Sunday, September 26

Opposing democracies: Benito Juárez and Napoleón III | Opinion

Benito Juárez, in an archive image from 1860.
Benito Juárez, in an archive image from 1860.Hulton Archive / Getty

It is 215 years since the birth of Benito Juárez, the main member of the Mexican heroic pantheon. He was a controversial politician, but after his death the liberal factions reconciled with his memory, as historians Carmen Vázquez Mantecón and Rebeca Villalobos have shown.

That memory, like all, is full of convenient forgetfulness. His activities against the Binnizá people and his overwhelming sympathy for American politicians and businessmen are not remembered. Nor is his political ability usually highlighted. As if pointing out that he was an ambitious man, who did everything to preserve power, would damage his immaculate image. Benito Juárez was a civilian without a troop command; surrounded by Creole soldiers, younger than him, equally ambitious, with large political clienteles and armed people at his disposal. That indigenous lawyer, with few words, managed in a couple of years through legal tricks and alliances, to remove Generals Manuel Doblado, Santiago Vidaurri and Jesús González Ortega from the competition for power. That seems very admirable to me. With the law in hand, he retained the presidency until 1872, when he died.

The most outstanding quality of Juárez in the patriotic account of the Mexican past is the defense of sovereignty in the face of French intervention. His figure is often confronted with that of Maximilian of Habsburg, the emperor supported by European bayonets. The comparison between the Mexican president and the French emperor seems more fruitful to me, since it shows two different ways of conceiving democracy.

Juárez came to the presidency of Mexico without being elected to that position. In late 1857, the Conservatives rebelled against the Constitution. The president of the republic, Ignacio Comonfort, seconded the coup. In the end, neither the liberals nor the conservatives respected his inauguration. Legally, in the absence of the holder of the executive power, the position corresponded to the president of the Supreme Court of Justice, since Benito Juárez held. During those years of civil war, their legitimacy emanated from the Constitution, not from the votes. When that conflict ended, Juárez won an electoral contest for the presidency of the republic for the first time, but the French military intervention would cause him, using extraordinary powers, to extend his mandate. Needless to say, this was widely criticized, not by conservatives, but by numerous liberals.

For Juárez, occupying the most important position in the national executive branch did not depend exclusively on the popular vote but on the Constitution and the laws. Only once did he appeal to the sovereign people. In the August 1867 convocation to elect deputies to the Congress of the Union, president and magistrates of the judicial power, he introduced a plebiscite to bypass the laws. He won the presidential vote, but did not achieve his goal of dividing the legislative branch. He never tried anything like it again.

His nemesis, Napoleon III, preferred direct democracy. In The unfinished democracy, Pierre Rosanvallon showed how from 1848 the Bonapartists promoted the plebiscite as the ideal mechanism of democracy. In 1851 and 1852, Louis Napoleon summoned the sovereign people to reform the laws and the French political order.

These calls for the direct participation of the people led the emperor to affirm that he himself “is no longer a man, but rather a people.” In 1870, when he held a new plebiscite, he demanded unanimity. The will of the people could only be one. Plurality was not canceled, but it was disqualified, since it was assumed that political positions opposed to the emperor (who “embodied the people”) could only be motivated by perverse interests, prejudices or deceit.

This led to the repudiation of autonomous political organizations. Political clubs, lodges, citizens’ associations, were considered unnecessary and harmful to democracy by the Bonapartists, since the relationship between the people and the emperor had to be direct, without intermediaries. On this side of the Atlantic, Benito Juárez built his political career precisely through civic societies, such as the Reforma Club and its newspaper The Republican.

Alexis de Tocqueville had published in the 1830s Democracy in America. French Republicans and Mexicans They did not so much admire the institutions of the United States, but rather the democratic organization of that society. Civic associations, neighborhood councils, lodges, gave meaning to democracy. Juárez believed in that; Napoleon III, no. For the emperor, the best was the poorer version of democracy, the one that reduces the role of society to listen to its leader and go out and vote on his initiatives.

The Bonapartists rightly accused that behind each club, each newspaper, there are particular interests. Juárez knew it too, but did not disqualify them. He criticized the lerdistas and porfiristas, but not the existence of these forms of political participation.

When Juárez’s pen pal Victor Hugo published the pamphlet Napoleon the little, was persecuted and exiled. In Mexico, the liberal press, spokesperson for political organizations, constantly criticized and ridiculed the president. Juárez did not go against journalism. On the contrary, when the French intervention ended, it abrogated the restrictive Lerdo Law and put into effect the Zarco Law, much more open in terms of press freedom. He knew that the media have interests, but also that democracy works best when the government is criticized.

Napoleon III built an autocratic regime, although he assumed a democratic emperor who directly summoned the people, facing the organizations and media that from his point of view distorted popular sovereignty. Juárez, on the other hand, assumed a democracy with the Constitution, with critical journalism, with civic organizations. If he did that, it is because, as his biographer Brian Hamnett pointed out, the president was a Republican, he did not intend to establish a dictatorship.

The legacy of the Juarista conception of democracy survived for decades. At the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the liberal political clubs and their newspapers promoted Francisco I. Madero’s antirelectionist campaign and contributed to the fall of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship in 1911.

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