It's thought that the first people to inhabit Mexico arrived 20,000 years before Columbus. Their descendants built a succession of highly developed civilizations that flourished from 1200 BC to 1521 AD. The first to arise was that of the Olmecs (1200-600 BC), in the humid lowlands of southern Veracruz and Tabasco. By 300 BC they were joined by the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, and the temple center of Izapa (200 BC to 200 AD). By 250 AD the Maya were building stepped temple pyramids in the YucatÃ¡n Peninsula. Central Mexico's first great civilization flourished at TeotihuacÃ¡n between 250 and 600 AD, to be followed by the Toltecs at Xochicalco and Tula. The Aztecs were successors to this string of empires, settling at TenochtitlÃ¡n in the early 14th century.
Almost 3000 years of civilization was shattered in just two short years, following the landing by HernÃ¡n CortÃ©s near modern-day Veracruz on April 21, 1519. Primary sources suggest that the Aztecs were initially accommodating because, according to their calendar, the year 1519 promised the god QuetzalcÃ³atl's return from the east. The Spaniards met their first allies in towns that resented Aztec domination. With 6000 local recruits, they approached the Aztecs' island capital of TenochtitlÃ¡n - a city bigger than any in Spain. King Moctezuma II invited the party into his palace and the Spaniards promptly took him hostage. By August 13, 1521, Aztec resistance had ended. The position of the conquered peoples deteriorated rapidly, not only because of harsh treatment by the colonists but also because of introduced diseases. The indigenous population fell from an estimated 25 million at the time of conquest to one million by 1605.
From the 16th to 19th centuries, a sort of apartheid system existed in Mexico. Spanish-born colonists were a minuscule part of the population but were considered nobility in New Spain (as Mexico was then called), however humble their status in their home country. By the 18th century, criollos (people born of Spanish parents in New Spain) had acquired fortunes in mining, commerce, ranching and agriculture, and were seeking political power commensurate with their wealth. Below the criollos were the mestizos, of mixed Spanish and indigenous or African slave ancestry, and at the bottom of the pile were the remaining indigenous people and African slaves. The catalyst for rebellion came in 1808 when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied most of Spain - direct Spanish control over New Spain suddenly ceased and rivalry between Spanish-born colonists and criollos intensified. On September 16, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a criollo parish priest, issued his call to rebellion, the Grito de Dolores. In 1821 Spain agreed to Mexican independence.
Twenty-two years of chronic instability followed, with the presidency changing hands 36 times. In 1845, the US congress voted to annex Texas, leading to the Mexican-American War in which US troops captured Mexico City. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), Mexico ceded Texas, California, Utah, Colorado and most of New Mexico and Arizona to the USA. The Maya rose up against their overlords in the late 1840s and almost succeeded in driving them off the YucatÃ¡n Peninsula. By 1862, Mexico was heavily in debt to Britain, France and Spain, who sent a joint force to Mexico to collect their debts. France decided to go one step further and colonize Mexico, sparking yet another war. In 1864, France invited the Austrian archduke, Maximilian of Habsburg, to become emperor of Mexico. His reign was bloodily ended by forces loyal to the country's former president, Benito JuÃ¡rez, a Zapotec from Oaxaca.
With the slogan 'order and progress', dictator Porfirio DÃaz (ruled 1878-1911) avoided war and piloted Mexico into the industrial age. Political opposition, free elections and a free press were banned, and control was maintained by a ruthless army, leading to strikes that prefigured the Mexican Revolution.
The revolution (1910-20) was a 10-year period of shifting allegiances between a spectrum of leaders, in which successive attempts to create stable governments were wrecked by new skirmishes. The basic ideological rift was between liberal reformers and more radical leaders, such as Emiliano Zapata, who were fighting for the transfer of hacienda land to the peasants. The 10 years of violent civil war cost an estimated 1.5 to two million lives - roughly one in eight Mexicans. After the revolution, political will was focused on rebuilding the national infrastructure. Precursors of today's Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI) took power in 1934, introducing a program of reform and land redistribution.
Civil unrest next appeared in 1966, when university students in Mexico City expressed their outrage with the conservative DÃaz Ordaz administration. Discontent with single-party rule, restricted freedom of speech and excessive government spending came to a head in 1968 in the run-up to the Mexico City Olympic Games, and protesters were massacred by armed troops.
The oil boom of the late 1970s increased Mexico's oil revenues and financed industrial and agricultural investments, but the oil glut in the mid-1980s deflated petroleum prices and led to Mexico's worst recession in decades. The economic downturn also saw an increase in organized political dissent on both the left and right. The massive earthquake of September 1985 caused more than four billion US dollars' worth of damage. At least 10,000 people died, hundreds of buildings in Mexico City were destroyed and thousands of people left homeless.
President Carlos Salinas de Gortari began his term in 1988 after very controversial elections. He gained popular support by renegotiating Mexico's crippling national debt and bringing rising inflation under control. A sweeping privatization program and a burgeoning international finance market led to Mexico being heralded in the international press as an exemplar of free-market economics. The apex of Salinas' economic reform was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), effective January 1, 1994.
Fears that NAFTA would increase the marginalization of indigenous Mexicans led to the Zapatista uprising in the southernmost state of Chiapas. The day NAFTA took effect, a huge army of unarmed peasants calling themselves the EjÃ©rcito Zapatista de LiberaciÃ³n Nacional (EZLN) shocked Mexico by taking over San CristÃ³bal de Las Casas. Their demands focused on improved social and economic justice. The EZLN were driven out of town within a few days, but the uprising highlighted the widening gap between rich and poor under Salinas and the NAFTA agreement. Today, the Zapatista movement continues, and the rebels' leader, a balaclava-clad figure known only as Subcomandante Marcos, is now a national folk hero.
In March 1994, Luis Donaldo ColÃ³sio, Salinas' chosen successor, was assassinated. His replacement, 43-year-old Ernesto Zedillo, was elected with 50% of the vote. Within days of President Zedillo's taking office, Mexico's currency, the peso, suddenly collapsed, bringing on a deep economic recession. Among other things, it led to a huge increase in crime, intensified discontent with the PRI and caused large-scale Mexican immigration to the US. It's estimated that by 1997 more than 2.5 million Mexicans a year were entering the US illegally. Zedillo's policies pulled Mexico gradually out of recession. By the end of his term in 2000, Mexico's purchasing power was again approaching 1994 levels.
In the freest and fairest national election since the Mexican Revolution, National Action Party (PAN) presidential candidate and former Coca Cola executive Vicente Fox ended the PRI's 71-year reign. However, President Fox - despite remaining popular as a figurehead - didn't have enough control in congress to fire up Mexico's economy or reform its infrastructure and social services, as he had promised. He did leave the country in a stable position for PAN candidate Felipe CalderÃ³n, who seemingly won Mexico's controversial presidential elections in July 2006 by the thinnest of margins, about 0.5%. CalderÃ³n's opponent was the populist leader AndrÃ©s Manuel LÃ³pez Obrador, ex-major of Mexico City, who called the elections fraudulent and delayed a final decision until September 2006, when CalderÃ³n was finally declared the official winner.
Conservative CalderÃ³n will have a very long road ahead in the coming six years of his presidency; he'll have to unite a deeply divided nation, confront private monopolies and strong unions, pass tax reforms, increase jobs, improve health care and education and deal with immigration, security and trade issues with the US.
Copyright 2003 Lonely Planet Publications , all rights reserved, used with permission