How the liberal project of Benito Juarez continues to be in force

Together with Porfirio Díaz, Benito Juárez laid the foundations for the metaconstitutional, metalegal action of presidentialism.

How the liberal project of Benito Juarez continues to be in force
Benito Juárez's liberal project is alive and effective. Image and text: UNAM

What is relevant about Benito Juárez is, along with his generation in the 19th century, the preeminence of the Juarista liberal project, assures Silvestre Villegas Revueltas, a researcher at the Institute of Historical Research (IIH) of the UNAM.

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the death (July 18) of Benemérito de las Américas, the university historian considers that the best tribute that can be paid to him is to get to know him through his private correspondence, decrees, and political reflections.

In addition, to ponder the positive or negative aspects of his government actions, understanding that what happened was during the process of building the Mexican national state: the Reform War where conservatives confronted liberals, the promulgation of the Reform Laws, the suspension of debt payment to foreign countries (which provoked the second French intervention, from 1862 to 1867), the always disparate agreement with the Americans, etcetera. "That is what is important, beyond whether he died of angina pectoris or was poisoned."

The official history is the one that does less justice to Juarez (Guelatao, Oaxaca, March 21, 1806-Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, 1872), because it puts him as a "saint" in certain aspects, but in others, which are important, it remains in a kind of fog that hinders the appreciation of the panorama: it does not take into consideration the folds, the nuances of that relevant historical character. "It places him as a white and immaculate wall, but in reality, he had several grays that are typical of politicians," says the doctor in History from the University of Essex.

If today a person goes on vacation and asks himself how the Reform Laws benefit him, the answer is simple: if we were in a centralist regime, like that of Antonio López de Santa Anna, in the 30s or 40s of the 19th century, he would have to ask for an internal passport and show it at the exit of Mexico City, in the State of Mexico, Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, until he reached Durango, in case that was his destination.

On the other hand, one of the fundamental aspects of liberalism is its materialization in the free transit of people and products, and only the passport and customs declaration are presented when one travels to or from abroad.

Since the Constitution of 1857, which eliminated Catholicism as the official religion, and the Reform Laws of 1860, which established freedom of belief, the citizen has the freedom to believe in Lutheran theology, in Buddha, or to be Islamic. There is no problem, which was not the case before that time when the official religion allowed was Roman Catholicism.

Materializing liberalism as freedom of expression, religious beliefs, or transit is what is relevant in the ideological project of 19th-century liberalism, where Juarez is genuinely an outstanding figure.

The liberal project was consolidated with the defeat of Maximilian in 1867, radicalized with the Mexican Revolution and post-revolutionary Mexico, until the counter-reforms of Carlos Salinas de Gortari in matters that favored the Catholic clergy and their actions in companies of the educational sector.

More rights

Another fact that refers to the former president of Mexico, is the so-called Juarez Law that was enacted during the brief government of Juan Alvarez (October-November 1855) when he served as Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Business. "In the school, they tell us that this law limited the ecclesiastical and military jurisdictions so that members of the clergy and the Army could be judged by civil courts if they committed a crime of that order".

The other important part, details the historian, is still a pending issue in 2022: an effective justice administration system. "We have advanced, of course, but we have not reached where we should be. That law wanted to solve several problems, starting with the obvious: who is going to litigate, who can be a judge, the creation of courts, and even the issue of salaries for judicial employees".

A fundamental aspect of the liberalism for which Benito Juárez fought was freedom of expression, particularly that exercised in the printed media: pamphlets and newspapers. "There was an important freedom and manifestation of ideas, many things could be said, but publishing them was another thing."

The Constitution of 1857 included that guarantee as a fundamental right, this allowed the Mexican press to live an era of editorial splendor until the first half of the 1880s due to the existing freedom: the extraordinary powers were discussed, whether it was good or not to break with England and France because they could invade us, the convenience of confronting Spain, if it was necessary to approach the United States, etcetera. "All those topics, we would say today, of the national agenda, were debated in the press, whether liberal, conservative, monarchist or even anarchist".

Dark aspects of Benito Juarez

Like any character, Juarez had dark aspects. He became president amid a coup d'état in January 1858; the conservatives did not recognize him. After having governed with extraordinary powers during the period of the Reform War, he was genuinely Constitutional President of the United Mexican States in 1861 and 1867. This is the beginning of the construction of what today we call Mexican presidentialism, which had its greatest splendor during the six years from Miguel Alemán to Carlos Salinas.

This phenomenon "cannot be understood without the first steps taken by Benito Juárez and Porfirio Díaz. They laid the foundations for the meta-constitutional, metalegal and perhaps illegal in certain aspects, actions of presidentialism", adds the university professor.

In this sense, Juarez had to coexist with the caciques and began to dispute their local influence during the Restored Republic, and in the Porfiriato, the president was the one who allowed them to have local influence. The governors, for example, also remained in office for several years and owed their power to the president, as happened in that same period.

Then, as now, they faced a problem of insecurity. "We must not forget that the pact of a government with any society is to provide security, legality, and happiness, and when one of those three elements is not provided, the pact is failing," mentions Villegas Revueltas.

On October 23, 1871, months before his death, Juárez expressed: "If we achieve, as I hope, to ensure order and tranquility in a permanent manner, I will have satisfied the greatest of all my desires and I will be able to go down to the grave with the conviction I have always had that our country will be great and happy in the future".

Shortly thereafter he died while acting president. His death certificate stated:

"In Mexico City at ten o'clock in the morning of the nineteenth day of July eighteen hundred and seventy-two before me, Francisco J. Ruíz, judge 3º of the civil state of this capital, appeared C. Benito Juárez Maza, natural son of Oaxaca, nineteen years old, single, student and with room at number one of Moneda street, and stated that: at half past eleven last night in his said house, died of neurosis of the great sympathetic, the father of the person appearing, the C. Benito Juarez, Constitutional President of the United Mexican States, a native of San Pablo Guelatao in the state of Oaxaca, sixty-six years of age, being a lawyer and with habitation in the referred house, legitimate son of C. Marcelino Juarez and Mrs. Brigida Garcia, both deceased. His body is buried in the First Patio of the Pantheon of San Fernando".