Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mexico's Third Constitution

Last weekend we enjoyed another long puente commemorating February 5th -- the anniversary of the signing of both the 1857 and 1917 Constitutions. I carry a copy of the Mexican Constitution with me in my car. It's a small book with almost illegibly tiny print but it’s a reminder of the promise the 1917 document brought to Mexico. The 1917 Political Constitution of the United Mexican States, as it is properly called, is Mexico’s third Constitution, after those of 1824 and 1857. The 1824 Federal Constitution of the United Mexican States was implemented after the overthrow of Emperor Augustín de Iturbide in 1823.

Yes, the first government after independence was yet another empire! The 1824 Constitution replaced a centrist government overseeing loosely defined provinces with a federal government of nineteen free and independent states. After it was implemented, dissent and constant conflict ensued among Federalists, Centrists, and a small but powerful minority seeking return to an empire. States surrounding Mexico City were federalist but the federal government had decreasing support farther from the capital. At the outer regions there was merely a loose confederacy.

In 1835 Centrists returned to power. Voiding the Constitution of 1824, they proclaimed seven constitutional laws and divided Mexico into departments with Mexico City as the administrative head of the nation. Political instability and open conflict between the former states and the central government ensued. There were armed rebellions, even secessions.

During that time the 1846-48 North American Invasion -- known in the U.S. as the Mexican-American War – led to the loss of 55% of Mexico’s territory to its northern neighbor. The 1857 Constitution, ratified by a Constituent Congress on Feb. 5, 1857, was shaped by the liberal, secular thinking of respected lawyer, judge, and legal scholar, Benito Juarez. An amazingly avantgarde document, it established freedoms of speech, conscience, press, and assembly. It guaranteed education free of religion and abolished slavery, debtor’s prisons, the death penalty, and cruel and unusual punishment. Juarez, a full-blooded Zapotec, had been instrumental in drafting and securing passage of the Ley Juárez (Juárez’s Law) of 1855, declaring all citizens equal before the law and severely restricting the privileges of the Catholic Church. Juarez was the first President under the 1857 Constitution.

Not surprisingly, the new government was in immediate direct conflict with the church and conservatives, culminating in the Reform War and the brief restoration of empire as Emperor Maximilian was brought from Europe to rule Mexico from 1864 until his overthrow in 1867. Benito Juarez claimed to be president during Maximilian’s tenure, though he did so from northern Mexico.

For the three-year period, Maximilian, with the support of the French army, controlled Mexico City and much of the national territory. Juarez did not recognize him as Emperor and referred to him as an invader and impostor, only addressing him with his European title of “Archduke”. For Maximilian the Constitution of 1857 was void. For Juarez it remained the law. The last half of the 1800’s was tumultuous for the federal government.

It suffered onslaughts not only from the church and royalists but, essentially, continued sedition from Santa Anna who immersed himself in conspiracies to overthrow whoever was in power. By the end of the century, the ground was ripe for the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and the decade-long Revolution that followed in the early 1900’s. Mexico lost one million of its citizens in that conflict.

As the Revolution wound down under President Carranza, a Constitutional Congress was convened -- spawned by the fervent hope that just law might immunize the nation from further violence. The resulting Constitution of 1917 is recognized as the first in the world to set out specific social rights, along with general concepts of liberty and limited government and the same basic rights of the 1857 Constitution. Like the U.S. Constitution, Mexico’s 1917 Constitution was written to provide a specific guide for responsibility of government. But unlike the U.S. Constitution, the 1917 Constitution is long and detailed in its description of the rights of the Mexican people to freedom from political and religious repression, foreign intervention and economic hardship. It provides for land redistribution, the nation’s ownership of all natural resources, free and obligatory education, strict separation of church and state, even labor reform and housing rights. It is highly regarded by the citizens of Mexico who are often otherwise quite jaded by politics.

There is debate going in the Senate over an amendment which would modify the way the Constitution relates to that issue that has been present throughout Mexico’s life as an independent nation -- the rights of churches. It will be interesting to follow. 

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