With a commensurate reduction in all other military personnel, Mexico now spends about seven per cent of its national budget on the armed forces, while most other Latin American countries approach forty per cent. But the transition from military to civilian rule was not easy. There were no large-scale hostilities, but as Katherine Anne Porter showed in her classic portrayal of a revolutionary scoundrel in “Flowering Judas,” the twenties and thirties were decades of great civil violence and intrigue, a perpetual struggle for power between the radicals and conservatives. Miss Porter was herself involved as a secret courier for a group of revolutionaries, occasionally taking messages and food to political prisoners in a local jail. During those turbulent years most Mexican Presidents were either assassinated or forced into exile.

Then came an era of unprecedented political stability and presidential longevity. Violating all the norms of Mexico’s ancient modus operandi , five successive Presidents (Lázaro Cárdenas, Avila Camacho, Miguel Alemán, Adolfo Rufz Cortines, Adolfo López Mateos) completed their full terms without being shot at. What’s more, all of them belonged to the same political party, Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

Some historians may complain that Mexico’s political life has become dull and too predictable. But for the keen student of governmental intrigue, P.R.I, is one of the more fascinating political organizations in the Occidental world. With an almost fiendish Machiavellian skill, the party has been able to weld the most disparate socioeconomic elements into a political instrument that has stayed in power for nearly forty years. Its only visible rival, the Partido Auténtico National (P.A.N.), has made some inroads among the northern states of Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California—all of whom have resented the Mexico City orientation of P.R.I.—but they have thus far failed to mount an effective challenge in the country at large.

In the international sphere, Mexico successfully expropriated American- and British-owned oil fields in 1937, and more recently has carried on diplomatic relations with the government of Fidel Castro, yet has still managed to remain friendly with the United States. Swinging from left to right as internal and external circumstances dictate, P.R.I, selects its official sure-to-win presidential candidate in a manner so secret that it makes the papal election seem like an open, televised caucus. Every six years, for months on end, the national press and all its readers endlessly speculate about the party’s tapado (the hidden one), and professional politicians go mad trying to decide what side of what fence they should jump to.

Lately, however, the all-powerful P.R.I, seems to be developing a few cracks in its inscrutable mask. There is a certain flabbiness around its jowls, a touch of hysteria in its usually placid eyes. Perhaps it is only the inevitable ravages of time, a sense of growing helplessness against the crush of history. Last autumn the Plaza de las Très Culturas in Mexico City was the scene of a peaceful student protest meeting that was suddenly interrupted by heavily armed Mexican troops who attacked the unarmed demonstrators with automatic rifles, machine guns, and tear gas, killing at least fifty men, women, and children. Going beyond their own academic concerns, the students and their adult sympathizers were—and still are—demanding the abolition of harsh restrictive laws against political dissenters and the immediate dismissal of the chief of police and his much-feared granaderos (secret police).

However resourceful P.R.I.’s leaders have been in the past, their subtle strategies may not suffice in an era of urban crisis, population explosion, student unrest, and general discontent among millions of still-hungry campesinos and obreros who keep hearing the insistent echo of the liberty bell that el Padre Hidalgo rang one night in the little village of Dolores. And beyond that haunting echo they may be listening to the thunder of angry hooves as the unquiet spirits of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa lead their restless hordes through parched and desolate lands that have been left untouched by the revolution.