Streets of Mexico – February 2024


Mexico’s Constitution of 1917 redeemed the otherwise horrific, sometimes even apparently-pointless Mexican President Venustiano Carranza called for a constitutional convention in 1916 hoping to legitimize his post-Revolution government. Carefully excluding the liberal supporters of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, he’d hoped merely to  tweak the Reforma’s Constitution of 1857 (which had replaced the Constitution of 1824, enacted after the benighted monarchy of Agustín Iturbide). Carranza got much more than he  bargained for.

The constitutional delegates were an interesting lot: mostly middle class, half were college graduates, but only 30% had fought in the Revolution. Nonetheless, they quickly crafted one of the most outstanding political documents of the 20th century (far more progressive than even the US Constitution).

The Constitution of 1917 demanded sweeping land reform, transforming huge haciendas into communal ejidos, as well as expropriating idle property and granting it for free to anyone willing to put it into production. It also prohibited foreign ownership of land near the borders or on the coast (a response to the US occupation of Veracruz during the Revolution; and an explanation for why expats in Cabo and Acapulco, for instance, can only put their properties on a trues). This empowered President Obregón and especially President Cárdenas to fulfill the promise of the Revolution by finally redistributing millions of acres to desperate, long-suffering peasants.

The Constitution also forcefully enshrined worker rights, protecting unions and their right to strike, calling for an 8-hour workday, a minimum wage, equal pay for women, safe working conditions, compensation for workplace injuries, a ban on company stores (the end of debt peonage), the abolition of child labor, and even Sunday’s off.

Some of the most controversial tenants targeted the Catholic church: The Constitution banned religious schools (insisting on free, mandatory, secular education up to the age of 14), required churches to pay taxes, nationalized their properties, and prohibited any public religious proselytization. (Anti-clerical President Calles attempted to enforce these tenets, igniting the ugly Cristero Civil War.)

Perhaps the boldest provision of all declared that everything beneath the surface of the land (petroleum) belonged to the Mexican people, enabling Cárdenas to nationalize foreign, predominantly US oil companies – an awe-inspiring feat.

The amazing Mexican Constitution of 1917, ratified on February 5 (5 de Febrero, Constitution Day), became the model for other nascent nations, such as the post-WWI German Weimar Republic and even the USSR. It is the current law of the land.

The tug-o-war between liberals and conservatives in Mexico continued, however: In 1992, President Salinas de Gortari insisted the Constitution be amended (“modernized”), ending, for example, land distribution and calling for the privatization of ejidos.

At least there wasn’t a civil war this time.

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David Ellison
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