way that opened up space to make more requests from the multilateral institutions and from the United States.

There was an important NAM meeting in the early ’60s where Mexico made threatening noises about going. When they finally decided that they weren’t going to go, they were rewarded with further multilateral loans from the World Bank, the Export-Import Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. Mexico’s leaders really used this Third Worldism in the 1960s and ’70s to push its economic interests and try to shape the international sphere in a way that would be supportive of the state-led, import-substitution industrialization project they were pursuing.

Mexico’s industrialization was still dependent on foreign investment in particular sectors. The Mexican state walked a tightrope at this moment, maintaining its plausible distance from US power, while not pushing away the most important source of foreign credit and investment. Particularly in the 1960s, that was the relationship that you saw Mexico having with the rest of the developing world.

Moving into the 1970s and the global economic crisis that followed, particularly with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the oil shock, Mexico attempted to take more of a confrontational role. Luis Echeverría proposed an instrument at the UN called the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States. This instrument was intended to codify national rights to subsoil, to development, and to the regulation of multinational corporations and finance. They want to create a UN framework for the kind of nationalist yet multilateral framework of development they had been pursuing over previous decades.

Mexico made many more connections to other governments in the Global South, but still tried to maintain this stance as a good credit risk to which banks should continue to lend. During the petrodollar boom, banks poured capital into Mexico. Mexico went from having a foreign debt of just a few billion dollars at the beginning of the 1970s to having one of well over $80 billion at the end of that decade. Political relations in this moment, as was true in the earlier period, were very much structured by the question of access to international finance.

Daniel Finn

What was the nature of the high-growth period that became known as the “Mexican miracle”? What did that growth mean for the different classes in Mexican society?

Christy Thornton

It was a moment in which there emerged a kind of Mexican middle class, particularly in Mexico City, but it was a very uneven developmental model. There was a great deal of investment in industry, particularly after 1965, when the border industrialization program that we know as the maquiladoras really ramped up. There were very high growth rates, above 6 percent, while population growth was about 3 percent.

Mexico was growing and there was a sense of new prosperity, but it wasn’t reaching everyone. In particular, it left out rural and indigenous communities. The north benefited much more, with the industrialists around the city of Monterrey and at the border, while the south was very much left out.

What you saw in that moment was the emergence of renewed resistance to this soft dictatorship. with political struggle against it, particularly the student movements that took off in the 1960s. In the countryside, you also began to see guerrilla movements and resistance, because of the idea that this political system had left out so many people in rural Mexico. You saw the emergence of what in Mexico they call the dirty war. It wasn’t as overt as the dirty war in the dictatorships of the Southern cone like Argentina and Chile, but it was very much an attempt to quash any dissent that went outside the corporatist model that I was discussing.

That unevenness really came to haunt the Mexican regime. In 1968, you had the famous massacre at Tlatelolco when the Olympics came to Mexico City. Snipers massacred protesting students and families in this plaza in the northern part of the city. The legitimacy of the regime had long been premised on its stability, and that stability began to be eroded because of these underlying contradictions — because of the way in which the gains from the Mexican miracle were both reliant on this authoritarian system and were not distributed equally around the country.

That legitimacy crisis which began in the late 1960s with Tlatelolco reemerged in 1971 with the Corpus Christi massacre, when party-aligned thugs beat student protesters in the streets. Moving into the 1980s, with the debt crisis and the 1985 earthquake, these things began to erode the stability of the Mexican political system, which had long been considered its most important legacy.

The thing that had kept Mexico as a good credit risk and a good partner for the United States was the way in which the system had been so stable, even though it was not democratic. The person who was elected was chosen by the ruling party, and it was foreordained that they were going to win. Stability was more important than the actual practice of democracy. That stability was eroded in the late 1960s and the ’70s, and then it completely fractured in the 1980s.

Daniel Finn

How does Mexico fit into wider picture of developmentalism in Latin America or East Asia — late-developing capitalist economies in the Global South that didn’t follow the model later known as the Washington Consensus?

Christy Thornton

Mexico came to follow the Washington Consensus after the 1982 debt crisis, but in the period before that, the high period of Mexican developmentalism, it followed the import-substitution industrialization model that you could see not only in Latin America but also in other places in the developing world. It was based on high tariff rates and subsidies for state-owned corporations, social services, fuel, etc. Mexico was very typical of the kind of industrialization strategy that was pursued in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s — perhaps with the caveat that because Mexico was so close to the United States and so tied to US markets, integration with the US was more important than elsewhere.

In the 1960s and especially the 1970s, there was an increasing reliance on foreign debt. In the early 1970s, Luis Echeverría tried to reform the tax system so that those who were earning a great deal at the top actually paid, enabling some redistribution via the state budget. The business associations were able to effectively block this, and Echeverría came to rely more and more on foreign lending for the social programs, subsidies, and state investment that he was interested in.

This meant that there was an increasingly unsustainable level of debt that came to a head in the 1982 debt crisis. The Mexican finance minister showed up in Washington saying, “Look, Mexico cannot pay. We can’t pay the interest payments.” The exposure of US banks to Mexican debt was massive. If Mexico had been allowed to default on this debt, it would have taken down large parts of the international financial system.

The US government got together with the IMF and the World Bank to create structural adjustment and conditional lending programs that then came to constitute what we think of as the Washington Consensus. After 1982, they were able to impose very strict conditionalities: privatizing state-owned enterprises, lowering tariff rates, and so on. In some ways, it’s a very typical story — a typical case of the move from an import-substitution industrialization strategy to a neoliberal reorientation via the Washington Consensus.

Daniel Finn

You’ve touched on this question already in relation to Cuba, and in relation to the domestic political arena in Mexico itself. But as a more general question, how did the Mexican state stand in relation to the left-wing movements that took power — or tried to take power — in Latin America during the 1960s and ’70s, whether they were revolutionary movements like the Cuban left or parliamentary ones like the Chilean left? And how did Washington perceive its role?

Christy Thornton

As I said previously, Mexico maintained relations with Cuba. They publicly supported the Allende government in Chile and came before the United Nations to argue on its behalf and against any kind of foreign interference.

The stance against foreign interference was an important guiding ideology of Mexican foreign policy in the post-revolutionary period. If you go to Mexico City, you can visit an incredible museum which details the ways in which foreign countries like the United States or France have tried to interfere with Mexico’s internal affairs.

On the other hand, Mexico was trying to maintain its access to foreign capital and investment. It could be saying publicly that Allende’s Chile should not be interfered with, and that Mexico was not going to break relations with Fidel Castro, while at the same time maintaining relations with the United States that allowed the US state to keep the Cubans and their sympathizers under surveillance.

When Luis Echeverría arrived in Santiago for the 1972 UNCTAD [United Nations Conference on Trade and Development] meeting, where he announced the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, he was horrified by what he saw going on in Chile, precisely because social stability had been the real watchword in Mexico. He saw massive street demonstrations, from Chile’s right-wing and left-wing movements alike.

Echeverría thought, “We don’t have this in Mexico.” Of course, that wasn’t true, because he had participated himself in the repression of the guerrilla movements and the student protests. But the story he told himself was that the level of social upheaval in Chile was dangerous and that there needed to be more understanding of Mexico’s system.

Soon afterward, Echeverría arrived in Washington, DC for bilateral talks with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. He explicitly referenced his role in domestic repression and the way in which it had kept Mexico “stable” to argue that the United States should support the Mexican vision for the future. That, he said, would preclude the emergence of more Cubas and more Vietnams. Echeverría saw this tripartite corporate structure that existed in Mexico, where labor, capital, and the state were brought together to mediate conflict, as something that could be scaled up to the global arena.

That was how he understood the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States. Mexican officials said that it was necessary to make “good collective contracts” between the Global North and the Global South — between the rich countries and the poor ones. With that kind of international planning, they could scale up the domestic system that Mexico had put in place. Of course, that system relied on an antidemocratic, repressive state within Mexico, so it had that contradiction built into it.

For these actors in the Mexican state, it was always a question of ensuring that the development model they had put in place could be maintained. It required foreign capital, because there was not enough domestic capital for that kind of industrialization strategy. They wanted to maintain access to that capital by not pushing things so far that the Mexican state might scare off its creditors. In the 1960s, Mexico had the highest credit rating of any developing country and received massive amounts of official development lending as well as private lending.

In the negotiations over the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, Mexico really acted as a mediator between more radical countries in the Third World, such as Algeria, Chile, or Peru under Juan Velasco Alvarado, and the United States. They saw themselves as straddling that line and being a mediator between the Global North that wanted a liberal capitalist understanding, and more radical countries in the Global South that wanted to overthrow the existing system and come up with something new. Mexico was trying to walk the line between them.

Daniel Finn

It’s now almost forty years since the Mexican debt crisis that proved to be such a watershed, not just for Mexico, but for the entire world system. It’s also more than twenty-five years since the passage of NAFTA, which further helped consolidate the rise of neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus. It seems like a very long way from the time when Mexican governments and diplomats could propose something along the lines of the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States.

What potential do you think exists today for Mexico to escape its position in the hierarchy of global capitalism, whether that would mean a socialist alternative, or a different model of capitalist development?

Christy Thornton

The current government is not especially interested in broader international reforms. There’s very much a sense in which the 1982 crisis and its aftermath foreclosed the struggle for reform of global economic governance that I trace in my book from 1919 to that point.

Part of that was about an internal power struggle. Obviously, some of it was driven from the outside by the international institutions and the US government, but there was also a struggle within Mexico itself over the kind of model that should be pursued. When 1982 happened and there was a move to reorient the Mexican economy toward a more liberal, export-oriented model, there were actors within Mexico who had already been arguing in favor of that for decades.

Those industrialists in the north had wanted the kind of protection that allowed them to get off the ground in the earlier period of the 1940s and ’50s. But a new set of experts began to emerge from within the Mexican capitalist class who were arguing for liberalizing reforms well before 1982. The sociologist Sarah Babb has traced this very well, trying to understand who the Mexican neoliberals were and where their ideas came from. There was a domestic constituency that was ready for that moment when it emerged.

From that period, probably as far as the election of 2018, there was very much a broad consensus within Mexico’s governing and business classes that the neoliberal model was the way forward. They saw integration with the United States via NAFTA and increasing free trade as the way to orient Mexico. In fact, those policies didn’t deliver the results that they were supposed to deliver.

When Carlos Salinas announced what benefits NAFTA should bring, he said that in the aftermath of NAFTA, Mexico would export goods and not people. Of course, we then saw a massive mobilization of people who were forced to migrate because NAFTA just devastated the Mexican countryside. Poor farmers could no longer make a living growing any of their typical crops like corn and taking them to market.

That reorientation of the Mexican economy in those thirty years of faith in neoliberalism came to a head under the previous government of Enrique Peña Nieto. Peña Nieto tried to reorient the last sectors of the Mexican economy that had not been fully liberalized. He tried to break the power of the teachers’ union, for example, and open the oil sector to foreign investment for the first time since 1938.

In response to that, and also in response to the increasing drug-war violence that had taken over Mexico in the previous decade, Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected in 2018, very much based on the idea that he was against the neoliberal consensus. One of the things that has meant for the López Obrador government has been moving back to further state investment in oil and electricity.

He’s building a massive new oil refinery, and a mega-project for a train in the Yucatan peninsula that is supposed to serve tourism and development in the south. He’s falling back on some of the understandings of state-led industrial development from earlier decades. But there is not a sense that Mexico is leading attempts to reform the global economic system in which the country sits.

Mexico, for example, has not been as big a recipient of Chinese overseas development aid as we have seen in other countries in the region. Those questions about south-south cooperation — whatever you think of that in the case of China — have not been as pertinent in Mexico as in other places.

I do think that important changes are being made today within the Mexican state and the Mexican economic system. The López Obrador government very much has an orientation toward the poor and toward social services that has radically stripped some entrenched privileges and power and shifted the conversation away from people attached to the neoliberal project — businesspeople, intellectuals, political figures — and towards the poorest people in Mexico.

But the coronavirus crisis and the ongoing drug-war instability are obviously real constraints that the López Obrador government faces. Thus far, I haven’t seen any attempt by the current Mexican government, despite being swept in on this anti-neoliberal rhetoric, to make a move back toward reform of the international order. I think that is because Mexico recognizes that it is very much beholden to the international credit markets.

One of the legacies of the 1970s is that the López Obrador government is loath to take on unsustainable foreign debt. There is a recognition that high levels of foreign debt are what led to the 1982 crisis, which in turn led to the neoliberal transition. Even in this moment, when the coronavirus is out of control in Mexico and the IMF is saying that countries should be taking loans, exercising special drawing rights, and running a deficit, the Mexican government is very slow to do that. López Obrador is very much shaped by the 1970s crisis of over-indebtedness and its results.

In the 2000s, the Chávez government in Venezuela was trying to promote the Bank of the South as an alternative development association. I think people hope that perhaps the BRICS consortium could be something like that. There continue to be ideas about south-south cooperation that will enable poor countries to push back against unequal systems, but Mexico is not playing a huge role in that right now. Until the coronavirus crisis subsides, we probably shouldn’t expect them to do so. It’s a sad story, but Mexico is still not at the vanguard of new changes in the international sphere.

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Christy Thornton teaches sociology and Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University and is the author of Revolution in Development: Mexico and the Governance of the Global Economy.

Daniel Finn is the features editor at Jacobin. He is the author of One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA.

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