THREE slim children's history books are now a "must read" in Mexican political circles.
For weeks now, opposition parties have been raising a ruckus over what they portray as the government's attempt to rewrite history with a "neo-liberal" slant. And they claim United States diplomats have influenced the Mexican government to downplay past US military intervention to make the North American Free Trade Agreement more palatable here.
"We have evidence that an express request was made ... to revise the textbooks," claimed Sen. Porfirio Munoz Ledo of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party in a recent session of Congress. But the only evidence he and other opposition politicians have produced is personal recollections of conversations and a so far undiscovered letter from the US government they had seen two years ago.
Meanwhile, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders are getting a taste of the first major revision of Mexican history books in 20 years, as the education reform program announced earlier this year by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari gets underway.
Apart from the alleged US influence, what critics are howling most loudly about is the recasting or omission of Mexico's traditional heroes and villians.
For example, Gen. Porfirio Diaz, who ruled from 1877 to 1910, was painted in 1972 textbooks as a corrupt dictator who rewrote the Constitution in order to be "re-elected" six times.
In the latest texts, however, Diaz takes on the title of "Don" (signifying respect or nobility) and is shown as an economic and social reformer. Much is made of his role in creating Mexico's railroad infrastructure and increasing foreign investment.
Some historians also are appalled that the Salinas administration has already found a place in the textbooks. For example, Mr. Salinas is lauded for "taking the initiative to form a great economic block with North America" which is described as "a fundamental change in 20th-century Mexico."
The Sept. 7 issue of Proceso, an independent weekly news magazine, notes that the parallels between the Diaz and Salinas administrations are not coincidental or surprising. It quips that the book fails to mention how wealth is being concentrated today in the hands of the rich as it was in the days of Diaz.
Perhaps the textbook tiff has flared because it touches two issues sensitive to Mexican intellectuals and parents: history and education. But it is mostly politicians, the Roman Catholic Church, the teachers' unions, and parents who have raised objections.
Most historians, however, see the changes as relatively minor or agree with the more well-rounded presentations of individuals such as Diaz. Indeed, for the first time, the government has officially recognized the Army "massacre" of student protesters in 1968. Respected historian Lorenzo Meyer of the Colegio de Mexico calls the textbook debate "ridiculous" but symptomatic of a lack of democracy.
"The changes are minor. The books are a pretext. In a healthy political system, the best way to express dissent is the electoral process. But in Mexico it's not functioning - or at least not as it should be," Mr. Meyer says. "The opposition is frustrated, angry at the strength of the presidency. Attacking the textbooks is a way of indirectly attacking Salinas."
Some educators say the government should not be in the textbook business, that it should apply its own free-market principles and provide a variety of texts for parents and teachers to choose from.
Meyer calls this suggestion a "nice solution in a rich country," but says that as "a poor, third-world nation," Mexico cannot afford to have a variety of texts.
The government is refusing to heed calls to withdraw the textbooks, but is hoping to calm the storm by agreeing to meet with the national teachers' union to review the books with an eye to revising them again in future editions.