II HISTORICAL LEGACIES
MEXICO’S COLONIAL HERITAGE
How did the Spanish viceroys shape Mexico’s political heritage in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?
When Spain sent expeditions to what is today Mexico and conquered the indigenous populations, it needed to create a structure of governance for its colonies in North and South America. The Spanish Crown, through a Council of the Indies, created a system based in part on its reconquest of Spain from the Moors. The most important institution in the Spanish New World was that of the viceroy, or "vice-king." Given that Spain governed territory from the Tierra del Fuego to as far north as what is today Kansas, the task of governing posed an immense challenge because of the difficulties of communication between Spain and the New World and within the entire North American continent. For more than a century, beginning in the 1500s, Spain divided the colonies into two viceroyalties, and Mexico was part of the viceroyalty of New Spain, which eventually included the Philippine Islands.
Under the Spanish system, the viceroy exercised three major powers. He was the political leader of the entire territory encompassed by New Spain. In addition to having civil powers, he was the commander in chief of the militia in the region. Finally, he was vice-patron of the Catholic Church.
By giving the viceroy such extraordinarily broad powers, the Crown created a political institution that concentrated most decision-making authority in the hands of one individual and created a system of governance that assigned to what could be described today as the executive branch most of the political, military, and, to a great degree, religious power. This pattern of governance, marked by a weak legislative body and stronger, pluralistic local authorities, created a significant heritage during three centuries of colonial rule favoring a concentration of power in the executive branch. This, combined with the indigenous cultures' own traditions of rule by quasireligious/ political authoritarian figures, led to the imposition of an authoritarian, hierarchical form of governance on localized, semi-i ndependent communities. The colonies remained divided into two major viceroyalties: New Spain, founded in 1535, and Peru, established in 1543. New Granada was added in 1739, and Rio de la Plata in 1776.
As is the case with most authoritarian political structures, such a concentration of power creates the potential for abuses of authority, and some later viceroys, many of whom served for long terms at the whim of the Crown, were found to have been corrupt or to have abused their authority. Their behavior, combined with the concentration of authority in the viceroy, contributed in part to the colonists' growing dissatisfaction with colonial rule, eventually leading to independence movements in New Spain and elsewhere in the colonies. Nevertheless, in spite of Mexico's achieving independence in 1821, its first leader, Agustin Iturbide, declared himself emperor, continuing the authoritarian tradition established by the long reign of viceroys.
In the remainder of the nineteenth century, except for a brief period in the 1860s and 1870s, Mexico's political system was dominated by strong individual rulers, who governed through their personalities rather than through institutions, contributing to the long-t erm weakness of established political structures. By the twentieth century, ordinary Mexicans rejected the most durable example of this centralized control, that of Porfirio Diaz, who ruled from 1884 to 1911. Their rejection took the form of a violent revolution during the decade from 1910 to 1920. Despite the ouster of Diaz, and given a strong resolve not to allow continuous leadership, expressed by the slogan "No reelection," Mexico evolved a political system after the 1920s that relied on a centralized, authoritarian model, led by a collective leadership, but it was one in which a different president was elected every six years. Revisionist scholarship in the past decade has demonstrated that many Mexicans since independence have come to value democratic principles and have attempted to put them into practice, especially at the local level. Ironically, in spite of these significant historical events, both institutional and cultural, only one in three Mexicans today knows that Mexico earned its independence from Spain, while one in eight believes independence was gained from the United States.