Mexico’s earliest known civilization was the Olmec in the second century BC, which reached its peak in about 1200 BC. The Olmec (meaning ‘people from the rubber country’) were a Mayan culture advanced in religion, architecture and mathematical systems. By AD 500, two great cities had emerged, Teotihuacan (with a population of approximately 200,000) and Cholula, a religious center near Puebla that survived until the Spanish Conquest in 1521. The height of Mayan civilization was reached between AD 600-900.
The Toltecs, whose capital was Tula, were the predominant civilization of this time. Known for their fine architecture, elegant speech and intellectual pursuits, they were the ancestors of the famous Aztecs who were thriving at the time Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492. In 1519, a Spaniard named Hernan Cortés arrived from Cuba with a crew of 550 sailors and explorers and settled just north of today’s city of Veracruz. By this time, the Aztec Empire controlled vast territories from the Yucatán peninsula to the Pacific, with over 370 individual nations under their authority. Ruling from their capital city, Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs demanded heavy tribute from their subjects, which may have caused some to side with Cortés in his attack on the Aztecs.
The other factor on Cortés’ side was the lucky coincidence that 1519 was the exact year when legend had it that the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, had promised his followers he would return from the east and so Cortés was mistaken for a god. After two years of fighting and great loss of life on both sides, the Aztecs were defeated under their final ruler, Cuauhtemoc. Under Spanish rule, local culture was suppressed and native traditions were discouraged. Mexico achieved independence after the wars of 1810-21. In 1824, a constitution was adopted and Mexico’s first President, Guadalupe Victoria, was inaugurated and both Britain and the USA officially recognized the Republic of Mexico. But stability was short lived. In 1847, Mexico was forced to cede half of its territory to the USA. In 1861, Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian from the state of Oaxaca, was elected President. Faced with overwhelming debts (mainly owed to France, Spain and the UK), Juárez announced a two-year moratorium on payment of foreign debts. The French Emperor Napoleon III sent an army to Veracruz to enforce his claim to payment.
A series of civil wars and conflicts with European governments and the USA punctuated the next 30 years. However, Juárez was elected to a third term and is now considered among Mexico’s most popular leaders, having come from a humble background and instituting such welcome changes as a total reform of the education system (making primary school attendance free and obligatory) and completing a railroad from Mexico City to Veracruz. Afterwards, the dictatorship of Porfirio D’az (between 1876 and 1910) brought an autocratic stability to the Republic. Several revolutions and coups followed before the egalitarian 1917 Constitution was introduced which led to the accession of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI).
The PRI created an effective one-party state within the framework of an elective democracy and ruled virtually unchallenged until the mid-1970s, by which time opposition parties had managed to build up strong bases of support. Occasionally they would mount one-off electoral challenges, but the reins of power remained firmly in the hands of the PRI. From the 1960s onwards, Mexico developed a largely oil-based economy. Under the government of Lopez Portillo, who was elected President in 1976, the country was brought to the verge of bankruptcy by the negotiation of enormous foreign loans, totaling US$80 billion, borrowed against future oil revenues to finance a massive program of economic and social development. Corruption and mismanagement, coupled with a collapse of the oil price during that period, precipitated a major political crisis in 1982. This was handled by Lopez Portillo’s successor, Miguel de la Madrid, with limited success in the face of entrenched vested interests.
It was Madrid’s successor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who really transformed Mexico during his term of office (which began in 1988). The new government embarked on a major economic reform program comprising a package of devaluation, tax reform, privatization and deregulation. The program, dubbed ‘Cactus Thatcherism’, also included an application to join GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, forerunner of the World Trade Organization) and the instigation by Salinas of a free-trade treaty with the USA and Canada. This eventually led to the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was ratified by the three countries during 1993.
The Salinas government also improved its standing in Washington by cracking down on drug trafficking. Popular as all this was overseas, Mexicans saw little benefit as living standards for most people fell sharply. The traditional political opposition was all but emasculated by PRI’s stranglehold over the country, but at the beginning of 1994, in the impoverished southern state of Chiapas, an armed insurrection started with land reform at the heart of its aims. The guerrillas described themselves as ‘Zapatistas’ (after Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, who also fought primarily on the issue of land ownership). The Mexican government initially waged a classic counter-insurgency war, using a mixture of force and incentives on the largely pro-guerrilla peasant population.
This was a problem that Salinas was happy to leave to his successor, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, who won the next round of presidential elections, held in August 1994. After six years of struggle and bouts of negotiation, the Zapatistas and the Government reached a deal – the San Andreas accord – conceding autonomy to the region. Whether or not the Government had any intention of honoring the agreement is unclear: it certainly met furious opposition from within PRI and the military, and none of its provisions were put into effect. Disillusioned, the Zapatistas returned to guerrilla war and waited for a more receptive administration to take office. Meanwhile the PRI had other matters on its mind. In 2000, the PRI had overtaken the Soviet Communist Party’s 70-year longevity record for a ruling political party. But it was deeply unpopular and, that very year, it lost control of both the presidency and the national assembly to the center-right Partido Acción Nacional (PAN, National Action Party). Vincente Fox Quesada took over the presidency. Fox re-engaged with the Zapatistas, and some elements of the San Andreas deal have now been put into effect. Fox has also managed to open up one of the murkier episodes in recent Mexican history. During the 1960s and 70s, as in Argentina, Chile and Brazil, the security forces had engaged in a ‘dirty war’ against trades unionists and activists: thousands were detained without trial, tortured, murdered or ‘disappeared’. Some perpetrators are now being brought to account. Despite this, economic problems have undermined Fox’s popularity and, as he reached the middle of his six-year term, the PAN lost control of the National Assembly to the PRI.
Mexico is a federal republic with 31 states and one federal district. The bicameral National Congress is elected by universal adult suffrage. The 64 members of the Senate (two per state plus two for the federal district) serve for a term of six years. The 500-seat Chamber of Deputies consists of members elected for three years, 300 from single-member constituencies with the remaining 200 allocated to minority parties on the basis of proportional representation. The President, who appoints a cabinet, has executive power and serves a term congruent with that of the Senate. Each state has its own governor and elected Chamber of Deputies.
The agricultural sector, in decline for decades, now accounts for only 5% of the country’s GDP yet employs about 20% of the workforce. However, US moves towards ethanol power have pushed up the world price of corn (from which ethanol is produced). Mexico, the birthplace of corn and the world’s fourth largest producer, is well placed to benefit.
In the service sector, tourism is the biggest industry. In 2005, it had largely recovered from a downturn in the wake of the 9/11, when hurricanes Emily, Stan and Wilma caused millions of dollars worth of damage, and closed resorts on both coasts.
Oil and manufacturing are big contributors to the country’s economic health, but are at the mercy of price fluctuations, and the state of the US car industry.
Inflation is currently around 4% but rising, after a 30-year low in 2005. This combined with higher unemployment has left Mexicans feeling nervous.
On the high central plateau, in cities like Mexico City and Guadalajara, the weather is mild throughout the year, though a little cooler from December through to March. The wettest months on the plateau are the summer months, where there will typically be an hour of two of rain per day. Inland, northern Mexico is mostly desert, hot in the day, and cold in the night. In southern Mexico, the mountainous regions blow hot and cold with pleasant climates lower down. Baja California, Mexico’s pacific peninsula gets very little rain throughout the year. Winters are comfortable, and summers are very hot, though resorts like Cabo San Lucas benefit from a sea breeze. The country’s central pacific coast, home to resorts such as Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco is hot, sunny and humid almost throughout the year, but the coast and comfortable climate, but in the late summer months, heavy rains come with the hurricanes. The beach resorts of the Yucatán Peninsula, including Cancún, enjoy similar summers to Acapulco, but suffer even more from hurricanes.
This varies from area to area. Natural fibers are best in the heat, but have a sweater on hand as the nights are generally cooler. A sun hat will help to avoid dehydration. In the mountains, heavier clothing will be required. In general Mexicans are casual about dress, but for visits to churches, long sleeves and long skirts or trousers are required, while theaters and upmarket restaurants may have specific dress codes.
Handshaking is the most common form of greeting. Casualwear is acceptable for daytime dress throughout Mexico. At beach resorts, dress is very informal for men and women and nowhere are men expected to wear ties. In Mexico City, however, dress tends to be smart in elegant restaurants and hotel dining rooms. Smoking is unrestricted except where notified. Mexicans regard relationships and friendships as the most important thing in life next to religion and they are not afraid to show their emotions. A large Mexican family always seems to find room for one more and a visitor who becomes friends with a Mexican will invariably be made part of the family. Visitors should always remember that local customs and traditions are important