The Perfect Dictatorship: Fiction Meets Mexican Reality


EspañolIn 1990, liberal writer Mario Vargas Llosa described Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) as the “perfect dictatorship,” due to the veil of democracy that cloaked them at that time.

Now, after many years in opposition, the PRI has returned to govern Mexico with President Enrique Peña Nieto. In his almost three years at the helm, the president has had to confront corruption scandals, a shortage of financial resources, the kidnapping and killing of students, and a bloody war against narco-trafficking.

Twenty-five years have passed since Vargas Llosa’s declaration. But the film La Dictadura Perfecta (The Perfect Dictatorship) brings how the PRI currently governs up to date in a crude but effective way. It shows how the party can control the media, and thus control public opinion, and the most crucial element of politics: perceptions.

La dictadura perfecta
The figure of the “president,” pictured here with the US ambassador, bears more than a passing resemblance to real-life Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. (E-consulta)

Directed and produced by Luis Estrada, this cinematographic piece of fiction begins with the kind of slip-up that every Latin-American president regularly makes in unguarded comments. Sergio Mayer, playing the role of the Mexican head of state — unnamed, but notably similar in appearance to Peña Nieto — sends the following message to his US counterpart Barack Obama: “Mexicans work better than the blacks.”

In every country in Latin America, more than one politician has fallen to such a gaffe without the news going beyond domestic borders. There are some truths too tough and dark to be voiced publicly.

However, in the film, the leaked comment provokes public criticism and mockery of the Mexican leader. His government decides that it has to bury the scandal at any cost, electing to expose the governor of Durango State in a corruption case.

It is at this point in the plot that the film begins a strong critique of how the PRI, in conjunction with Televisa — the largest and most powerful TV broadcaster in Latin America — can manipulate facts and information, falsify events, and even anoint presidents.

It’s striking how this film portrays details which are almost imperceptible in day-to-day life, but which hugely affect whether the news is trustworthy or otherwise, and how media manipulation can help the president become bulletproof from criticism and thus direct corrupt activities from the very heart of power.

The key figure at the center of the story is Governor Carmelo Vargas, a corrupt, unscrupulous, and cynical man, with a superiority complex and a foul mouth. He’s a populist blinded by his lust for power, and capable of doing whatever it takes to make it to the top. In a bid to clean up his image, he signs an expensive contract with Mexico’s most powerful channel, Televisión Mexicana, giving him the clout to distract public opinion, destroy the opposition, and even reach the highest office in the land.

The film features four moments of contemporary Mexican politics which the real-life Televisa orchestrated to perfection: “the television candidate,” as Peña-Nieto was himself called; the video scandals which have become commonplace; the shadowy Paulette case, through which the media called attention away from other scandals; and the capture of Florence Cassez, a moment mirrored at the end of the film, which ends up exonerating Governor Vargas from corruption charges.

Such harsh criticism hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Mexican government. Sergio Mayer has been refused entry to the official Los Pinos residency, for example. Meanwhile, Arath de la Torre, who plays a corrupt advisor, has received death threats; apparently, his performance was too close to the bone.

This isn’t the first time that the PRI has shown itself to be intolerant towards a film that criticizes its activities. The PRI censored Rojo Amanecer, a 1989 film which portrayed the 1968 massacre of Tlatelolco in which the government of the day murdered hundreds of students who were protesting in the city’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas. The film wasn’t shown until a decade after its filming, when the PRI was no longer in power.

La boda del Gobernador de Chiapas sumada al apoyo mediatico que tiene de Televisa podría ser una escena de "La Dictadura Perfecta" (Sexenio)
The blanket coverage of the recent wedding of the governor of Chiapas State could be a scene from The Perfect Dictatorship. (Sexenio)

I was personally struck by how The Perfect Dictatorship demonstrated once more how reality is stranger than fiction.

The day after watching the movie, the headlines and principal news segments across Mexican media were nothing but blanket coverage of the wedding of the Governor of Chiapas State, Manuel Velasco, with the actress and singer Anahí. The ceremony bore a notable similarity to one of the final scenes in the film, in which Vargas marries a television actress to boost his popularity with the public.

With impeccable design, excellent music, and a script that mirrors reality throughout, The Perfect Dictatorship portrays how politics and media combine to make a toxic public sphere, bringing a spiral of corruption, deceit, and lust for power that leaves society as a whole the victim of total manipulation.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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