Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 179 | Junio 1996



An Authoritarian Answer

Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans took to the streets to celebrate the First of May, calling for a change of economic model. The government’s response? An authoritarian social control law, geared to repression.

Jorge Atilano González and Gabriel Mendoza Zárate

On the 110th anniversary of Chicago's heroic labor martyrs, International Workers' Day, hundreds of thousands of workers marched through the streets of Mexico's main cities to protest the neoliberal economic policies that have thrown the country into one of its greatest crises. For the second year in a row, the corporativist union leadership laid low during the May 1 commemoration, to avoid hearing the workers' denunciations.

Not only workers, but also peasants, students, business owners, intellectuals and even bishops have repeatedly registered their opposition to the government's economic and labor policy. The Zedillo government responded this time as it always does: "The road chosen was and still is the best." At the same moment, it promoted Federal legislation against organized crime, designed to endow the country with brutal new repressive power. This legal response increased the country's level of insecurity and could unleash an uncontrollable social upheaval.

Two separate marches converged in a huge rally at Mexico City's Zócalo. The first, with about 150,000 marchers, was led by independent unions and other organizations. Their placards read: "Where is the well being that was offered for our families?" There IS another road!," and "Urgent, urgent, resign Mr. President!" The second, about 100,000 strong, was made up of a section of official trade unionism whose leaders decided against taking their reserved seats at an official act with President Zedillo. Instead they hooked up with the protest against the economic policies and added their weight to demands for an emergency wage increase, an end to the deprivation and a solution to the problem of overdue peasant debts.

The humor that characterizes Mexicans was not lacking in the demonstrations. The famous "goatsucker" an unidentified, apparently fanged animal that has triggered panic in some states of Mexico since it is attributed with attacking various kinds of barnyard animals and leaving them to bleed to death was represented in one march wearing the face of 96 year old Fidel Velásquez, top leader of the Mexican Workers Confederation (CTM). Numerous cardboard figures of ex President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Carlos Hank González and José Córdoba Montoya were burned after a mock people's trial in which they were also accused of being goatsuckers.

Some marchers dressed as Zapatistas chanted slogans supporting the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. Others marched with an organization of indebted peasants demanding a solution to their debt arrears. A group of nuns even enacted the Stations of the Cross, asking for solutions to the poverty and unemployment. A message from Subcomandante Marcos read at the rally called for people to "come together, dialogue, and debate among ourselves." summoning one and all "so that our strength will serve to produce not only wealth, but also freedom and justice for ourselves."

Recovering the Workers' Historic Memory

The May 1 parade has traditionally been used by the official unions as a show of appreciation for and alliance with the President in office. This corporativism has been a fundamental pillar of Mexico's political system and an indispensable element to assure the implementation of the various economic development models that have been applied in the country. Today, however, it is also a symbol of the decadence of bureaucratic unionism and of the model's acute crisis. The CTM, Mexico's most important union confederation, has turned into a clear instrument of social and political control, one of less and less use to the current economic model.

This year the workers shook off their passivity and took on the challenge of trying to recover their historical memory before it is lost. Mexico has also had its share of martyrs in the long struggle of the world's workers in this century: those of Cananea in 1906, Río Blanco in 1907 and the thousands in the 1910 revolution. After the spilling of so much blood, the workers' social ideals were spelled out in article 123 of the 1917 Constitution: an eight hour work day, the right to strike, guarantee of a wage sufficient to satisfy all their basic needs and those of their family. Other rights won later included the minimum wage, the right to a decent job and to social security (medical attention, severance pay, retirement pensions).

These gains are now being rolled back, as shown in the systematic repression of independent union movements, growing unemployment and the inability to recover lost purchasing power real wages have fallen 80% in the last 15 years. Worse yet, the wages of 11.5 million workers a full 32% of the economically active population range from the minimum to no more than twice that.

This year, in keeping with the refrain, "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness," workers all over the country decided to light up the road against the neoliberal policies. If some thought that the days of the workers' movement were gone forever, that the historic opportunity had been lost, what happened this year must be giving them second thoughts.

Everyone Agrees

The May 1 protests echoed the general disagreement with today's economic policies. Made even stricter a few months ago, these policies are now affecting more and more sectors, with no ideological or social distinctions. Business owners, industrialists, unions, opposition parties, the Church, economists, intellectuals and students all agree: the economic model urgently needs to be modified. They all share the view that the policies have created recession and poverty and are opening the way to social upheaval. The government and the International Monetary Fund, designers of Mexico's adjustment plan, are the targets of the criticism, which became harsher and more widespread in the weeks before May 1, particularly after an announcement that the first quarter of 1996 had recessive results and the recovery will take longer than originally forecast. But, alone in their optimism, the government and IMF tenaciously cling to their response: Mexico is on the right road and will stay on it.

The leaders of the opposition National Action Party (PAN) and Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) agree on the need to modify the economic model. PAN's president called the government's economic policy "the worst," adding that "wherever one looks, one sees desolation, more uncertainty, less investment and an aggravation of the crisis." The PRD president used even tougher language: "The government's statement that there's no other road is a complete lie. What has happened, without the government realizing it, is that this country lost its leadership class without being able to replace it with a democratic system."

Take Fundamental Measures

Representatives of the business sector are also seeking measures that will reactivate the economy, particularly in light of the fact that the government did not fulfill its promise to them of more public spending in the first quarter of this year. The leader of the Employers' Confederation of the Mexican Republic (COPARMEX) demanded that President Ernesto Zedillo be more clear in attending to economic reactivation, and asked for "fundamental measures," without specifying what they should be, to resolve what he called the country's "integral crisis." We hope," said the business leader, "that our government will have the political desire and strength to make these changes."

Mexico's Catholic hierarchy joined these voices, openly blaming the economic model for the poverty afflicting the country. In its 1996 2000 Pastoral Project, the bishops said the following: "The economic model implemented in the country, which mainly concerns itself with the indices of macroeconomic yield, has triggered imbalance, weakness and poverty. We have often made our concern known because the current crisis and the economic model followed in the country have provoked growing unemployment, inadequate wages, price rises, the closure of companies, and currency devaluation, which have seriously affected the people, particularly the weakest."

Even the leaders of the official Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) have expressed their disagreement. "Our party," said Senator Juan S. Millánno," cannot be on the sidelines of the expressions that are being made in all the states, in the various regions of the country, in practically all sectors, to demand changes in the economic policy." Although none of these discontented party leaders marched in the streets on May 1, they are proposing a reversal of the economic policies because they, too, feel that the crisis has reached their homes.

The country's seventh Stock Market Convention was held in April. On that occasion, President Zedillo tried to sound convincing when he stated that his economic policy "has been and continues to be the one that involves less sacrifices." He asked the population "not to detour the advances and the first results of the efforts that Mexicans have made." In the official commemoration of International Workers' Day, Zedillo noted that the first indications are now visible, "although still very moderate, and we are taking the road to economic recovery." It was the same speech as always, with one new element: the approval in the Senate of the General Law of Coordination of the National Public Security System.The law's passage was a way of expressing that the only response to the crisis is to go still further in fighting crime with social control legislation; in other words, repress the population's malaise triggered by the economic policies.

Authoritarianism as The Solution

The Secretary of Governance installed the National Public Security Council on March 7, stating that this body will coordinate between the federal, state and municipal levels to prevent criminal acts and pursue organized crime. With the installation of this council, one of the aims that the Zedillo government has proposed from the outset and that the opposition has criticized on numerous occasions was fulfilled. The new body will combine police actions with military intelligence work.

The Supreme Court of Justice has legitimized the intervention of the Mexican Army in public security affairs. The army now has greater political weight through its participation in the Chiapas conflict and the fight against drug traffic, its acquisition of equipment and armaments, and the reconceptualization of National Security. It appears to be trying to become the key element of political and social stability in the Mexican political system's current crisis. Legislative debate on the penal reforms was preceded by an intense publicity campaign that combined numerous elements: Convincing the legislators of the need for more severe penalties for convicted criminals. Promoting the idea of the need to establish the death penalty in Mexico. Arguing that the institutions are overwhelmed by the levels of crime.

Persuading people of the need for the army to intervene in public security tasks. Justifying the use of "more effective" measures: wire tapping, reduction of the penal age, searches without a legal warrant, anonymity for judges and witnesses, etc. Justifying through this law the opening toward a State of Exception. The campaign was accompanied by harassment and defamation of social leaders and defenders of human rights organizations, who were accused of being criminals. All this occurred at the same time that the fabrication of those "guilty" of various repressive operations was unveiled in an effort to close the cases of those assassinated in the state of Guerrero and of the victims in the state of Morelos who had been peacefully celebrating another anniversary of Emiliano Zapata's death. The objective is clear: blame the victims, either before or after the fact. "They came armed," they are violent," "they are organized criminals," etc.

As the official political and economic project loses consensus in broader strata of the population due to its exclusionary character, the consolidated spaces for negotiation and dialogue with the critical and even opposition sectors in the geography of political relations are being lost. The Law Against Organized Crime implies a profound disregard for the human rights of the Mexican people and reveals the intention of the current governing group to define the state society relationship in authoritarian terms.

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